Fannye A. Cook, the force behind the creation of the Mississippi agency known as the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, and its educational and research arm, the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, was the first person to collect and catalog Mississippi wildlife, and to lead the effort to protect and restore the state’s natural environment.
Born July 19, 1889, in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, to Gilbert and Martha Ellen Cook, Fannye Cook grew up among six sisters and three brothers. A farmer’s daughter, her inquisitive mind led her to collect wild plants, birds, mammals, and amphibians as a child. She was known for her dry wit and determination, and for her far-ranging interests — from English literature to genealogy and herpetology (the zoological term for cold-blooded animals such as snakes and frogs).
A conservationist is born
Cook graduated in 1911 from the Industrial Institute and College (now Mississippi University for Women) with an A.B. degree and took graduate courses at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She taught history and English literature in West Point and Louisville, Mississippi, and in Wyoming and Panama. For a while she audited income tax returns for the Bureau of Internal Revenue before returning to Mississippi to embark upon a lifelong wildlife education campaign in Mississippi. The campaign was precipitated by what she found — or rather what was not found — in the state. She would later write, “In 1923 and 1924, the writer, while engaged in a survey of the literature relating to Mississippi wildlife, was impressed with this insufficiency of information and with the inconvenience of assembling such as had been published. …”
Cook spent the following two years collecting the necessary biological survey, a pioneering activity for a woman in the early 20th century. “No student of natural history could remain indifferent to such conditions as were observed in the field during these studies,” she wrote. “Drought, fires, game hogs, unlicensed trappers, and many other destructive agencies seemed to vie with each other in taking the largest toll on wildlife. Much of this could be traced to public indifference, to inadequate laws, and to failure to enforce the existing laws designed to protect natural resources.”
In the 1920s no Mississippi department was required or authorized to assume wildlife protection responsibilities, and most of the state’s county officials were not concerned with exercising the authority given them to protect certain game species. Cook observed that “if a biological survey was continued and a program of conservation education planned, there existed no state agency to use the results.”
Fannye Cook saw that something had to be done. Beginning in 1926, she traveled the state at her own expense, often using borrowed transportation, to campaign for a comprehensive state conservation program. Her first conservation exhibit was a poster at the local fair in Laurel that illustrated the usefulness of birds in combating harmful insects. Cook also set up portable exhibits at other local fairs and spoke about wildlife conservation to schools, clubs, and county boards of supervisors.
After seeing her exhibit at the 1926 Mississippi State Fair, professors at Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Mississippi State University) provided her office space. The next year she founded the Mississippi Association for the Conservation of Wildlife and became its executive secretary. For a $1 annual fee, association members contributed to an agenda devised by Cook, which was, according to a 1928 flyer, to see that the state had, among other things:
- More sport for the sportsman.
- More furs for the trapper.
- More fish in the streams.
- More beneficial hawks and owls to eat field rats and field mice.
- More song birds in town and country.
- More holly, wild crabapples, dogwood and azalia [sic] to beautify roadsides and woodlands.
- More boys and girls, men and women who love the outdoors and who go there with seeing eyes and hearing ears.
The association called for the creation of wildlife refuges, “public hunting grounds,” and a state department of conservation “to enforce the game laws, to investigate the economic status of our native fauna and flora, to establish and care for sanctuaries and shooting grounds and to educate the people in conservation, [with] all support [coming] from hunting licenses.”
A state agency is created
At the time, Mississippi was the only state without a fish and wildlife agency, and Cook’s group was the only one operating in the state that focused exclusively on conservation. She solicited funding and lobbied the Mississippi Legislature to create a state game and fish commission. Cook’s chief adversaries in the conservation effort were market hunters and private citizens wary of government intervention in what they saw as their right to hunt and fish.
In 1932, Cook’s effort bore fruit with the establishment of the State Game and Fish Commission. Cook wrote her former supervisor at the Smithsonian, Paul Bartsch, curator of mollusks and cenozoic invertebrates, requesting a letter of recommendation for the job she sought at the new commission. On April 9, 1932, Bartsch responded and advised Cook to give up on being agency director, or whatever the job she wanted, writing, “the thing that would fit you best would be Director of Research and Education.”
Bartsch continued, “If you were a man, any of the other statutory positions would answer, but women are difficult problems to place (of course you won’t like that, but the fact still remains and we have to face it). You can’t change a woman into a man by fiat, and probably if we could, we would prefer to have them as they are. But I think as Director of Research and Education you would do a splendid work for your state, and, what’s more, you are eminently qualified to undertake that work, so good luck to you!”
Cook must have been disappointed that being a woman precluded her from consideration for a top position, but she took Bartsch’s advice and threw herself wholeheartedly into the role of research assistant to the commission director. Cook’s position “gave at first little opportunity to continue a biological survey,” she wrote in 1940. But Cook was on a mission of conservation and was determined to overcome any obstacle placed in her path.
She first conducted a census of popular game species, and then slowly incorporated non-game species into her programs. Cook was quick to point out that studying the state’s plants and animals had economic benefits, whether it was for the hunting and fishing industry or for commercial fisheries. Anyway, surveying game species was fine with Cook because it was necessary science and it provided both a window into the condition of the state’s flora and fauna and a way to effectively promote conservation. Game wardens frequently sent in field observations, which contributed much to the knowledge of the nesting and the feeding habits of certain species.
During its early years, the State Game and Fish Commission busied itself restocking fish, deer, fox, turkey, quail, and raccoons, setting up state game and fish refuges, and collaborating with the federal Works Projects Administration (WPA) and National Youth Administration to build public lakes. Cook was responsible for preparing educational materials and specimens for fair exhibits and for supervising the WPA and youth workers.
In 1935, Cook undertook her long-sought state plant and animal survey, funded by the WPA. Between 1936 and 1941, thousands of specimens of birds, mammals, fish, amphibians, reptiles, mollusks, and other life forms were collected, catalogued, and curated. The survey project established thirteen collecting units at state colleges and in Jackson. Furthermore, the WPA collaborative program provided for a more complete biological survey of the state and gave participating colleges the collections and exhibits that Cook said would prove useful “in teaching young Mississippians to appreciate the proper use and enjoyment of our native flora and fauna. It is further hoped that a State Museum will be constructed in the Capital City at an early date to properly house growing state collections of natural history, art, and archives.”
And that is what happened. The specimen collection became the basis for the permanent state natural science museum, which opened in 1939.
A natural science museum
Cook served twenty years as director of the State Wildlife Museum until her retirement in 1958 at age 69. The first permanent museum was on Jefferson Street in a wooden building across from the Mississippi State Fairgrounds in Jackson. Later the exhibits were installed in a newer building next door. Cook lived nearby at 827 North State Street, but spent weekends at her Crystal Springs home, which she shared with two sisters.
Eventually the museum exhibits were expanded, improved, and installed at the current Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, which opened in March 2000. It’s located at Lefleur’s Bluff State Park in Jackson.
Throughout her career, fish and birds were Cook’s primary interests. She never tired of watching them, studying them, collecting them, and preserving them. She was an amateur taxidermist, and some of her fish specimens are in the collections of the Field Museum in Chicago, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
In addition, Cook wrote the state bulletin Game Birds of Mississippi in 1945, and in 1955, helped found the Mississippi Ornithological Society and served as its first president. Also that year, she helped coordinate the Nature Conservancy’s purchase of a portion of Horn Island in the Gulf of Mexico in order to preserve the part of the island not owned by the federal government.
In 1959 the state department of wildlife published her Freshwater Fishes in Mississippi, the first of four books she wrote. The others were: Early History and Trends in Mississippi Freshwater Fisheries; Distribution of Snakes Collected in Mississippi on the Survey Project from 1936 to 1941; and Snakes of Mississippi.
In April 1946, Cook recalled her experiences in Mississippi conservation for the magazine Independent Woman this way:
I have run into many interesting situations and have had many thrilling experiences. Wading through acres of swamp water infested with alligators and cottonmouth moccasins to reach heronries in which not only herons but Louisiana water turkeys, bitterns, rails, gallinules, grebes and other water-loving species were photographed or collected, gives rise to emotions of fear and exhilaration not produced by any other experience.
The early rising on an April morning in preparation for the quest of wild turkeys and the quiet entering into a mixed pine and oak forest at the head of a small creek fed by springs where the woodland birds have begun their morning chorus fills one with the ecstacy [sic] of living. A launch trip to shell islands in the Mississippi Sound where several species of terns, the laughing gulls, the brown pelicans, and the black skimmers nest in large numbers is one of the rarer experiences enjoyed by bird lovers. Lest trips be made in vain, one must be familiar with the nesting habits of these species to know when to find eggs and young.
One of the many surprises I have met with has been finding diamondback rattlesnakes hibernating with gophers (turtles to you, possibly) [referring to gopher tortoises] in a hole several feet underground.
Fannye Cook’s materials, donated to the museum in 1965, form the core of the 18,000-volume library in the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science. Unfortunately, many of Cook’s specimens — some of which she stuffed and mounted herself — and other exhibit materials in the Jefferson Street museum were destroyed by water during the 1979 Jackson flood.
Cook’s passion for wildlife conservation continued to the end of her life. The day before she died in April 1964, at age 75, she led a group of young people on a bird-watching expedition. She is buried in the Crystal Springs Cemetery.
Libby Hartfield is director of the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science in Jackson, Mississippi, and Alan Huffman is a journalist who wrote the original article for Mississippi Outdoors from which this article is adapted.
Alford, Dorothy, “Natural Science Museum, Fannye A. Cook Memorial,” The Meteor, (Crystal Springs, Miss.) October 29, 1975.
Cook, Fannye. Article in Mississippi Academy of Sciences Journal, 1940.
“Ladies Afield,” Independent Woman, April 1946.
“State Wildlife Museum, Memorial to Fannye Cook,” The Meteor, (Crystal Springs, Miss.) November 11, 1971.
Subject File, Mississippi Department of Archives and History