Sunday, 20 August 2017

1957-2017: The Diamond Jubilee of Salt Glands: Knut Schmidt-Nielsen’s co-authors

In the last post I covered the history of the discovery of salt glands in birds by Knut Schmidt-Nielsen.  But who were his collaborators in the first salt-gland research, Carl Barker Jörgensen and Humio Osaki at the start, and then Ragnar Fänge?

Carl Christian Barker Jörgensen (1915-2007) was well known internationally as an animal physiologist but the only biography I have been able to find is in Danish. Therefore, Google Translate has had to come to my aid.. In 1940 he received Copenhagen University’s gold medal in zoology. He then assisted Holger Valdemar Brøndsted (who later had a chair in zoology at Copenhagen) at a school in Birkerød from 1941 until 1945 when the war ended. Jörgensen returned to Copenhagen and became assistant to Hans Ussing, of the eponymous Ussing Chamber, who was entering his heyday as the master of transcellular ion and water transport through his work on frog skin. Jörgensen himself looked at the effects of posterior pituitary hormones on salt and water movements.

Jörgensen remained at Copenhagen where he was professor from 1965 until he retired in 1985, pursuing a number of interests from suspension feeding, through salt and water metabolism to reproductive endocrinology. Most of his research was on the Common Toad, Bufo bufo. During the 1990s he published three major reviews including one on on the function of the bladder—huge in tortoises—from a historical perspective.

Humio Osaki (1916-2005) was in later life a medical protozoologist. In 1957 he was a research associate at Duke University working with Bodil and Knut Schmidt-Nielsen. How he came to be there I do not know because he had qualified in medicine in 1942, served as a medical officer in the Imperial Japanese Army until 1946 and then as a hospital clinician. After Duke University he was in academic medicine in Japan, finally at Tokushima and Kochi medical schools. As well as the paper on salt glands, Osaki also published with Bodil Schmidt-Nielsen on urea excretion in sheep, one of the key steps in the discovery of urea secretion (as opposed to simple filtration) by the mammalian kidney. Another co-author on Bodil’s urea paper is Roberta O’Dell who can be seen in a photograph helping in the salt-gland work with Osaki and Knut.

Humio Osaki (centre) with Roberta O'Dell and Knut
Schmidt-Nielsen working on salt glands in a gull at
Mount Desert Island(from Evans DH. 2015. Marine
Physiology Down East: The Story of Mt Desert Island
Biological Laboratory. New York: Springer

Humio Osaki working with Bodil
Schmidt-Nielsen on urea excretion (from here)

In the second phase of the salt-gland work, Ragnar Fänge (1920-1999) looms large. Another well-known animal physiologist who worked mainly on fish, he was another Scandinavian, this time Swedish. However, I have been able to find very little about him. I met him a few times but discovered nothing of his background or how he came to be involved with Knut Schmidt-Nielsen and salt glands—and I also forgot to ask Knut the same question. He was professor of zoophysiology at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden from 1962 until 1985.

And so a Norwegian (KS-N), a Dane (CBJ), a Swede (RF) and a Japanese (HO) made history.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

1957-2017: The Diamond Jubilee of Salt Glands: Knut Schmidt-Nielsen's Major Discovery

As i wrote in this post on Bill Sladen, this year, 2017, marks the 60th anniversary of the announcement of the discovery of salt glands by Knut Schmidt-Nielsen and the publication of an abstract describing the work in Federation Proceedings. The talk was given to the American Physiological Society at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology meeting in Spring 1957. A search shows this meeting was held in Chicago on 15-19 April. I also found from the bibliography published alongside his obituary as a Foreign Member of the Royal Society that he had also given a paper in 1957 to the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society in North Carolina and an abstract was published* (which I have not seen); he was by then based at Duke University in North Carolina.

Salt glands are still fascinating: they turn on within minutes of excess salt being detected in the blood; although small in size they can secrete concentrated salt solutions at a very high rate, and to support this blood flow through them is amongst the highest recorded in the animal kingdom. Even now there remains much to be known about them, from the ecological level, the extent to which the salt glands are used by different birds in different habitats, for example, right down to secretory mechanism at the cellular and molecular levels.

The story of the discovery of salt glands is in Knut’s autobiography, The Camel’s Nose, published in 1998. His curiosity was aroused when asked to read the proofs of Nobel prize-winning (and soon to be his father-in-law) August Krogh’s book on osmotic regulation. The story actually begins  in 1939. He wrote:

     I learned a great deal from reading the proofs for Krogh's osmoregulation book. One problem that especially intrigued me was how marine birds survive with no fresh water to drink. In search of an answer to this question, I developed methods I could use under primitive conditions, and at the end of the spring term in 1939, after securing permission from the Norwegian authorities to capture birds, I set off for the coast of northern Norway to try to solve the problem. This journey was the first of what would become a long series of field studies around the world, ranging from the Sahara Desert to the Amazon River, seeking answers to problems of how animals survive in hostile environments. 
     In mid-June 1939 I arrived at Röst, a small island in northern Norway, off the Lofoten chain and facing the Arctic Ocean. Millions of auks, puffins, and gulls nest on vertical cliffs that rise out of the ocean beyond Röst. The birds seek their food at sea, and except for rainfall there is no fresh water. Do they drink sea water? I wanted to find out. 
     It was already known how whales and seals can manage. If they drink sea water, the extra salt is excreted by the kidneys. Whale kidneys are powerful and can produce urine more concentrated than sea water. Although no one knows whether whales and seals actually drink sea water, they could readily eliminate the excess salt… 
     Humans have less powerful kidneys than seals and whales. A human castaway at sea who drinks sea water merely hastens the approach of death because the kidneys are unable to excrete the excess salts. Birds seemingly are worse off; their kidneys are even less efficient than humans' in eliminating salts. The problem was to find out if birds get sufficient water in their food, or if they drink sea water and somehow are able to excrete the salts… 
     During the summer I examined skuas, auks, puffins, and kittiwake gulls. The salt concentration in their guts was invariably low and showed no evidence that any of them drank sea water. I also examined five seals shot by a local fisherman; the results were similar. Neither the salt nor magnesium content in the seals' stomachs and intestines suggested that they had drunk sea water. 
     So far I had only negative evidence. The next step was to find out what happens when a bird actually swallows sea water. I captured a few kittiwake gulls and caged them in empty orange crates. They greedily devoured the fish I fed them. Fish doesn't have a high salt content, so I gave one of the birds an ample volume of sea water by stomach tube. If the kidneys excreted the salts, there should be a high salt concentration in the urine. 
     The bird produced copious volumes of urine, but to my amazement the urine had little salt in it. I repeated the experiment with other birds, and again the urine was nearly salt-free. Wondering if my analytical methods were wrong, I tested every step with solutions of known salt content; my methods were 100 percent correct. 
     No matter how much sea water I gave the birds, little salt appeared in the urine. Could it be that the birds retained the salts? If so, the salt concentration in the blood should increase. But my analysis of their blood showed no elevated salt levels. Where was the salt going? I knew it had entered the body, yet I couldn't find it in the urine or in the blood. It seemed that the salt had simply disappeared. 
     At the end of the summer I returned to Copenhagen, disappointed that I had found no solution to the original problem. I was anxious to talk to Dr. P. B. Rehberg, a prominent renal physiologist, who usually gave young scientists excellent advice. However, he said little, and I felt that he perhaps thought I hadn't done a very good job; he didn't even look at my meticulously kept data books. In desperation I suggested that if the salt doesn't come out the rear of the bird, it must somehow come out the front. Rehberg didn't comment… 
     I wanted to tackle this problem again, but the war intervened, and then other projects took all my time. Not until eighteen years later, in 1957 [actually 1956], did I return to the study of marine birds. As I had suggested to Rehberg, a salt load is indeed eliminated from the front end of the bird, as a salty fluid dripping from its beak. Then I understood why I hadn't noticed the phenomenon when I was on Röst. The primitive conditions where I worked, the orange crates and the rough wooden floor, made it difficult to see drops of fluid the birds shook from their beaks. That summer in Norway, I thought the few drops I noticed were no more than a little sea water regurgitated by the bird.
The research that led to the discovery of salt glands was done during the summer of 1956 at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory (MDIBL), Bar Harbor, Maine, then a gathering place for those studying the kidney and renal excretion during the long vacation, including Knut’s then wife, Bodil, August Krogh’s daughter.

Knut took up the story again in The Camel’s Nose:

     For the study of marine birds I asked two postdoctoral collaborators to join me in Maine: Humio Osaki from Japan and a former classmate of mine from Denmark, Carl Barker Jörgensen. We caught some young cormorants, and to find out what effect sea water has on salt excretion, I gave one of them a liberal amount by stomach tube and placed the bird in a carefully cleaned plastic container. Within a minute or two I made the fastest scientific discovery I ever made. I noticed that the bird, with a quick movement of the head, shook off droplets of fluid that appeared at the tip of its beak. I sampled the clear liquid with a micropipette; it gave a massive precipitate with silver nitrate, revealing a high concentration of chloride. We were astounded, but the result confirmed what I had suggested decades before—that if salts do not come out one end of the bird, they must come out the other. 
     The very salty secretion is produced by glands in the bird's head and drips from the tip of the beak. Thus, if the birds drink sea water, the excess salt is eliminated, leaving a net gain of free water. Whether marine birds in the wild actually drink sea water is a question that is difficult to answer. Nevertheless, much of their food has a salt content high enough to necessitate the elimination of excess salt by the glands we had discovered. For simplicity we decided to call them salt glands. Our discovery received a great deal of attention from physiologists as well as the popular press, for no such gland was known in any animal, and it solved a long-standing problem. 
     I continued these studies over the next two years, both at Duke and in Maine. All marine birds we examined—gulls, pelicans, petrels, eider ducks, and so on—use the same mechanism to excrete excess salt. I had a marvelous collaborator in a Swedish friend, the animal physiologist Ragnar Fänge, who described the detailed anatomy of the salt gland and refined our understanding of its function.

Knut Schmidt-Nielsen working on sea birds at MDIBL
(from here)

Schmidt-Nielsen spent the following summers until 1959 at MDIBL, adding to the previous work. The history also showed that he worked with the MDIBL stalwarts, William L Doyle and Thomas H Maren but they published their salt-gland work without Knut as a co-author. Doyle published the first electron micrographs of the gland. Others there also published on salt glands later, Hubert and Mabel Frings, for example. 

The discovery of salt glands in birds and then in reptiles was just one part of Knut Schmidt-Nielsen’s series of seminal contributions to How Animals Work (the title of one of his books). Obituaries by the late Steven Vogel (1940-2015) and Ewald Weibel can be found here and here.

As Steven Vogel (1940-2015) wrote in Knut’s obituary, in discussing the discovery of salt glands, ‘…the work has taken its place as common knowledge with only rare reference to the seminal reports’. I can only add that, sadly, not only are the references to the seminal reports rare but that the information given on salt glands, particularly in blogs and websites, is so often completely, utterly and completely wrong that it can only be classified as drivel.

At a symposium in Sandbjerg, Denmark to celebrate Knut Schmidt-Nielsen’s 65th birthday in July 1980 there were seven co-authors (out of a possible ten) of his papers on salt glands that were all published between 1957 and 1964 (Ragnar Fänge (1920-1999), Carl Barker Jörgensen (1915-2007) , Maryanne Robinson (Maryanne Robinson Hughes), Arieh Borut, Eugene C. Crawford, Stephen Thesleff, Francis G Carey (1931-1994)). In addition, two of us there (Dennis Bellamy and me) had worked on salt glands later. All the participants and contributors to the proceedings, entitled A Companion to Animal Physiology, received a commemorative medal which show Schmidt-Nielsen’s famous books and the animals with which he was most associated: kangaroo rats, gulls, camels, frogs and snails.

5th International Symposium on Comparative Physiology, Sandbjerg, Denmark, July 1980
To commemorate Knut Schmidt-Nielsen's 65th birthday

And there were Golden Orioles in the trees.

Taylor CR, Johansen K, Bolis L (editors). 1982. A Companion to Animal Physiology: Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Evans DH. 2015. Marine Physiology Down East: The Story of My Desert Island Biological Laboratory. New York: Springer

*Schmidt-Nielsen K. 1957. Extrarenal excretion of salt in birds. J Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 73, 235

Saturday, 12 August 2017

The Kitching-Ebling split, Lough Ine (Hyne) and Reflections on a Summer Sea

Scientific divorces, whether of long-term collaborators, scientist and technician or scientist and past research student,  are horrendous—both to both the parties involved and to onlookers and friends. The reasons are often obscure and may take years to come to the boil. Jealousy, perceived slights, perceptions of unequal work load can all come into the mix.

One of the saddest cases was that of Jack Kitching* and John Ebling†. Their exploits each summer in exploring the ecology of Lough Ine, or Hyne as it is now known, a sea-loch in Ireland, with zoology students initially from Bristol and then, when Kitching moved, from the University of East Anglia, was known more widely and it was a constant feature in both of their lives from 1937 and 1938. Kitching was then a young lecturer and Ebling an undergraduate. They published many papers together and pioneered an experimental approach to ecology. Ebling moved from Bristol, had a short spell in Hull and then established himself in Sheffield where he rose through the ranks to the second professorship in zoology—then a vary rare promotion. Throughout, he headed the logistics of getting the equipment and people to Ireland each year and organising the supplies of food and alcohol. There seems no doubt, though, that Kitching regarded Loch Ine as his show and as his territory.

The Kitching and Ebling Summer Show at Loch Ine was captured superbly by Trevor Norton’s 2001 book, Reflections on a Summer Sea. He began it by quoting a letter he had written to Jack Kitching in 1994:

I have begun to write the story of Lough Ine. I want to tell of the stunning scenery and terrible history of the place, the myth and the magic, and to recapture all the fun and excitement we had in those summers when we waded and dived in the lough. Perhaps I can convey the wonder I felt when I first came to Lough Ine in the 1960s, and maybe slip in a bit of marine biology too…

and continued:

This is the story of the menagerie of eccentric and talented ecologists who, as a hobby, established a privately owned field laboratory in south-west Ireland and took part in one of the most unlikely projects in the history of marine biology.

I heard of the Kitching-Ebling split around 1987 from John Ebling himself. I found him or, more correctly, heard him, holding forth in the Staff Club at Sheffield in, I think 1987 or ’88. I left my host and went over to talk to him. In our student years in the 1960s, John had waxed lyrical about the summers on Lough Ine and so I asked him if he was still going. ‘No’, was the reply and he went on to explain that Kitching had cut all ties with him some years earlier and that he was no longer welcome. He was clearly distressed and utterly bewildered about the whole affair. We moved on to pleasanter matters and I left him to resume his conversation. That was the last time I saw him.

Trevor Norton saw at close hand the whole relationship between Kitching and Ebling and the eventual break up. The immediate cause appeared to be Kitching’s proprietorial attitude to Lough Ine and his attempting to hang on in research after his retirement against a background of tightening funding and lack of recognition of the importance of work there. It would also seem that Kitching came to resent his former student’s success in other fields, for John was at home with errant polychaetes, moulting patterns of mammals, hormonal effects on the skin, clinical dermatology and the effects of cosmetics.

So while it seems pretty clear that John Ebling was the injured party, as was Trevor Norton himself when he disagreed with Kitching on the direction the research should take, there did come a sort of and rather sad rapprochement. Trevor described a symposium in Cork in 1990 on the research at Lough Ine. Kitching and Ebling were both invited:

Although it was a relief to John to have an invitation and a chance to visit the lough, he was nervous about meeting Jack again. He needn’t have been, for Jack was no longer formidable. John was a ebullient as ever, but a stroke had stolen Jack’s vigour. He looked and sounded frail, a ghost of his old self. I feared his lecture might be a disaster, but on stage he rose to the occasion and spoke well. I saw John helping him across the road. They were chatting, perhaps about old times.

There Trevor left it and so I was delighted to find that a book of photographs illustrating the history of the people who made Lough Ine famous—now the subject of over 450 scientific publications had been published in 2011. Many of the photographs are Trevor Norton’s but it covers work from 1885, when the first studies of the lough were made, until 2010. When I received my copy I was delighted to recognise people I had met and worked alongside in parallel universes without knowing they had spent one or more summers there.

I cannot help but end with a John Ebling story. Trevor Norton explains how Jack Kitching disapproved of John’s ribald sense of humour especially in front of the students, “these tender plants”. My abiding memory is of Venice at Easter 1964. We had arrived by bus from Rovinj where we were being exposed to a marine biology field trip (Lough Ine lite is the best description I can think of with hindsight). The bus journey had taken several hours and we were dropped off at a vaporetto-stop where we found public lavatories before heading for St Mark’s Square. Italy at that time had the lira and inflation had led to massive numbers of lira being needed for everything. The relatively small number of men and the larger number of women lined up with John heading the queue (student prostates were smaller and bladders possibly bigger) to pay and enter. After several minutes inside he re-appeared. ‘I am reminded of that old rhyme written behind the door in gents’ lavatories’, he said. And continued:

Here I sit, broken hearted, 
Paid two-thousand lira and only farted.

I cannot enter a public lavatory anywhere in Europe without repeating that incantation. Kitching would not have been amused.

These are photographs from Terri Kearney's superb book of photographs:

Jack Kitching on his first visit in 1938
Ebling and Kitching on the front row at the conference in Cork when they met again in 1990

*John (“Jack”) Alwyne Kitching OBE FRS (1908-1996)
†Francis John Govier Ebling (1918-1992)

Norton T. 2001. Reflections on a Summer Sea. Century (paperback 2002, Arrow Books)

Kearney T. 2011. Lough Hyne. The Marine Researchers - in Pictures. Skibereen Heritage Centre. Obtainable from here.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Bill Sladen (1920-2017): Penguins and Salt Glands

A number obituaries of William Joseph Lambart Sladen who died on 29 May aged 96 have been published in recent weeks. While they all record his pioneering studies on penguins in the Antarctic, his later involvement with migration and conservation projects in the northern hemisphere and his detection of DDT in penguins in the 1960s, they do not mention his involvement with a major scientific discovery of the 1950s which explained how penguins and other birds survive at sea.

Obituary in The Times

This year, marks the 60th anniversary of the announcement of the discovery of salt glands by Knut Schmidt-Nielsen and the publication of an abstract describing the work in Federation Proceedings. A full paper appeared in the American Journal of Physiology in March 1958. A month later a paper in Nature appeared entitled, Nasal salt secretion in the Humboldt Penguin by Schmidt-Nielsen and Sladen, which suggests that the work was done only a short time after that reported in the first paper on the Double-crested Cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus.

Schmidt-Nielsen and Sladen wrote:

In order to establish whether extra-renal salt excretion is of importance in the salt balance of other marine birds, we took advantage of the colony of Humboldt’s penguins (Spheniscus humboldti) in the laboratory of one of us (W.S.). These birds had been caught in the wild six months before, they were doing well in captivity, and were considered to be free of disease. Trial experiments in April 1957 showed that nasal secretion did occur, so the following experiments were performed.

The rest, as they say, is history.

How Schmidt-Nielsen and Sladen got together to do the study I do not know. Since the penguins were kept in Sladen’s lab at Johns Hopkins, I assume the male penguin used was given its salt-loaded fish in Baltimore.

I found this photograph of an Emperor Penguin skull which shows the
supra-orbital position of the nasal salt glands

Sladen by this time had already made his name from studying penguins in the Antarctic. British-born, medically-qualified and working as medical officer as well as biologist for the Falkland Islands Dependency Survey—FIDS—now the British Antarctic Survey, he was sole witness to the horrendous hut fire at Hope Bay in November 1948 that resulted in the death of two members of the survey team. After the fire he spent the next sixteen days alone and out of radio contact, sleeping in a tent, until the main survey party returned. He continued his work on penguins during this time, writing his Oxford doctoral thesis in Charles Elton’s Bureau of Animal Population.

Sladen moved to the U.S.A. in 1956, initially on a research fellowship, and became a U.S. citizen in 1962. He remained based at Johns Hopkins while commuting to the Antarctic and Arctic for his research.

Adélie Penguin - adult and chick
Sladen's early work was on this species at Hope Bay, 9 miles along the
coast from Brown Bluff on the Antarctic Peninsula where I took these
photographs on 26 January 2005.

Salt-gland secretion in this species was described by Donald S Douglas
in the 1960s.

I am taking video of the tens of thousands of Adélie
Penguins at Brown Bluff

Schmidt-Nielsen K, Jörgensen CB, Osaki H. 1957. Secretion of hypertonic solutions in salt glands. Federation Proceedings 16, 113-114

Schmidt-Nielsen K, Jörgensen CB, Osaki H. 1958. Extrarenal salt excretion in birds. American Journal of Physiology 193, 101-107

Schmidt-Nielsen K, Sladen WJL. 1958. Nasal salt secretion in the Humboldt penguin. Nature 181, 1217-1218

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Charles Eliot: languages, embassies, universities and nudibranch molluscs

It is difficult to believe that Sir Charles Eliot (1862-1931) who achieved great distinction in languages, culture and comparative religion and who served as a British diplomat and as vice-chancellor of two new universities developed as a hobby the study of nudibranch molluscs and published a number of authoritative papers on their taxonomy and phylogeny.

Knowledge stuck to him ‘like fly-paper’ and he came to have twenty-seven languages at his command, often acquired at amazing speed. He published a first grammar in English of Finnish. From Oxford, he joined the diplomatic service and served in Russia, Morocco, Turkey and the USA. He also served as British Commissioner in Samoa.

While Commissioner, Commander-in-Chief and Consul-General for the East Africa Protectorate Eliot had a strong disagreement with the Foreign Secretary over who should be allowed to buy land. He resigned by means of an open telegram. After that dramatic resignation from the diplomatic service he was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the new University of Sheffield in 1905. In effect he was the first vice-chancellor but W.M. Hicks who was Principal of the university college that was to be a constituent of the new university did not want to become vice-chancellor but to continue as Professor of Physics. Hicks, because he had done all the work to establish the university, was persuaded to be named as Vice-Chancellor in the Charter but then to hand over to Eliot immediately afterwards. It is clear that to many observers, Eliot was not the ideal Vice-Chancellor. Shy and withdrawn other than with personal friends—and ‘given to formidable silences’—he left the administrative work to the Registrar and throughout each vacation travelled widely in the East. However, it is clear that his hands-off approach worked because the new university thrived.

In 1912, he took on another new university—this time Hong Hong and it had hardly reached the embryonic stage by the time of his arrival. There were only three full-time members of staff. Eliot’s diplomatic skills soon brought in money from the wealthy Chinese in Hong Kong and Malaya. He was noted as being completely ignorant of finances and had an aversion to mechanical devices; he refused to use the telephone. In Hong Kong, he had daily lessons in Mandarin. Again, such was his devotion to acquiring a language, he later translated into English three large volumes of Chinese Buddhist scriptures. Although he had no need to do so, he lectured and held tutorials such that he was popular with the students. A student hall of residence was named to commemorate his vice-chancellorship in 1914. The Hall lost its name after the landslide in 1966 when the three halls, built one above the other were combined into one. However, more recently it was retained when one of the halls was demolished and is now back as Eliot Hall.

He was recalled by the Foreign Office to the temporary job of High Commissioner in Siberia in 1918. He did not return to Hong Kong because he was appointed British Ambassador in Tokyo.

Throughout his life Eliot was a prolific writer on his observations during travel and on eastern religions. After his retirement from the embassy in Tokyo, he remained in Japan for five years. Suffering from heart disease he was returning to Britain by sea when his condition deteriorated. Advised to stay ashore when the ship reached Singapore from Kobe, he opted to continue. on 17 March 1931 he died on board the Japanese ship Hakone Maru approximately midway between Penang and Colombo. The captain of the ship conducted a burial at sea with, since there was no one on board to do otherwise, Buddhist rites. The ceremony was described in The Times of 7 April. Appropriately, it would seem, Eliot’s book Japanese Buddhism was published posthumously, in 1935.

Embed from Getty Images

The story of Eliot’s interest in nudibranchs is that while in Samoa in 1899 he became fascinated by their beauty and behaviour. He quickly acquired sufficient knowledge to publish a paper on the Samoan nudibranchs. After that he worked on the local nudibranch fauna wherever he was posted as a diplomat and on collections from a number of expeditions, including the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition of 1902-1904. What does not seem to have been picked up by his biographers is that Eliot appointed a key member of that expedition—Robert Rudmose Brown (1879-1957)—as lecturer in geography in Sheffield. In Sheffield, Eliot had his own laboratory to which he retired when not busy as vice-chancellor. I have already explained how Eliot resigned from the diplomatic service on a point of principle, He was no ‘yes’ man and his comment in a letter to another vice-chancellor shows his disgust for an early manifestation of the imposition of pseudo-accountability. He complained that the Board of Education:

…want to know how many hours the Professors lecture. Nothing so ungentlemanly has been done by the Government since they actually insisted on knowing at what time Foreign Office clerks arrive in Whitehall.

I have Eliot down as one of the good guys.

From Eliot's paper, On some nudibranchs from east Africa and Zanzibar.
Part VI. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London
1905 2, 268-298, plates 16-17

Blunden E. 1962. Sir Charles Eliot. In, University of Hong Kong. The First 50 Years, 1911-1961. edited by Brian Harrison. Hong Kong University Press.

Chapman AW. 1955. The Story of a Modern University. A History of the University of Sheffield. Oxford University Press

Mellor B. 1980. The University of Hong Kong. An Informal History. Volume 1. Hong Kong University Press

R.W. Obituary: Sir Charles Eliot, 1862–1931. Journal of Molluscan Studies 19, Issue 5, 224–226

A list of Eliot’s papers on nudibranchs can be found here.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Komodo Dragons: The Moyne Zoo Quest Expedition of 1934-5 and Lady Broughton’s photographs

One way to get animals from faraway places in the early decades of the 20th Century was to get the super-rich of the day to collect them. One such expedition, which brought Komodo Dragons to London Zoo (not the first as is often claimed but the third and fourth to be received there) was that of Lord Moyne, Walter Edward Guinness (1880-1944). The clue to his wealth is the surname. 

In 1933 Guinness bought a cross-channel ferry from Southern Railways, had it converted to diesel power and renamed it Rosaura. In December 1934 the yacht set off for the islands of the Pacific and Indian Oceans; Clementine Churchill, wife of Winston, was one of the guests; she joined at Messina. Moyne flew to Rangoon and joined the yacht there. His observations on the varied cultures were published in his book, Walkabout: A Journey in Lands Between the Pacific and Indian Oceans (Heinemann, 1936).

Photographs on the expedition cruise were taken by Lady Broughton, who also joined at Rangoon  with Moyne, and who is variously described as ‘companion’, ‘friend’ and ‘mistress’ according to the source and era of publication; she wrote an article for National Geographic Magazine describing how they captured the dragons.

Lady Vera Edyth Broughton (1894-1968) at the time was married to Sir Jock Delves Broughton. They were divorced in 1940 and he achieved notoriety as a member of the Happy Valley set in Kenya after the lover of his second wife was shot dead; Delves Broughton was acquitted of the murder but killed himself at the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool in December 1942. The film White Mischief covers the story with varying degrees of historical accuracy.

Throughout the 1930s Lady Broughton was known as an explorer, as a big game hunter, as a pursuer of large fish with rod and line and as a photographer of the natural history and anthropological worlds. Quite a gal.

She and Moyne were involved in fishing for what were known in Britain as tunny fish at Scarborough during the 1930s. It is difficult to imagine now that Scarborough was a resort of the super rich of the 1930s but it was the fishing for very large individuals of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus thynnus) that took them to the town where they sere seen bringing their catches to be weighed by the holidaymakers from the industrial midlands and north. My father recalled seeing the huge fish (some weighing over 300 kg) being brought ashore. In 1949 although I saw no tuna but I do recall photographs on display that showed the giants being weighed. The tuna, incidentally, disappeared as the North Sea was overfished and shoals of their prey species became depleted.

Captioned: August 1933: Amongst the tunny fishers at Dogger Bank are Lord Moyne and Ladt Broughton

Lord Moyne, a friend and political supporter of Churchill in the 1930s, is now remembered in Britain more for his demise—assassinated in 1944 while in Egypt by members of the Jewish terrorist group, the Stern Gang—than his achievements in life. He was serving as Resident Minister in the wartime coalition government.

In her article in National Geographic on the Komodo Dragon, Lady Broughton wrote:

One of the most prized inhabitants of the London Zoo had died—a dragon lizard from the island of Komodo.     As the zoo was eager to replace this interesting creature, rare in captivity, Lord Moyne, who had visited Komodo some years previously agreed to revisit the island last year with the object of securing specimens. I had the good fortune to be one of Lord Moyne’s guests on his yacht Rosaura and to have opportunity to take the accompanying photographs…
     The Netherlands Resident of Timor, responsible for the government of these islands, kindly came to Komodo in his yacht with several of his officials while we were there, and our success in capturing the “dragons” was mainly due to the help of our obliging friends…
     We spent about ten days on Komodo in our effort to catch the largest possible specimens. We secured seven, but, as we had permission to bring back only three, we released the smaller captives whenever we could replace them by larger ones.
     …I was able to spend my time procuring a series of pictures. Neat the rock where the trap had previously stood, we tied up a dead goat and prepared a cover of green canvas and branches, from behind which I could watch and photograph the reptiles without being seen by them…
     In their wild state they are said to be dangerous, but I cannot support this statement. I spent days watching, at close range, dragons of all sizes up to about twelve feet in length. I had no protection other than the small hedge of cut branches and leaves. At no time did the creatures show any signs of attacking me…

Lady Broughton in her hide (blind in USA) from
National Geographic article. The camera appears
to be a Dainty Soho Reflex taking 2 ½" x 3 ½"
 plates held in double dark-slides.

She concluded:

     When the yacht was some days out on the homeward journey, one of the dragons burst its way through the netting, and, as no trace of it was ever found on the ship, presumably it jumped overboard. The other two were safely delivered to the zoo and, in addition, our cameras had captured numerous others that are still free to partake of their odoriferous banquets on the hills and beaches of Komodo.

Komodo Dragons were not the only animals brought back. There is an appendix to the book (which I have not seen) which lists them. Clementine Churchill brought back a dove from Bali.

Photographs of the two dragons at London Zoo by Wolf Suschitzky are shown in Animal and Zoo Magazine April 1941. In the description of the Reptile House, David Seth-Smith wrote: In the end cases of the house are to be found the Komodo dragons…Were the enclosure he described those at the raised end of the house latterly used to house crocodilians? Previously, Geoffrey Vevers had reported in the same magazine (April 1939 issue): …the two seven-foot long komodo dragons have been moved to larger quarters as they have outgrown their former home. They were presented by Lord Moyne in 1935, and have been growing steadily ever since at the rate of half a foot a year.

Wolf Suschitzky's photographs of the two dragons at London Zoo
from Animal and Zoo Magazine

Hampton Wildman Parker’s (1897-1968) article in the third issue (Autumn 1946) of Zoo Life, the postwar magazine launched by the Zoological Society, takes up the story: Additional specimens, which died only recently, were collected and presented to the Zoo in 1936[1935 - there are a number of errors with dates in this article] by the late Lord Moyne, but these also, after nine years in captivity, gave no indication that they were likely to grow to a length greater than about ten feet.

Lady Broughton mentioned in her National Geographic article that cine film was taken during the expedition. I have found an entry on Lord Clement-Jones’s website:

Recently Project Walkabout held a reception in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association room next to Westminster Hall to celebrate the expeditions to the South Pacific undertaken by Walter Guinness, Lord Moyne and by my great Aunt Vera Delves Broughton. 
Project Walkabout is a charity set up by the grandchildren of Walter and Vera, Diana Moores and Lavinia Verney respectively, with the objective of preserving the film taken at that time by Arthur, Viscount Elvedon, another member of the Guinness family.This is their website. The reception featured photographs taken by Vera and clips of some of the restored footage courtesy of Susanne Hammacher of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

I have no further information on what has happened to the project but it would be rather nice to see the BBC broadcasting digitised versions of these historically important films rather than throwing huge amounts of licence-payers’ money at inane celebrity presenters.

Broughton. 1936. A modern dragon hunt on Komodo. National Geographic Magazine 70 (3, September 1936), 321-331

Soames M. 2002. Clementine Churchill, London: Doubleday

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster. A second biography of the MI5 officer, amateur naturalist and broadcaster

Like London buses, you wait for ages and then two come along. Well, not quite because there is a gap of 33 years between these two but the subject and the subject matter are identical: Maxwell Knight.

The publication in 1984 of the book by Anthony Masters (1940-2003) The Man Who Was M came as a shock to those of use of a certain age who knew Maxwell Knight as a populist amateur naturalist and animal keeper who was a regular on BBC radio and, sometimes, television and who instilled an interest in young listeners and readers that helped start them in careers as professional biological scientists. The shock came from knowing what Knight did earlier in life because he had been a highly successful agent runner for the government security service MI5 and had achieved notable successes in infiltrating himself and, later, his agents into fascist organisations with links to nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s and into communist organisations with links to and control from the Soviet Union.

Since 1984, additional information has emerged, several books have been published and a number of websites contain information. One book had material from it available to Masters. That one was a sensationalist and, it has been claimed, a rather fanciful account by Joan Miller, an associate of Knight in MI5. Another deals with a particular case, The Kent-Wolkoff Affair. The new material, some from recently declassified MI5 files, has been incorporated in the new book, Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster by Henry Hemming.

In many respects, therefore, the new book is like a second edition of the old. It kills a few canards and presents a more balanced view than was possible with material available to Masters in the early 1980s.

Maxwell Knight though remains an enigma: a chameleon by trade, from adopting the persona of a fascist activist in the 1930s to the avucular broadcaster in the 1960s; an inhabitant of a secret world who courted publicity (a castaway on Desert Island Discs for example); an impotent thrice-married womaniser; a gentleman burglar; a naturalist with an amateur interest in the occult.

Maxwell Knight retired early—at the age of 55—from MI5 on the grounds of ill health in 1961. By then though he was already well known by BBC audiences. Hemming writes:

Max—he was no longer ‘M’—was by 1961 one of the BBC’s most prolific broadcasters. In the 1950s alone, he featured in at least 306 original radio broadcasts, he had no fewer than 20 books published in this one decade, he appeared on television more than 40 times, excluding repeats, he gave lectures throughout the country and he wrote numerous magazine articles, all on the subject of natural history. His rich, reassuring voice was synonymous by 1960 with radio programmes such as The Naturalist, Country Questions, Nature Parliament and Naturalists’ Notebook. Max also popped up on Woman’s Hour, did schools programming and featured on television programmes such as Look and the panel show Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. When children became junior members of the London Zoo in 1965, one of the advertised benefits was the chance to attend “film shows and lectures given during the school holidays, when you can meet famous animal experts such as David Attenborough, Maxwell Knight, and Peter Scott”.

His secret and public lives overlapped.

Hemming does make the connexion between Knight’s two lines of work. John Le Carré (who worked under Knight in MI5) illustrated two of his books. But it is links with the Zoological Society of London that are intriguing. Hemming notes that Knight was a member of council at the same time as Ivor Montagu (1904-1984; zoologist, film-maker and table tennis enthusiast) ‘a Soviet agent who had been followed around London thirty-none years earlier by Eric Roberts, acting on Max’s instructions’. There were other former security and secret service officers around the Zoo in the later decades of the last century. One was Gwynne Vevers† but there were others. However, the mix is even more interesting. Gwynne’s father, Geoffrey Marr Vevers (1890-1970), Superintendent of the Zoo until 1948 was a strong supporter of the Soviet Union and its political system, before and during the Second World War (he edited Anglo Soviet Journal) as was his boss, Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell (1864-1945), Secretary of the Society from 1903 until 1935. There were also links to Ivor Montagu through the distribution of Soviet propaganda films. Many of the individuals involved must have been of interest to MI5, however innocent or humanitarian the motives of those involved since a number of the network of organisations were covertly controlled either directly or indirectly from Moscow, and as we now know some individuals were active Soviet agents. The biographies of Knight stress how he argued strongly within MI5 that the threat of Soviet espionage within the British government was real. He expressed his views in an internal memorandum, ‘The Comintern Is Not Dead’ and history showed with Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt et et al. that he was right. I cannot help but think that at the Zoo, Maxwell Knight was  initially mixing business with pleasure.

Closer to home on the other side of the fence was the sister of the photographer who illustrated another of his books. The great photographer and cinematographer, Wolfgang Suschitzky, (1912-2016) who had set out in life determined to be a zoologist, worked a great deal at London and Whipsnade zoos, his photographs there illustrating many articles and books. His sister, Edith Tudor-Hart (1908-1973), was most certainly of interest to MI5 since she was a major talent spotter and recruiter of the Cambridge spy ring as well as acting as a courier and supplier of photographic equipment to Soviet spies. She also worked as a photographer and one of her photographs, of children exploring a rock pool, appeared in the August 1939 issue of Animal and Zoo Magazine.

Both Masters and Hemming posed the question of what drove Maxwell Knight to pursue (some said in a pushing manner) his second career as a broadcaster and writer. Money seemed to be the answer. He retired early from MI5 on medical grounds. I do not know what the pension arrangements were then but my estimate is that with his thirty years service he would have been on something like three-quarters of half his final salary. Given that he was not in the top echelons of MI5 and had an expensive lifestyle in rented property it is easy to see why a second stream of income was needed.

Although this is not a book review there are a few statements of a zoological nature in Hemming that range from dubious to an outright howler. In drawing a parallel with his handling of animals and his brilliant handling of his agents, his ability to get a wild-caught toad to feed from the hand is mentioned: ‘Few wild-born toads will feed from a human hand. Fewer still are happy to do this after so little time in captivity’. In my experience this is not true. A hungry toad fresh from the wild will readily accept an earthworm dangled in front of its nose.

Then there is a photograph showing ‘Knight with his favourite pet. Goo the cuckoo’ with quite clearly a young Greater-spotted Woodpecker on his shoulder. The correct photograph for that caption is plate 27 of Masters. Finally, surely every schoolboy knows the plural of mongoose is not ‘mongeese’.

Now we have had two biographies of Maxwell Knight (the latter produced with little reference to the former) how long until we get a third? Will we eventually know what service he performed for the King which led to his receiving in 1931 a gold cigarette case inscribed with the royal cipher and his name?

*Charles Henry Maxwell Knight, 1900-1968. See also the website M: Maxwell Knight and the Frightened Face of Nature

†A BBC producer, Winwood Reade, responsible for many of Maxwell Knight’s broadcasts was the third wife (out of four) of Gwynne Vevers; she was interviewed by Masters,

Hemming H. 2017. Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster. London: Preface

Masters A. 1984. The Man Who Was M. The Life of Maxwell Knight. Oxford: Blackwell

Clough B. 2005. State Secrets. The Kent-Wolkoff Affair. Hove: Hideaway

Miller J. 1986. One Girl’s War. Dingle: Brandon