Walter Rothschild is surely one of the most extraordinary figures of the early twentieth century. He is justly famous as the addressee of the Balfour Declaration, for he steadfastly believed in the "government dedicated to social and national justice" which that paragraph sought to establish in Palestine. His role in the family banking business, however, is less obvious. Between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-nine, at his father's behest, Walter spent every working day at the bank's headquarters in New Court, London. He arrived punctually at nine and departed on the stroke of five, yet there is not a scrap of evidence to indicate that he actually did anything there -- no sign of a deal brokered or loan approved, nothing so much as a paper bearing his signature. The reason for this seems to be that all the time Walter was confined to that gilded cage, his mind and heart were soaring with the birds. Natural history, and ornithology in particular, was Rothschild's lifelong passion and he devoted his entire income to it.

Between 1890 and 1931 Walter amassed, on the family estate at Tring in the Chiltern foothils, the greatest museum collection ever held in private hands. Among its treasures were two-and-a-quarter-million butterflies and moths, 300,000 stuffed birds, 200,000 bird eggs, and 144 giant tortoises. In stark contrast to the lack of tangible proof of his work at the bank, Rothschild and his staff at Tring left an enormous legacy, foremost of which are descriptions of 5,000 new species published in 1,200 scientific books and papers. The collectors Rothschild employed were largely responsible for this prodigious output, for time and again they obtained the first, last, or only known specimen of a particular species. It was Ernst Mayr's good fortune to commence his ornithological career as one of this select and intrepid band.


[From Tim Flannery's "A Bird's-Eye View of Evolution", reviewing Ernst Mayr's "The Birds of Northern Melanesia: Speciation, Ecology, and Biogeography" and "What Evolution Is" (The New York Review of Books, June 27, 2002, p. 26); more on Walter Rothschild in Miriam Rothschild's "Dear Lord Rothschild: Birds, Butterflies and History" (Balaban, 1983)]


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