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Photo: The Bermudian

Louis Mowbray

August 19, 1877-June 5, 1952
Naturalist, founding curator of the Bermuda Aquarium

Louis Leon Arthur Mowbray won international renown designing and running aquariums in the United States, before returning home to build the aquarium in Flatts.

He was the first curator of the Bermuda Aquarium, and ran it for nearly 20 years, turning it into a world-class institution, before poor health forced him to retire in 1944. An authority on tropical salt-water fish, he gave the yellow-fin tuna its original name, Allison tuna.

Mowbray was the only child of the former Mary Ann Brown of St. George’s and William Mowbray, a schoolteacher who had emigrated to Bermuda from Louisiana in 1870.

He was a sickly child, whose health improved after his parents received medical advice about the benefits of being outdoors. He grew up with a passion for the sea and a fascination for fish and birds, whose specimens he avidly collected.

Adventurous and naturally curious, he shot birds with his own gun as a child, and was a helmsman on a pilot gig as a teenager. In that highly competitive venture, pilot gigs raced out to sea, often as far as 15 miles. To the winning boat went the prize of guiding ships entering Bermuda waters to port.

Largely self-taught, Mowbray was tutored by his parents during his early childhood. He received his only formal education at St. George’s Grammar School.

His first jobs were for shipping firms in St. George’s. In 1895, attracted by advances in photography, he became a photographer’s apprentice in New York. On returning home, he set up his own photography studio, where he set aside a room to exhibit his extensive collection of fish and bird specimens.

Tourists were enthralled, and a group of visiting scientists were so taken with his collection, they sent him a four-volume book about fishes, which became his bible.

He impressed other visiting scientists as well and they invited him to join the staff of the Bermuda Biological Station, which was established in 1903 at the Frascati Hotel in Flatts.

In 1905, his adventurous side got the better of him and he travelled to Russia as crew on the Gregory, the first motor boat to cross the Atlantic. Mowbray was abroad for seven months. and visited aquariums in Russia and Europe, as well as the New York Aquarium on the return trip home.

In 1906, he discovered a live cahow at Castle Island, along with several others in the ensuing years. It was his son, Louis, along with David Wingate and Robert Cushman, who would make international headlines 45 years later, with the official rediscovery of the bird that was long thought to have been extinct.

Mowbray married Hilda Higinbotham in 1907 and within months of their marriage, they moved to Agar’s Island, after he was hired by the Bermuda Natural History Society to convert the gunpowder magazines into Bermuda’s first aquarium and a marine research centre.

He ran the aquarium until 1911, sending several shipments of fish to the New York and Detroit aquariums. The Natural History Society attributed the success of the aquarium to Mowbray’s “intelligent work”.

Mowbray’s close association with U.S. scientists, who were based at Agar’s Island, led to opportunities overseas. In 1911, he moved to Boston to build its new aquarium and ran it for three years.

In 1914, he was appointed superintendent of the New York Aquarium.

In 1919, he moved south to design and build a new aquarium in Miami, but rejoined the staff of the New York Aquarium in 1923. In 1926, he returned to Bermuda.

The Bermuda Aquarium took two years to build and became an instant hit after it was formally opened on February 1, 1928.

During his years at the Aquarium, he made countless trips overseas to select fish to exhibit. Several trips were organized by his old friend Dr. Charles Townsend of the New York Zoological Society and sponsored by Vincent Astor, the American philanthropist who lived at Ferry Reach, St George’s.

In 1933, he sailed to the Galapagos Islands with Astor to bring back tortoises and penguins, thereby laying the groundwork for its expansion into a zoo. Mowbray successfully bred the first Galapagos tortoises and penguins in captivity.

Under his leadership the Aquarium gained recognition as a world-class facility, but the Second World War brought a change in fortunes, because of the slowdown in tourism.

In 1943, he suffered a stroke, which left him partially paralysed. He stepped down as curator the following year and was replaced by his son Louis. He died nine years later, leaving a legacy that is very much in evidence at the Aquarium today.

Sources: Bermuda: Five Centuries by Rosemary Jones; Louis Mowbray obit, The Royal Gazette, June 6, 1952; Louis L Mowbray file, Bermuda Aquarium Museum and Zoo.

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