Theodora Cope: Pioneering Ecologist

Written by Susan L. Stout, Research Forester Emerita

 

Theodora Cope is standing with a fishing pole in her hands

Theodora Cope fishing in the ANF. Photo courtesy of Patricia Bidlake

Imagine yourself as a woman naturalist camping on the Allegheny National Forest in the summer of 1933. You’re a graduate student at Cornell University – at a time when women made up less than 10 percent of science and engineering graduate students in the country. Your specialty is understanding the ecology of old-growth forests, a relatively new concept, and the area where you are camping is the largest block of old-growth forest in the eastern US.

You became interested in old-growth forests for two reasons. First, your family, the famous Pennsylvania Copes, owns a small block of old-growth forest in eastern Pennsylvania. Also, your father, mother, and uncle were part of the group of people who encouraged the relatively young US Forest Service to purchase the 4,300 acres of old growth forest (forest that has never been harvested) just west of Ludlow, PA, to make it part of the Allegheny National Forest (ANF).

The area where you are camping will become the Tionesta Scenic and Research Natural Area, known today as the largest block of old growth forest in the east. Your doctoral dissertation will document the Tionesta Forest, including lists of trees, plants, and animals that lived there when you studied it. You are Theodora Cope (1906-2000). Now, 90 years after your doctoral dissertation, people studying old growth and the Tionesta still rely on your work. Much of what is known about the conditions of the area when the US Government bought the acres comes from your research and observations.

Theodora Cope was born in Germantown, PA in 1906. Her parents were both naturalists and her extended family included leading naturalists of the day. When Teddy, as her parents called her, was still quite young, the family moved to Dimock, PA, where they ran an orchard business and offered a summer nature camp to children in the community. Teddy’s interest in natural history came early and easily, as at the age of eight, she began to log her first bird observations.

A young Theodora Cope sits in a grassy field. She has white flowers in front of her.

A young Theodora Cope and her furry companion spending time in nature, as she often would. Photo courtesy of Patricia Bidlake

Theodora Cope was born in Germantown, PA in 1906. Her parents were both naturalists and her extended family included leading naturalists of the day. When Teddy, as her parents called her, was still quite young, the family moved to Dimock, PA, where they ran an orchard business and offered a summer nature camp to children in the community. Teddy’s interest in natural history came early and easily, as at the age of eight, she began to log her first bird observations.

She attended Mount Holyoke College, in Massachusetts, where she studied Economic Geography, to follow her interest in the interaction of nature and humanity. After graduation, she traveled with her father, Francis, for a year to seek rare birds around the world, especially the south Pacific. After, she began graduate studies at Cornell University in Vertebrate Zoology. Her master’s thesis focused on the old growth forest near her home in eastern PA, known as Woodbourne. Eventually, her family gave this property to The Nature Conservancy to become the first TNC Natural Area in PA. Her doctoral dissertation included information about Tionesta, Woodbourne, and two other PA old growth areas.

Teddy’s time in graduate school was exciting in many ways. She performed ground-breaking research of her own and was a founding member of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In addition to her own work there and on the ANF, she spent a few summers doing field work in the northern-most parts of Canada.

Theodora Cope is turned slightly to her right. She is smiling.

A professional studio portrait of Theodora. Photo courtesy of Patricia Bidlake

Teddy earned her doctorate in Vertebrate Zoology from Cornell in 1936, and in 1937 married a British naturalist, named John Stanwell-Fletcher. Together they built and lived in a cabin in the remote wilderness of British Columbia (BC), while observing and collecting plant and animal specimens for the BC Provincial Museum. They stayed for nearly four years, though returned to Pennsylvania for a short time for the birth of their daughter, Patricia (Pat).

Very late in her life, Theodora Cope had one more link with the Allegheny National Forest. In late 1999, two young scientists at the US Forest Service Lab in Irvine, PA, Todd Ristau and Coeli Hoover, became intrigued by the Teddy Cope story. They used the white pages on the internet to look up “Cope” in the area of Woodbourne, found a phone number, and dialed it. Teddy’s daughter, Pat, answered the phone and explained that Teddy was still alive and alert, although Pat felt that death was imminent. Todd and Coeli explained to Pat how Teddy’s work was still a crucial reference to the studies being done at the Tionesta Laboratory. Pat promised to pass that information along to Teddy, who she assured them would be pleased to know her work lives on. After Teddy’s passing in 2000, Pat reached out to the Forest Service, sharing photos of Teddy throughout her life.

To learn more about Teddy and her link to the history of the Allegheny National Forest, consider reading her book, Driftwood Valley, based on her experiences in BC. Much of the information in this article was derived from Marcia Bonta’s account of her interview with Teddy, in Women in the Field: America's Pioneering Women Naturalists.

To view more photos that Pat shared with the Forest Service, visit our Flickr album Theodora Cope Pioneering Ecologist.