ondon in the 1950s was dark and gray. The buildings were black with soot, and the constant rain made everything damp. The most colorful part of the city was the bright purple flowers of the Canadian fireweed, which grew on the bomb sites left over from World War II.
In 1952, the Great Smog—a freak weather pattern that held a cloud of pollution over the still-Dickensian city for four days—killed thousands of people who breathed in the terrible air. This is the year Rory Browne, associate dean in the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences, was born in London, where he grew up on Regent’s Park Road.
Regent’s Park Road, as the name implies, is next to Regent’s Park: a large green space that contains the London Zoo. Browne’s parents would take him in his “pushchair” to go see the exhibits before he was old enough to walk.
“I loved the animals,” Browne said. “I would glue myself to the bars, to the park railings surrounding the animal enclosures, and refuse to move.”
Because much of the world at that time was still “red”—that is, under the British Empire—when Browne went to the zoo outside his doorstep, he could see almost every type of animal. When he went to bed at night in his grandparents’ apartment, he could hear the lions roaring and the sea lions croaking.
Browne lived halfway between the zoo and a pet shop that, in those “unregenerate days,” sold everything from bear cubs to chimpanzees. While Browne’s grandparents wouldn’t let him own either of those animals, they did let him keep a menagerie of other sorts—Browne recalled owning turtles, tortoises, giant millipedes, fruit bats, flying foxes, lizards, axolotls, frogs, toads, steppe lemmings, hamsters, and mice at different points in his childhood.
Growing up, Browne thought he might become a farmer—like his father—or an actor—like his mother. But noticing her son’s interest in animals, Browne’s mother suggested that he study them.
“When my mother told me there was this thing called a zoologist, that’s what I wanted to be,” Browne said.
“I loved the animals. I would glue myself to the bars, to the park railings surrounding the animal enclosures, and refuse to move.” Rory Browne
o Browne’s chagrin, students in Britain get “streamed” very early on in their academic careers. In high school, Browne was told that if wanted to be a zoologist, he’d have to take physics, chemistry, biology, and statistics.
For Browne—having already failed math—the combination seemed like a recipe for disaster. He decided to switch to history.
Browne went on to study the subject at Oxford University, where he specialized in French history. During his time there, the principal of his college—a distinguished philosopher who liked animals as much as Browne did—suggested to Browne that he study the history of zoos in his graduate work. But Browne worried about studying something so unconventional.
“I thought to myself, ‘Well, nobody will take me seriously if I do the history of zoos, right?’” he said.
When Browne graduated from Oxford, he found that being a French historian wasn’t exactly going to help him find employment in England either. He had done some work teaching in the Oxford College system, however, which helped him land a job as the resident dean of Yale’s Branford College in 1983.
While he was at Yale, he met a woman who was doing a residency related to student mental health, to whom he would often refer his students. The two of them got to know each other well—and eventually, they got married.
Rather than going back to Britain, Browne stayed in the States. When his wife was appointed as a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, he followed her to Cambridge, getting a job as a dean of one of Harvard’s houses and teaching in the history and literature program there.
Browne has since come back to the study of the history of zoos on his own: Today, he is internationally known as an authority on the subject. He also serves on the board of Zoo New England, which runs the Franklin Park Zoo, Boston Zoo, and Stone Zoo.
“You sort of think, ‘Oh, I've missed my chance, I won't be able to do it.' But while there's life, there's hope.” Rory Browne
rowne made the move from Harvard to Boston College in 2006 and now serves as the University’s director of Academic Advising and the associate dean of freshmen and sophomores. He’s also taught classes at BC, including a freshman topic seminar on zoos, a history class called “Dis-covering Animals,” and an Enduring Questions course called “Humans and Other Animals.”
Browne’s time at BC draws to a close with Commencement, however. He will be retiring this spring, bidding adieu to BC after serving as a professor and adviser for 13 years.
It only takes one conversation with Browne—instantly recognizable on campus by his round glasses, bowties, and handkerchiefs that he wears tucked neatly in his jacket—to see that his mind is full of fascinating facts. Almost effortlessly, he relays stories about topics such as the idea of the gorilla being “invented” in Boston, hornbills creating walled nests with letterbox-like slits, and pangolins becoming heavily endangered as people use their scales in traditional medicines.
“I think what is important at BC for students to do and accomplish is to become well informed—and to realize that the world is a sort of more splendid and complex place than any of us sort of appreciate or understand in our own sort of narrow ways,” he said.
Browne’s favorite part of his time at BC, he said, has been his contact with students and faculty.
“What I like about BC is the people,” Browne said. “I think that they’re the greatest asset of all—the faculty and the staff and the students.”
From behind the animal-trinket-topped desk in his office—filled with papers scattered around the floor, colorful history books with faded jackets lining the shelves, and framed pictures of pandas, dogs, and ducks hanging on the walls—Browne reflected on his time at BC.
His favorite experiences, he said, have been the joyous ones that recognize students for their success. One of these is Commencement, where Browne and the associate deans of the other two classes, Rafael Luna and Michael Martin, take turns reading out graduates’ names.
Browne said that reading the names is “quite an ordeal.” It requires a lot of lung power, for one, but he also always has to apologize for the mispronunciations he makes on account of his accent, which he says was formed “long ago and far away.”
“But it’s actually quite nice … particularly for me, because I’ve worked mostly with freshmen and sophomores. I see students who I remember from freshman year, and I see students whom I’ve had had in my classes—and I see them going forward and upwards.”
This is the last group of graduates for which Browne will read the names at Commencement. Thinking back on how, after initial obstacles, he was able to eventually return to his dream of studying zoos, Browne relayed his advice to the graduating seniors.
“Know to be flexible and versatile in life—that sometimes you think the door closes only to open later,” he said.
Browne recalled how returning to what he is passionate about has led him to experience some of his life’s best moments—whether they involved having a baby chimpanzee sit on his lap, stroking a tiger cub, or feeding sweet potatoes to a giraffe. You can always come back to things, Browne said. Even if you don’t end up doing them as a career, you can always find other ways.
“You sort of think, ‘Oh, I’ve missed my chance, I won’t be able to do it,’” he said. “But while there’s life, there’s hope.”
“We all have difficult moments in life. There are times when we get disappointed and our way is blocked. But really, don’t put your all your eggs in one basket—but also don’t give up hope.”
Featured Image Courtesy University Communications