Chris McGowan with Norman, a
T. rex skeleton he built from chicken bones—one of his other books.
Chris McGowan grew up in post-war England. Captivated by science at an early age, he experimented at home, improvising with everyday items. His interests included chemistry, rockets, boiling up leftover bones to study anatomy, and examining pond life with a small microscope. Inspired by good teachers, he went to college to study for a B.Sc. degree.
After graduating in zoology, he taught biology at one of the pilot schools for the Nuffield Science Teaching Project. In this new hands-on approach to teaching, students spent most of their time conducting experiments—from repeating Pasteur’s classic experiment showing the existence of bacteria, to dissecting cows’ hearts to study circulation. While enjoying teaching, he aspired to academia, so he enrolled as a part-time graduate student. His research was on ichthyosaurs, a group of shark-like reptiles contemporaneous with dinosaurs. Attaining his PhD three years later, he obtained a curatorial position at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, moving to Canada in 1969.
As a full-time researcher he missed teaching, so he obtained a cross-appointment to the University of Toronto. After teaching several introductory courses, he developed a hands-on engineering course for zoologists. He also taught a marine biology field course most summers, and supervised graduate students. Travelling the world to study ichthyosaurs took him to some unusual places, like a ghost town in Nevada and a monastery in Kremsmünster. He has collected fossils in British Columbia, Manitoba, Nevada, the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico, and in Egypt’s Dakhla Oasis, where he accompanied the ROM’s Egyptian department. This gave him the opportunity to examine the skeletons of mummies.
McGowan’s studies of living animals have taken him to many parts of the world including Kenya, Tanzania, Patagonia, Galapagos, Australia and New Zealand. He has also spent time on a research vessel in the Atlantic, studying sharks and swordfish. Aside from 45 publications in scholarly journals, he has written fourteen science books, four of which were written for children. He has also written a book on the history of steam power, and two books of fiction for children, one of which focused on science.
Having enjoyed more than thirty years as a research scientist and university professor, McGowan took early retirement in 2003 to spend more time writing books. He has also written and presented radio documentaries for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation—on the history of steam power and on the iron industry. He has appeared on numerous TV and radio shows over the years as an entertaining guest.
In 2004 he was recognized by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada “for important research achievements that have contributed to the sum total of human knowledge.” He received honorary life membership to the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in 2007.