Isabella was ill. Again. It seemed like every time she returned to England, she was soon suffering from one thing or another. There was only one cure. She had to pack her bags.
Isabella Bird was born in North Yorkshire, Great Britain in 1831. The eldest daughter of a minister, she was a sickly child. When a doctor suggested that a sea voyage might help Isabella find some relief, her father gave her £100 and allowed her to travel to America to visit relatives. She could stay, he said, until her money ran out. Isabella managed to make the gift last for nearly two years.
Unwilling to let this be her only respite from the confines of life in England, Isabella decided she must find a way to fund more travel. Women in the 19th century had few options when it came to making an income, so she wrote a book that detailed her trip to America. The Englishwoman in America was published anonymously upon her return in 1856. Her writings would continue to make future trips possible.
When her father died, Isabella, her mother, and sister moved to Scotland. Isabella visited the Scottish Outer Hebrides (Western Isles) and was shocked at the plight of the tenant farmers there. In later years, she donated some of her writing royalties to help the farmers move to America.
In the following decade, Isabella visited Australia, Hawaii, and Colorado. There she was pursued by “Rocky Mountain Jim” Nugent, whom she would refer to as a “dear desperado.” He was a man, she wrote her sister, that any woman would fall in love with but that none should marry.
Instead, she returned to England and married a doctor, John Bishop. The couple was happy enough (though of course, Isabella again became ill) but Bishop died only five years after their wedding.
Isabella’s next travels included the Asian countries of Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, China, and Malaysia. She wrote books and travel articles about her adventures. Isabella began to feel that her travels and the books she’d written had done little to benefit mankind. She decided to become a missionary and established two hospitals in India, one which she named for her late husband.
As she became more and more famous for her travels, the Scottish Royal Geographical Society made her a fellow—the first woman invited to join. Her next trips included Korea and another visit to China. Her final journey was to Morocco in 1901. Isabella died in 1904.
Was Isabella really sick or did she use illness as an excuse to travel? One writer felt that it was not uncommon for “high-spirited girls” like Isabella, who were “thwarted by…social conventions” to suffer from poor health. Others have suggested that her illnesses were all in her head. Either way, Isabella left us a terrific legacy of information about life in the 19th century world.