S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Stark, Dr Arthur Cowell (ornithology)

Born: 27 November 1846, Torquay, Devon, England.
Died: 18 November 1899, Ladysmith, South Africa.

Arthur C. Stark, medical practitioner and ornithologist, was educated at Exeter College, Oxford, and Clifton College, Bristol. In 1875 he became a member of the British Ornithologists' Union and later was elected a Fellow of the Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh, a society devoted to natural history and the physical sciences. According to Clinning (1989) he was a noted mountaineer who travelled and climbed widely in Europe and the United States. During the winter of 1878-1879 he studied medicine at the University of Aberdeen, then continued his studies at the University of Edinburgh and was awarded the degrees Bachelor of Medicine (MB) and Master in Surgery (CM) in 1883. After practising medicine at Torquay for two years he came to the Cape Colony in 1885 and set up a medical practice in Cape Town. Although he had been married in England his wife died before he came to the Cape.

In his spare time Stark studied the bird collection of the South African Museum. After retiring from his medical practice he made several collecting trips into the interior of South Africa during 1892-1898. He was a keen observer who compiled extensive field notes. As a regular contributor of bird skins to the South African Museum (including 38 specimens in 1899) he became one of its "correspondents", who received museum publications free of charge. The director of the museum, Dr W.L. Sclater*, invited him to contribute to a planned series of volumes on the fauna of southern Africa by describing the birds found south of the Zambesi and Kunene Rivers. In addition to his own field observations and collection Stark based his work on the collections in the South African Museum, the Albany Museum, and Durban Natural History Museum, planning to write four volumes. While working at the South African Museum in 1897 he arranged and catalogued the museum's collection of birds' eggs (though in its annual reports for 1897 and 1898 he is wrongly identified as H.B. Stark). He was particularly well acquainted with the literature on his subject. Early in 1899 he took the manuscript of the first volume to England, where it was published as Volume 1 of The birds of South Africa (London, 1900). This first volume included an extensive bibliography. Upon his return to South Africa in September 1899 he settled in Durban, from where he intended to do further field work. However, when the Anglo-Boer War broke out in October 1899 he joined the British forces as a volunteer medical officer and the next month was killed during the siege of Ladysmith.

By the time of his death Stark had almost completed the manuscript of Volume 2. Using this manuscript and his field notes, Sclater completed the remaining three volumes and published them under their joint names (Stark & Sclater) during 1901-1906. Most of the illustrations were done by G. Henrik Grönvold*. The birds of South Africa was the first authorotative work on its subject and remained a standard work of reference until Austin Roberts's Birds of South Africa appeared in 1940. Stark was commemorated in the name of a small desert lark, Spizocorys starki (Stark's lark). He became a member of the South African Philosophical Society in 1896.

List of sources:
Cape of Good Hope. Report of the Trustees of the South African Museum, 1897, 1898, 1899.

Clinning, C. Southern African bird names explained. Johannesburg: Southern African Ornithological Society, 1989.

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 5, 1987.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979.

South African Philosophical Society. Transactions, 1897-1898, Vol. 9-10: Lists of members.

Standard encyclopedia of southern Africa (SESA). Cape Town: NASOU, 1970-1976.

Summers, R.F.H. A history of the South African Museum, 1825-1975. Cape Town: Balkema, 1975.

Compiled by: C. Plug