Mississippi’s most important wildlife conservation pioneer was a woman

Published 12:21 am Tuesday, March 28, 2017

When Fannye A. Cook was born in Copiah County, women were almost 80 years away from gaining the right to serve on a Mississippi jury and were 95 years away from the state legislature’s symbolic ratification of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote. It is no surprise that women in science, particularly wildlife sciences, were few. But notwithstanding her time in history, and in some ways because of it, Cook is a hero among conservationists, natural historians, biologists and all others who value Mississippi’s natural heritage. Though her name and legacy may not be well known, her remarkable life continues to positively impact Mississippi and in ways she likely never imagined.

Cook was born in 1889, just as the second industrial revolution was innovating ways to make life easier for modern societies (rural and urban), but also as those innovations were putting new and greater pressures on wildlife, natural landscapes and public health.  It was this time in history that must have inspired Cook to recognize the uniqueness of Mississippi’s natural world and to passionately celebrate its importance to science, culture, history, and the economy.

Cook, a 1911 graduate of what is now the Mississippi University for Women, was a pioneer among scientists, conservationists, and women. Recognizing that laws to protect wildlife, and to regulate market and unethical hunters, were sorely needed and in need of being enforced, she became the driving force behind creating the Game and Fish Commission (now the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks) to protect and conserve Mississippi’s natural resources.

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Cook was the founder of Mississippi’s Natural Science Museum, created to showcase Mississippi’s important and globally unique flora and fauna and conduct natural science research.  Today the Museum hosts more than 100,000 visitors each year.

There are 53 wildlife management areas in Mississippi, protecting the state’s water, air and natural heritage, and it was Miss Cook who was the force behind their creation.  Similarly, she was instrumental in protecting Horn Island and other barrier islands that still protect Mississippi’s shores from hurricanes and that help maintain habitat for Mississippi’s commercial and recreational fishing.

During the Great Depression, when jobs were scarce, Miss Cook gave meaningful work to hundreds of Mississippians through her Works Progress Administration (WPA) Plant and Animal Survey Project.

Cook was a passionate student of the natural world, but she was also an impassioned and tireless educator. She was the first person to produce a comprehensive statewide survey and collection and catalogue of Mississippi’s flora and fauna. Through her collections, studies, books, papers and lectures, she shared her knowledge and zeal for natural science and conservation with students of all ages and in diverse venues.

Everything Cook did she did in a professional field and within a political system almost exclusively male.  She was a gifted scientist and advocate, at a time when being a woman in science and politics was an anomaly.  The fact that she accomplished what she did, and when she did, tells us about her mettle as a woman and as a Mississippian.

For nearly 100 years, Cook has impacted every scientist, conservationist and natural historian who followed her.  While making her indelible mark on Mississippi’s wildlife, scientific and environmental record, she blazed a seldom traveled trail for young women in Mississippi, women who might aspire to scientific and conservation endeavors, and she has impacted future generations of women who walked the trail she carefully, ethically and humbly blazed.

Honoring Miss Cook’s accomplishments, and the rich body of work she left, means honoring the remarkable things that continue to happen because of her place in history.  It also means honoring her journey.

A one-woman portrayal of Fannye A.Cook, performed by wildlife biologist, Dr. Cathy Shropshire, is a must-see for anyone who loves Mississippi’s history and natural heritage.  The performance will be April 18 at Mississippi University for Women.

The Fannye Cook Natural Area in Rankin County is expected to open in the spring of 2018. A book chronicling the life of Fannye A. Cook is scheduled for release by University Press in the fall of 2017.
Jayne Buttross is a conservation advocate and retired attorney living in Jackson.