Robert Montgomery Bird earned an M.D. degree from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1827 and practiced briefly before he was drawn to the theater. His first great stage success was The Gladiator, which he wrote for the celebrated actor Edwin Forrest. The story concerns a Thracian captive in Rome, and the play’s themes are family love and personal honor. Bird’s soundest play, and the most successful, was The Broker of Bogotá, which was first performed in New York in 1834; this is a domestic tragedy about a moneylender whose heart is broken by a faithless son. Like other early plays, it reflects Bird’s sustained interest in Latin America.
Throughout his career as a playwright, Bird had a working arrangement with Forrest that did not sufficiently protect his own interests. The actor made a fortune from the plays, but Bird earned very little. As a result, he broke with Forrest and turned to writing novels. Two early books dealt with the adventures of Hernán Cortez in Mexico. Then in 1835, with The Hawks of Hawk-Hollow, Bird began to use frontier materials. Two years later, he married Mary Mayer, whom he had known since 1830. That same year, he published his most enduring literary achievement, Nick of the Woods, the story of an outwardly peaceful Quaker who leads a secret double life roaming the Kentucky woods killing American Indians to avenge the massacre of his wife and child. In this novel, Bird portrayed American Indians as barbarians, rejecting the conception of them as noble savages that was being presented by such novelists of the frontier as James Fenimore Cooper.
In 1841, Bird became a professor at the new Pennsylvania Medical College, but he continued to be involved with journalism and politics until his health deteriorated.