Saturday, 31 December 2016

Valentine Burkhardt and Natasha du Breuil—Major Updates to Previous Articles

The articles on Colonel Valentine Burkhardt and Natasha du Breuil have been updated, thanks to information, paintings, drawings and photographs received from Peter Burkhardt, Valentine’s grandson, and a recollection from Stephen Blackmore on meeting them at their house in Hong Kong in 1965.

There is a great deal of additional information.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Rock landscaping, the Pulham family company and London Zoo

The Victorians loved rockeries, grottos and ferneries in their gardens. It is known that in the early years of the 20th Century, the family firm of Pulham, which rose to prominence in the 19th Century and became based at Broxbourne, north of London, used its proprietary Pulhamite cement to create artificial rockwork for some of the enclosure at London Zoo. It is not clear to me what the extent of their work at the Zoo was. On closure of the firm all its records were destroyed. Sally Festing in her article in Garden History published in 1988 found the recollections of a member of the family in a newspaper published in 1966 which suggested Pulhams had been involved in construction of the Mappin Terraces. However, she then found that the zoo account books contained only two payments to Pulhams: one for work in 1910 for a Polar Bear enclosure (demolished about 1914) and another for work on coypu and beaver ponds. However, Frederick Hitching who worked for Pulhams from the late1880s to the 1930s recalled to his grandson, Claude Hitching, that he had worked at the Zoo on the 1905 Sea-Lion pond and a monkey enclosure. Was the latter Monkey Hill, opened in 1925 (misdated as 1913 in The Pulham Legacy website)?

It is difficult to dismiss the recollections of Pulham workers so is it possible that for relatively small jobs, Pulhams were contracted directly while for larger ones, they worked as a sub-contractor to a larger construction company? 

The point has been made that other individuals and firms adopted Pulham’s methods and materials. Indeed, we know that Pulhams, who worked with real as well as their artificial stone, were not involved in some projects that involved rockwork at the Zoo For example, that for the Antelope Paddock, which in the 1960s housed Blackbuck, designed, like that for Monkey Hill, by Joan Procter, was directed by Clarence Elliott of Stevenage ‘whose rock-work gardens have been a notable feature of recent flower-shows at Chelsea’ and built by ZSL’s own employees.

Pulhams were extremely successful and they worked throughout Britain in stately homes, private gardens and municipal parks building all sorts of features from grottos and rock gardens (including one for the Royal Horticultural Society) to ferneries and fountains. Indeed, twice a week I am within yards of the site of one of their rock and water gardens built in 1909 at Crosbie Towers, Troon. The company declined although the date of final closure is in doubt, but, in terms of construction, effectively by 1939 seems a reasonable estimate. 

Thanks to Claude Hitching many of the Pulham projects that remain standing have been documented, alongside the history of the firm, and beautifully photographed (by Jenny Lilly). The large book, Rock Landscapes. The Pulham Legacy appeared in 2012. 

Given the renown of Pulhams I raise the question of whether the firm did work for other zoos or private menageries. They certainly did work for the aviary as well as the rest of the gardens at Waddesdon Manor for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in 1881-1892 and included aviaries in other garden projects.

The book on the Pulhams is a fascinating account of the ingenuity that went into the underlying technology and the construction of Victorian and Edwardian gardens—the heyday of the rockery.

Further reading

Anon. New rockwork at the Zoo. The Times 14 June 1924
Festing S. 1988. Great credit upon the ingenuity and taste of Mr. Pulham. Garden History 16, 90-102
Hitching C. 2012. Rock Landscape. The Fulham Legacy. Garden Art Press

Monday, 5 December 2016

Wolf Suschitzky, contributor to Animal and Zoo Magazine in the 1930s, has died aged 104

It is difficult to imagine that a photographer whose work appeared in magazines nearly 80 years ago was alive until a few weeks ago. Wolfgang Suschitzky, the famous cinephotographer and photographer, died on 7 October 2016, aged 104.

Eamonn McCabe's photograph of Wolf Suschitzky
used in the Daily Telegraph obituary of 9 October
 I shall have a lot more to write about Animal and Zoo Magazine published as ‘the official magazine of the Zoological Society of London’ by Odhams from 1936 until it was forced to close by wartime newsprint shortage in 1941. It was part of the attempt made by Julian Huxley, the paid secretary of the Society, to bring the Society and the Zoo into the 20th Century.

Suschitzky fled Austria after the nazi takeover and arrived in London in 1935. His website shows how he became involved with photographing animals at London and Whipsnade:

     …Suschitzky took his first photographs of animals before the War, when working on a series of zoo films as an assistant cameraman. The keepers would cut holes into the wire fencing and accompany him into the enclosures. Things did not always go smoothly: “I had to grab the camera and run for it when a kangaroo attacked me at Whipsnade, and I only just made the fence. But on the whole, the kind of animal photography which I do is fairly peaceful work.” 
     The great appeal of these pictures – they were published in magazines, such as Animal and Zoo Magazine or Illustrated, and later as books and series of postcards – is due to the fact that his photographs are animal portraits, rather than zoological specimen pictures showing four legs and a tail.

Suschitzky's front covers

His obituaries state that Suschitzky’s first interest was in zoology but that he forsook it for photography. He achieved great distinction in both cinephotography (including Get Carter, the 1971 classic from which Tyneside struggles to recover from its bleak depiction) and still photography. His photographs, the series along the Charing Cross Road for example, show that he was, like many zoologists, a people watcher.

His animal photographs from the early years in London were exhibited in 1940. He continued to photograph animals and collaborate with Huxley. Their book, The Kingdom of the Beasts, was published in 1956.

An article from Animal and Zoo Magazine
January 1941 illustrated by Suschitzky's

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Henry Mellish and the Nottingham Naturalists’ Society

The only time boys were admitted through the front entrance and the vestibule was when they were late. Once there they were met by a prefect to be entered into the ‘late book’ and the sight of this commemorative plaque* on the wall.

The latter caused considerable amusement (we had to be amused by something on a cold foggy morning with the buses running late) because a word was split at the end of a line without benefit of hyphen, as can be seen. All HMGS boys remember DEVO TED. But we knew little of the man after whom the school had been named when it was built in 1929, Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Mellish, other than, as the plaque stated, that he had been Chairman of the Nottinghamshire Education Committee from 1903 until his death in 1927. He clearly like to shoot things, as his photograph in a school magazine showed and there was mention of an interest in meteorology.

Henry Mellish
from David Hallam's website; he attended
the closing ceremony of the school.
The photograph was printed in a school magazine

Only recently and by chance did I find that Mellish was a leading light in British meteorology and an early participant in citizen science. I came across a reference to a Nottingham Naturalists’ Society which I had never heard of and found one of its Annual Reports (for 1904-5) on eBay. The Society had been established in 1852 and was wound up circa 1915. On opening the Report and Transactions, I found that Henry Mellish was President of the Society and that his Presidential Address, Some aspects of meteorology, occupied nine pages, including a map of Nottinghamshire showing mean annual rainfall.

A bit more digging in the archives of The Times showed that the Colonel had what was described as a ‘second class meteorological station’ on the roof of the Tudor gatehouse of Hodsock Priory, his house in north Nottinghamshire. He collected records for more than 50 years and was one of ‘more than 4,500 observers’ recording daily rainfall throughout the British Isles. There was even a British Rainfall Organization with its own premises which collated and published the findings. He was clearly well known nationally for his meteorology and served as President of the Royal Meteorological Society in 1909-10.

H.M. was well qualified to be a gentleman scientist as well as a country gentleman. From Balliol College Oxford in 1879, he had graduated with a First in natural sciences. He went on to qualify as a barrister but never practised law. He lived the life of the country gentleman and pursued his other great interest, rifle shooting. Obituaries in The Times outlined his prowess; he shot at Wimbledon and then Bisley for England in more than twenty annual matches. But he also applied mathematics and physics to shooting. On his private range at Hodsock he had a ballistic pendulum and did experiments to determine air resistance ‘to bullets of different weights and forms’. His results were published by F.W. Jones as The Hodsock Ballistic Tables for Rifles in 1925.

He was an alderman of Notts County Council, a magistrate, Deputy Lieutenant of the county, on the board of a workhouse, as well as being chairman of the county’s education committee. His military rank came from a commission in, and command of, the Notts Volunteers and its successor in the Territorial Army (4th Volunteer Battalion and later, 8th Battalion, Notts and Derbyshire Regiment—The Sherwood Foresters). He was chairman of the Notts Territorial Army Association.

Henry Mellish was born in 1856, the son of Lieutenant-Colonel William Lee Mellish and Margaret, daughter of Sir Samuel Cunard, founder of the eponymous shipping line. The Mellish family bought Hodsock in 1765. The history is shown in Hodsock Priory’s website, the major notable event being the gambling and loss of all his money, house and estate by Henry Francis Mellish, a member of the Prince Regent’s fast set. He had to move in with his sensible sister at Hodsock.

Henry Mellish, our Henry Mellish, never married and Hodsock passed to the Buchanan family by the marriage of his aunt, the sister of William Lee Mellish. It is still owned by the Buchanans and is a wedding and events venue.

But what happened to his memorial, the Henry Mellish Grammar School? Nottinghamshire County and Nottingham City were (and I think at present are also) completely separate entities. The Mellish was a county school within the city boundaries. Pupils were drawn from a large area of Nottinghamshire, all travelling daily by bus, train and trolley-bus. When grammar schools were abolished in Nottinghamshire in the early 1970s, the school was transferred to City Council control and became a local comprehensive. It sank. By 2005 it needed ‘special measures’. After apparently improving in performance it closed in 2009. Demolition followed in 2013. The Boss, Stan Revill, Ernie Burnham, GEG, Freddy White, Froggy Marshall, TES, et al. must still be rotating in their graves.

Part of an educational system that actually worked was sacrificed with the loss of equality of opportunity, upward social mobility and a dedicated non-elementary secondary education. The estimable Henry Mellish’s memorial has gone.

*The plaque is now on a wall at the Mellish Rugby Club in Nottingham. It can be seen in one of the photographs in the gallery section. The club's website states that it was founded in 1931 to commemorate old boys killed in World War I. However, that would be impossible since the school only opened in 1929, eleven years after the war ended. As I recall the original name of the club was Henry Mellish Old Boys.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Scientists and Social Mobility

There was a great deal in the newspapers last week about the current lack of social mobility in Britain. At the same time I finished reading this year’s volume of Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society which always arrives in late October or early November. I made a note of the occupation of the fathers of the Fellows, excluding the Foreign members and those educated in other commonwealth countries. In one memoir no occupation was shown. That left me with 16, born between 1912 and 1944 (median 1927) (some memoirs take years to be written and published). These were the occupations of the fathers:

Coal Miner/Soldier; Lorry Driver; Mechanical Fitter; Pharmacist; Undertaker; Teacher with Cambridge degree; Worker who died when Fellow was aged 2; Trade - Cycle Shop; Solicitor; Farmer; Engineer; Royal Navy Seaman (Chief Petty Officer killed on H.M.S. Hood); Post Office Clerk; Journalist; Publican and then Fish and Chip Shop Owner; Customs and Excise Officer.

Might it be possible to predict that the range will be similarly wide in future years until the effects of the extermination of the grammar schools in the 1970s becomes apparent, with a further effect brought about by the expansion of the university system and the imposition of student fees and debt? My impression is that in England the young scientists I see are posher than they were, say, 15 years ago while my clinician friends tell me that medicine is becoming the preserve of the middle class.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Endocrine Evolution, P.B. Medawar and F.L. Hisaw: Unravelling Who Said What and When

A shorter version of this article recently appeared in The Endocrinologist (Autumn 2016, issue 121, page 34)(Society for Endocrinology).

I seemed to have fallen into a trap of ascribing P.B. Medawar’s famous dictum, ‘For “endocrine evolution” is not an evolution of hormones but an evolution of the use to which they are put”, to a realisation by Medawar himself. I used the quotation* from Medawar in one of my Raine Lectures at the University of Western Australia in 1998. Afterwards, Don Bradshaw pointed out that some thought the original concept seemed to have come from Frederick Lee Hisaw (1891-1972), best known perhaps for his discovery of relaxin.

Sir Peter Medawar in 1985
From Biographical Memoirs of the Royal Society
When I got back from Australia, I looked at as many of Hisaw’s papers as I could find which were published before the Medawar dictum appeared in print. I found nothing to indicate that Hisaw had published anything that even came close to Medawar’s statement on ‘endocrine evolution’. Having other pressing things to do, I left the problem sitting at the back of my mind but only recently, have I tried again to find why the dictum is ascribed to Medawar and Hisaw—sometimes just to Hisaw. In so doing I think I may have discovered the cause of the confusion.

I was not the only one to fall into the apparent trap. Ian Chester Jones (1916-96) the leading but ultimately under-rewarded driver of comparative endocrinology in the UK, first in Liverpool and then in Sheffield, in his 1975 Dale Lecture to the Society for Endocrinology (published in 1976) wrote, after quoting the dictum:

     Geschwind (1967) found some value in the dictum which he quoted without reference. Perhaps rightly so, as it is in a sense, part of the folklore of endocrinology. In a discussion at the 3rd International Symposium of Comparative Endocrinology in 1961 at Oiso, Japan, I declared the aphorism and with some degree of national pride. However, I ran into trouble as Carol [sic] Williams said Medawar must have picked it up at Harvard as it tripped lightly off Fred Hisaw’s tongue many a long year before. Whereupon it turned out that Emil Witschi conceived it in Switzerland and brought it to his classes in Iowa City.

F.L. Hisaw
From the Endocrine Society
Neither I nor Chester Jones should have failed to notice a reference in this context to Hisaw in Aubrey Gorbman and Howard Bern’s A Textbook of Comparative Endocrinology published in 1961 (Wiley, New York):

     The generalization that “it is not hormones which have evolved but the uses to which they are put—ascribed to Medawar and to Hisaw—is fundamental to much of the discussion of hormonal mechanisms in the literature.”

Ironically, that then new book was the one recommended by Chester Jones to accompany the lecture course in comparative endocrinology for first year zoology students at Sheffield in 1962. It cost 94 shillings, the equivalent of £90 today, and made a severe dent in my finances.

Medawar’s dictum appeared in his chapter, ‘Some immunological and endocrinological problems raised by the evolution of viviparity on vertebrates’ published in Symposia of the Society for Experimental Biology (volume 7, 1953). It was an account of a symposium, Evolution, held with the Genetical Society at Oxford in July 1952.

Reading the 1953 paper in full, it is evident that Medawar built his argument as he considered the role of the endocrine system in the evolution of viviparity and the immunological problem brought about by gestation. Thus, earlier in the chapter, in discussing prolactin, Medawar wrote:

     Not even the possession of’ prolactin’, then can be said to be distinctive of mammals; what is distinctive of mammals is the evolution of a new mode of tissue response to hormones of a category already in being. In discussing the comparative endocrinology of the adrenal gland it will be urged that this is a generally applicable rule.

Tracking who said what and when on ‘endocrine evolution’ has been greatly facilitated by the appearance of previously unpublished letters. The Wellcome Library has digitised Sir Peter Medawar’s (1915-1987) correspondence. It is now quite clear Medawar’s dictum was an original thought, or, at least, an independent one. Five years after it appeared in print, we find him, on 26 September 1958, writing to Hisaw at Harvard:

     My imagination was very much stirred by the reference in Nature of September 20th to your contribution to the comparative endocrinology symposium at Cold Spring Harbor. I am giving a lecture early next year in which I want to go into one or two problems about the evolution of he endocrine system, and it would be of the utmost value to me to be able to refer to the conception you delivered at the conference. Do you by any chance have a spare copy, for loan or for keeps, of your manuscript? I ask because I have no confidence at all that the proceedings of the symposium will be published in time to serve my particular purpose.
     I wonder if you remember that we met about 10 years ago at Harvard. when I was delivering the Prather Lectures [1949, a series of six lectures ‘Studies on Growth, Individuality and Ageing’] - a visit which I shall always remember with the utmost pleasure.

Hisaw replied warmly on 6 October to the effect that he had only three typed copies of his manuscript; one had gone to the editor; a second to a friend who was writing a book and the third to “Dr J.M. Dodd who presided at the meeting…For you he is rather close by  and it may be more convenient to get his copy than for me to try to recover one that I have given away over here”.

J.M. Dodd in 1975
From Biographical Memoirs of the Royal Society
Medawar then wrote to Dodd (James Munro Dodd FRS (1915-86), then at St Andrews but soon to be Professor of Zoology at Leeds) to ask him to see his copy; there is however, a curious ending: ‘It would be extremely valuable to me if I could take a glance at it, if it is really true that you have got it’. Jimmie Dodd replied on 28 October:

     I have had a copy of Hisaw’s paper made for you; please keep it. I find it a very stimulating presentation, but it contains rather many “ifs” for my liking. Unfortunately, when Hisaw gave the paper at Cold Spring Harbor, there was no time for discussion. Had there been, I am sure some tricky questions would have been asked: I had some myself!
     Your now famous 1953 dictum was frequently mentioned at the symposium, and it interests me very much. I would welcome an opportunity of discussing it with you sometime. I am sure you will lose no sleep over the fact that I tend to disagree with it…

Dodd goes on to state the grounds on which he disagrees with the dictum but that extends the present discussion too far for the present article.

Medawar wrote back two days later to thank him for sending a copy of Hisaw’s paper, and continued:

The reason why I am getting fussed about endocrinology is that I am giving the Waynflete Lectures in Magdelen and want to devote one of them to “Some Problems of the Evolution of Endocrine Systems” - the subject of my impertinent generalisation of 1953 - is only one of the problems, though probably the most important one…

The manuscripts Medawar was so keen to acquire (he obtained a copy of E.J.W. Barrington’s paper given at the same meeting) were from a Columbia University symposium which was held at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, on May 25 to 29, 1958. The proceedings were edited by Aubrey Gorbman, and published as Comparative Endocrinology by Wiley in 1959.

It is in Hisaw’s paper, Endocrine adaptations of the mammalian estrous cycle and gestation’, that the basis for the confusion between Medawar and Hisaw lies. The paper (pages 533-552) ends:

     …to the generalization which states in effect that it is not hormones which have evolved but the uses to which they are put. Note the italics (in bold italics here). The wording (Medawar's was, for comparison, For “endocrine evolution” is not an evolution of hormones but an evolution of the use to which they are put) is almost pure Medawar. But Hisaw does not make reference to Medawar!

It is not then, perhaps, surprising that those following took Hisaw’s words, in italics but in fact an inaccurate quotation, to indicate that he, Hisaw, had come up with the idea rather than, or as well as, Medawar.

Is is also of interest to note that while Jimmie Dodd reported to Medawar (see above), ‘Your now famous 1953 dictum was frequently mentioned at the symposium’, Medawar’s name did not appear in any of the lists of references appended to the 43 papers.

Attribution of the Medawar dictum to Hisaw can be found. For example, Sawyer, Munsick and van Dyke in their paper, Antidiuretic hormones, published in 1960 (Circulation 21, 1027-1037) wrote:

     F.L.Hisaw recently restated his generalization that, "It is not hormones which have evolved but the uses to which they are put." 

The reference for the statement was to Hisaw’s paper at the Cold Spring Harbor Symposium, and as I noted, I have not been able to find an original generalization to restate. It should be noted that Sawyer’s name appears in the list of those who attended the Symposium.

Attribution to Hisaw rather than to Medawar appears more recently, in Wingfield’s chapter, Communicative behaviors, hormone-behavior interactions, and reproduction in vertebrates, in the third edition of Knobil and Neill’s Physiology of Reproduction, Elsevier, 2006): F. Hisaw put this very aptly some years: “it is not the hormones that have evolved, but the uses to which they are put.”

But then comes the rub. Hisaw in paraphrasing and almost quoting Medawar word for word, was actually disagreeing with the concept. The last sentence of Hisaw’s chapter is worth quoting in full:

     Our limited knowledge is such that it is highly probable that many additional placental adaptations remain to be discovered, but from what is known it also appears that in the evolution of viviparity the acquiring of endocrine function by the placenta furnishes notable exceptions to the generalization which states in effect that it is not hormones which have evolved but the uses to which they are put.

Perhaps this disagreement is the reason Medawar was perhaps just a little sniffy about Hisaw’s paper in his letter to Jimmie Dodd of 5 November 1958. They were arranging to discuss Dodd’s reservations about the dictum and Medawar first invited Dodd to his party on 18 December during the meeting of the Society for Experimental Biology. He continued:

     I am not terribly worried about the detailed chemical composition of the hormones of lower Vertebrates, for, after all, there is a certain latitude of chemical composition even in mammalian hormones - e.g. the essentially similar actions of cortisone, cortisol, and the hadcortisols [sic], the variety of oestrogenic substances, the action of adrenalin and noradrenalin etc. etc. But differences of biological specificity between apparently homologous hormones are of course very important indeed. I note that Hisaw trots out a number of examples when discussing the differences between placental, pituitary and ovarian hormones. This is just the kind of thing I ought to know about and look forward to discussing…

Turning to Chester Jones’s talk in Japan in 1961, I have no doubt that Hisaw did use the dictum around Harvard, as Williams pointed out. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find a Biographical Memoir for the National Academy of Sciences (he was elected in 1947) but Hisaw’s obituary, published in Endocrinology (93, 273-276) notes:

Hisaw developed the idea that during evolution hormones had been "captured" to serve different purposes. Finding mammalian type estrogens in such animals as clams, starfish, and sea urchins it was his thought that these substances originally served only the purpose of stimulating growth of the ovum and that the mammals had taken them over for other purposes.

Publication lists suggest that these ideas were ‘developed’ during the 1960s, i.e. ten years after Medawar’s publication.

I have found no other correspondence between Medawar and Hisaw on ‘endocrine evolution’ but it is clear that they met after 1949. Hisaw wrote to Medawar in 1965 a few days after their meeting to congratulate him on his election as a Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences; he also reminds Medawar of the offer of a job that Harvard made after the Prather Lectures referred to above and concludes, ‘It should be said that subsequent developments have proven your wise judgement in such matters’.

I do not know when or how Emil Witschi (1890-1971), who moved to Iowa from Switzerland in 1927, was believed to have developed or expounded the same general idea; I suspect Chester Jones didn’t either. However, it should be noted that Witschi was also a contributor to the 1958 symposium at Cold Spring Harbor.

But then I find another player had entered the frame and one that I should have known about since conversations I had with Amo (I find it difficult to write Professor E.C. Amoroso FRS in full) over ten years touched on pretty well everything else under the sun. I was surprised to discover that he wrote the following:

‘It is certainly true that a plausible picture of the evolution of the endocrines based on established facts is a necessity for any adequate understanding of the system. But while waiting for such a picture to become available, it may be well to bear in mind that it is the tissues and not the hormones that really do the “reacting”. The expression “action of hormones” is to some extent figurative.’ The words are not my own, but were written by Danforth nearly a quarter of a century ago, and long before the much quoted generalization ascribed to Medaway and Hisaw…

The quotation is from the published version of Amo’s Inaugural Lecture on Present Perspectives in Endocrinology given at a NATO Advanced Study Institute, Techniques in Endocrine Research, which was held at Stratford-upon-Avon in September 1962. The proceedings were edited by Peter Eckstein and Francis Knowles and published by Academic Press in 1963.

C.H. Danforth
From Biographical Memoirs of the National
Academy of Sciences
The idea that Charles Haskell Danforth (1883-1969) was the originator of the concept was repeated in the chapter, Ovarian activity during gestation (page 362) that Amo and John Perry wrote just yards from my lab for the second edition of Zuckerman’s multi-author book, The Ovary (Volume 2: Physiology) which was edited by Zuckerman and Barbara Weir. That book eventually appeared in 1977 after the chapters had been written in the early 1970s; the authors, incidentally, blamed Zuckerman for the the delay. In that chapter, a reference to Danforth was included: Danforth, C.H. (1939) Relation of genic and endocrine factors in sex. In: Sex and Internal Secretions, 2d ed., ed. by Edgar Allen, C. H. Danforth, and E. A. Doisy, pp. 328-50. Baltimore, Williams & Wilkins Company. I have not yet read that paper but C.H. Danforth’s biographical memoir for the U.S. National Academy of Sciences states:

     As to the site of hormonal action, Danforth had little to say, save that hormones act as "activators or stimulators" and "produce their final effect only through such protoplasm as will respond to them." Moreover, the specificity of most hormone-tissue reactions is more properly an attribute of the tissue than of the hormone—it is largely a question of whether or not the tissue will utilize the hormone if available.

My impression is that Danforth was concerned more with the control of events within the tissues of an organism rather than the with timescale of evolution of the vertebrates, in other words, about proximate rather than ultimate causation (to use those maligned but still useful terms).

Incidentally, Medawar thanked both Amo and Chester Jones for help in preparing his 1952/53 paper; the letter from Chester Jones on the adrenal cortex is in the Medawar papers. From what I have read I cannot think he discussed his conclusion on ‘endocrine evolution’ with either of them before he committed it to print.

I hope this note sheds light on the origin of what Chester Jones described in his Dale Lecture as part of the folklore of endocrinology. However, it must be seen as a work in progress since there may be papers, records or recollections of meetings and other material I have not seen that may shed more light on the matter. 

For the moment though there seems little doubt that the dictum firmly belongs to Medawar. Chester Jones’s ‘national pride’ may not after all have been dashed in Japan in 1961.


*The full sentence is: ‘For “endocrine evolution” is not an evolution of hormones but an evolution of the use to which they are put; an evolution not, to put it crudely, of chemical formulae but of reactivities, reaction patterns and tissue competences’. Medawar, P.B. 1953. Some immunological and endocrinological problems raised by the evolution of viviparity in vertebrates. Symposia of the Society for Experimental Biology 7, 320-338.

†Carroll Milton Williams (1916-1991), insect endocrinologist

‡Greep, R.O. 1980. Reflections on the life and works of F.L. Hisaw and H.B. van Dyke: two pioneers in research on the reproductive hormones. In Hormonal Proteins and Peptides 8: Prolactin (edited by C.H. Li) 199-224.

Friday, 4 November 2016

In the Margins. Comments on zoologists in London’s Natural History Museum

The Newsletters and Journals of the Society for the History of Natural History usually make a good read. The December 2015 Newsletter contains a short article by Geoff Moore on a second-hand copy of A Century of Zoology by A.E. Gunther published in 1975. It contained a number of observations written in the margin in pencil. The book had belonged to Bernard James Clifton (1914-200) who had been entomology librarian at the Natural History Museum from 1947 until 1974. The comments Moore quotes range from the highly derogatory to the sarcastic. I will limit myself to passing on two. The first is on Francis Jeffrey Bell (1855-1924), an assistant at the museum from 1978 to 1919, and Professor of Comparative Anatomy at King’s College, London from 1879 until 1896: Bell used to change his clothes when he went home to lunch! He was also greeted by his assistant with a copy of The Times—bought by the latter!

The second is a comment on a section of the book dealing with recruitment to the Museum, Clifton added …up till 1939 only Public School* people with degrees from Oxford, Cambridge & Edinburgh were acceptable. Can only remember 2 exceptions.


*I have to explain to non-UK readers that ‘public’ schools are open to the public but not paid for from the public purse. They are the top private schools open only to those with a great deal of money.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Gwynne Vevers: Connecting Ailsa Craig, two Ayrshire families, the Bismarck, Ultra secrets, marine biology and London Zoo

Gwynne Vevers in 1981
When I mentioned to Gwynne Vevers at a Zoological Club dinner in 1978 that I was moving to Ayrshire he became very excited. ‘My granny was from Girvan’, he said, ’And I did the first wildlife survey of Ailsa Craig—surprisingly, there are slow-worms there’.

There was much more—very much more—to Gwynne Vevers than met the eye. An urbane, amiable and clubbable man he was from 1955 Curator of the Aquarium at London Zoo. He combined this job with being responsible for scientific meetings and publications at the Zoological Society of London. Although we all knew of his role, for which he was awarded a military MBE, in finding the German pocket battleship Bismarck during its breakout to reach the Atlantic, his more general and sustained activity in British intelligence only really became more common knowledge with the publication in 2004 of a short biography by Adrian Desmond in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

When scanning a batch of Animal and Zoo Magazines, I was surprised and delighted to find a two-page map in the July 1938 issue describing the survey Gwynne had talked about. The text box on the map reads:

Bird Island
Animal map of Ailsa Craig compiled by H.G. Vevers and James Fisher and drawn by Ronald Lampitt
     Ailsa Craig is a great lump of granite that sticks up in the middle of the Firth of Clyde for more than 1,100 feet. It is only just over twice as broad as high, and is less than 2½ miles round.
     Every spring for the past three years we have visited the island to study its animals. This map is the result of our investigation in early April 1938. Our main task was to count the gannets, and we found that there were 5,387 breeding pairs. Ailsa Craig is one of the largest gannet colonies of the twenty or so in the world.
     As it is possible to walk round the whole of the coast at low tide and to climb the upper slopes, we mapped out many other inhabitants of the rock, though we could not make accurate counts of all.—H.G.V. and J.F.
The centre-page spread in Animal and Zoo Magazine, July 1938

Not only was his grandmother from Girvan, the nearest town on the mainland to Ailsa Craig, but Gwynne was born in Girvan in November 1917. He was, in fact, connected to Ayrshire families on both his mother’s and his father’s sides. His father, Geoffrey Marr Vevers (1890-1970) was the son of Henry Vevers (1822-1901) and Ada Mary Keay (1867-1913). Ada Mary Keay was the daughter of Robert Keay (1839-1904) and Amelia Kerr Milne Marr (1844-1922). Amelia was the brother of Charles Kerr Marr (1855-1919) who bequeathed his fortune made in the coal export business to further the education of the townspeople of Troon. Marr College, now a secondary comprehensive school, in Troon was  one outcome. The other was the C.K. Marr Educational Trust which still provides bursaries and grants for tertiary education and beyond to students resident in Troon nearly 100 years after his death.

But who was the ‘Granny from Girvan’? His father’s first marriage was to Catherine Rigby Andrews of Girvan. I am confused as to the time and place of this marriage. In the Scottish registers it is recorded as 23 November 1915 at St John’s Episcopal Church, Girvan. However, the marriage is also shown in the English registers, this time in Paddington, London, in the fourth quarter of 1914; a civil followed by a religious ceremony perhaps? Catherine Rigby Andrews (1889-1971) was born at Union Bank House, Girvan, the daughter of David Andrews, solicitor and bank agent, who had died shortly before the marriage in Scotland, aged 77. Catherine’s brother, Walter, a Captain in the Indian Army, also died in 1915 in Mesopotamia. Her mother, and Gwynne Vevers’s grandmother, was Catherine Rigby Wason; she died, aged 78, at 10.57 pm on 30 January 1932 at 2 Golf Course, Girvan. There is an additional note that her usual residence was Glenalty, or Glen Alty, a house in Barrhill, a village inland from Girvan, the home of the Andrews family since at least 1901.

Glen Alty, near Girvan

When he started the surveys on Ailsa Craig he was an undergraduate at Oxford; he graduated in 1938, the year of the final survey. However, during this period he also started working for British intelligence. He led undergraduate expeditions to the Faeroes in 1937 and Iceland in 1939. During both he reported to Admiralty intelligence on the German ships which were surveying deep-water channels. As a research student between 1938 and 1940 he began his research at Oxford on the control of coloration and growth of the feathers in Lady Amherst’s Pheasant. Interrupted by the war, he completed the analysis at Plymouth and was awarded the Oxford D.Phil in 1949.

He was, like a number of his Oxford contemporaries, both a field naturalist and a lab worker.

He was commissioned as a probationary Pilot Officer in the Administrative and Special Duties Branch of the Royal Air Force in January 1941. He must have got to work quickly because he organised aerial reconnaissance of the ice floes in the Denmark Strait to plot the deep-water channels. When Bismarck broke out to the Atlantic to attack convoys in May, Gwynne predicted the route she would take. The destruction of H.M.S. Hood in the Denmark Strait, the frantic pursuit as Bismarck made for Brest, her crippling by the Fleet Air Arm and eventual sinking by the big guns of the Royal Navy are embedded in naval history.

The only clue I had of his later work in the war came from his telling me that while in Germany he was not allowed to fly. He knew too much to risk being shot down over enemy-occupied territory. Only with Adrian Desmond’s biography did the reason become clearer: Gwynne was an ‘Ultra’ insider. He, with his boss, another zoologist, Wing Commander Frederick Stratton Russell FRS, handled the air intelligence from Bletchley Park. They assessed the significance of the decrypted messages and distributed the findings to the R.A.F. The obituaries of Gwynne by Solly Zuckerman, nor the Royal Society’s biographical memoir of Russell contain any clue as to their roles in ‘Ultra’.

His gift for languages including all those of Scandinavia, German and Russian (put to great use in the publishing world in later years) must have opened up roles for him in intelligence within Germany as the allies advanced. Desmond notes that near the end of the war he was hunting down Bernhard Rust Reichsminister for Science, Education and National Culture, who committed suicide a few hours before Vevers caught up with him. My guess is that he was more secret service (MI6) than R.A.F. There were rumours on his continuing role in intelligence and Desmond notes…’Vevers's covert intelligence gathering, which was to last for several decades. His roving life as a zoologist proved perfect cover; even as late as 1970 he was being debriefed after a zoological trip to Rangoon’.

At the end of the war, Russell (later Sir Frederick) was appointed Director of the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth. He took Gwynne Vevers with him to Plymouth as Bursar. This job seems to have been a mixed scientific/admin post, the latter mainly entailing the care of visiting scientists. In addition to completing his D.Phil thesis on material obtained before the war, he started research in marine biology, particularly on animal pigmentation. He also devised an underwater camera that was used to investigate marine life and the sea floor as well as to search for lost submarines by the U.S. Navy.

In 1955 he was recruited by Leo Harrison Matthews FRS, then scientific director as well as responsible for running both London and Whipsnade zoos, recruited Gwynne to run the aquarium at London and to run the scientific activities of the Zoological Society including its publications. This he did until retirement in 1981. He also kept a close eye on standards in the sadly defunct Fellows’ Restaurant. He tried to keep it in line with the top London restaurants and it was one of the places  in London to meet for lunch. He entertained those of us who were organising symposia for the Society there, and I remember ‘Gip’ (G.P. Wells FRS, son of H.G. on one adjacent table) and David Attenborough being entertained after presenting a Bell Bird, on another.

It was at Plymouth that he began to publish his own popular books beginning with The British Seashore. To these he added translations into English from eight languages on a variety of natural history subjects. In all, around one hundred books appeared for twenty-four publishers. Zuckerman wrote: ‘I never did fathom how Gwynne was able to discharge his duties to the Zoo, and also carry on writing and preparing radio and TV programmes’.

He kept his interest in animal coloration and published The Nature of Animal Colours with his friend Harold Munro Fox (London: Sidgwick & Jackson) in 1960.

A stalwart of the Savile Club he also served the Linnean Society as Zoological Secretary and as Vice-President.

I found it hard to imagine Gwynne, the amiable and urbane inhabitant of Regent’s Park and the Savile, as a field naturalist on Ailsa Craig or the Faeroes in the 1930s, let alone in the 1960s. But there he was, a member of Royal Society expeditions to the Cook and Solomon islands in 1965 and 1969.

Gwynne compartmentalised his life, perhaps an attribute of the perfect spy. Few knew of his succession of four wives (James Fisher, his fellow surveyor of Ailsa Craig, was best man at his first, in 1942) or, as Desmond put it, of ‘other, less formal liaisons’.

His laid back style could be deceptive. At first acquaintance (1968 in my case), he could seem semi-detached from the happenings around him but I soon fond that he missed nothing. His knowledge of the ins and outs of often vicious zoo politics stretched back to the times when his father was superintendent and he had the run of the place as a boy. By the time he retired in 1981 he knew where all the bodies were buried.

Gwynne Vevers died at his home in Bampton, Oxfordshire on 24 July 1988.

So, how did the survey of Ailsa Craig come to appear in Animal and Zoo Magazine in 1938? At that time James Fisher, Vevers’s friend and collaborator on Ailsa Craig, was Assistant Curator at the Zoo, put there by the Secretary, Julian Huxley, as part of his ill-fated attempt to reform the Zoological Society. As part of his job, Fisher was contributing articles, and the work on Ailsa Craig was a natural subject for the magazine.

Ailsa Craig from Culzean, 14 miles (22 km) away

These are Gwynne Vevers’s papers on Ailsa Craig:

Vevers HG. 1936. The land vegetation of Ailsa Craig. Journal of Ecology, 24, 424-445.
Vevers HG, Fisher J. 1936. A census of gannets on Ailsa Craig, with a new method of estimating breeding-cliff populations. Journal of Animal Ecology 5, 246-251.
Vevers HG, Fisher J., Hartley CH, Best AT. 1937. The 1937 Census of gannets on Ailsa Craig; with notes on their diurnal activity. Journal of Animal Ecology 6, 362-365.
Vevers HG, Fisher J. 1938. The 1938 census of gannets (Sula bassana) on Ailsa Craig. Journal of Animal Ecology 7, 303-304.
Fisher J, Vevers HG. 1943. The breeding distribution, history and population of the North Atlantic Gannet. Journal of Animal Ecology 12, 175-213.
Fisher J, Vevers HG. 1944. The breeding distribution, history and population of the North Atlantic Gannet Sula bassana. Journal of Animal Ecology 13:49–62.
Vevers HG. 1948. The natural history of Ailsa Craig. The New Naturalist. A Journal of British Natural History 1, 115-121.

1Ronald George Lampitt (1906-1988) was a professional artist who worked for a number of magazines, illustrated many books and designed posters for railway companies.