James Cossar Ewart medal collection

St Hilaire medal rectoWe’re taking a break from ‘Letters in the Limelight’ this week to take a look at another type of item in the James Cossar Ewart collection. There are 19 medals in the collection, which were awarded to Ewart over the period 1866 (a school medal from Penicuik Free Church School) to 1931 (British Association Centenary commemorative medal). Most of them are for Ewart’s achievements in science and animal breeding: there is a bronze Life Fellow’s Token from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, a gold medal from the Worshipful Company of Woolmen awarded for Ewart’s research into wool and numerous medals from the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland for various animal breeding competitions.

Sometimes the medals complement other items in the collection, as with the medal featured in the picture. This handsome silver medal from the Société Nationale D’Acclimatation de France (National Acclimatisation Society of France) shows the embossed head of the French zoologist Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1805-1861), who founded the Society in 1855. The medallist and engraver was Albert Désiré Barre. A programme which also survives in the collection tells us that Ewart was awarded the medal at the 26th Public Meeting of the Société Nationale D’Acclimatation on the 25 June 1899. The award was given for Ewart’s cross-breeding work with the Burchell’s zebra, which you can read more about here.

Cataloguing medals is not something an archivist gets to do very often, so it was an enjoyable new experience to explore how to catalogue the physical characteristics of objects rather than thinking about the intellectual content and context of documents. The medals are an interesting part of the Ewart collection, as they give a tangible idea of Ewart’s work, achievements and the number of societies and organisations with which he was involved.

Letters in the Limelight: Samuel Henry Butcher (1850-1910)

DSCN2319Cataloguing the correspondence of zoologist/animal breeder James Cossar Ewart (1851-1933), I have been intrigued by the various ‘life stories’ which emerge from the letters. Periodically I will be including some highlights in a series of posts entitled ‘letters in the limelight’ .

While our last ‘Letters in the Limelight’ looked at the life of Peter Henry Buck, a man whose energy was inexhaustible, this week deals poignantly with another of James Cossar Ewart’s correspondents, Samuel Henry Butcher, an Anglo-Irish classical scholar and politician, whose strength had simply run out. Born in Dublin in 1850, Butcher was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and was made a Fellow in 1874. From 1876 to 1882 he was a Fellow of University College Oxford, before taking up the post of professor of Greek at the University of Edinburgh, succeeding John Stuart Blackie. His many publications included, in collaboration with Andrew Lang, a prose translation of Homer’s Odyssey (1879), The Poetics of Aristotle (1902) and Some Aspects of the Greek Genius (1904). Butcher was also influential in areas other than the Classics: education was an important subject to him and one for which he was an advocate, on the Scottish Universities Commission (1889-1896); the University of Edinburgh Court (1891-1901); and the Royal Commission on University Education in Ireland (1901). A. Logan Turner described Butcher as possessing: ‘a singularly attractive grace in bearing and speech, he appealed by sheer contrast to the rather unkempt Scottish undergraduate  as an embodiment of Hellenism, at any rate on its aristocratic side’ (History of the University of Edinburgh, 1883-1933, pp. 229-230). However, despite his achievements, by 1903 Butcher’s health and strength were failing. In April of that year he wrote sadly to Ewart:

Riccall Hall
April 1903

My dear Ewart,
I have intended for some time past to tell you that I have come to the decision that I must resign my Chair. I did not wish this to become public property during this Session, for the leave taking and speech making – to me a great emotional strain – would probably have consumed my remaining strength. But now there is no longer any reason for silence, though my formal resignation to the Court will be deferred for a little while.
I have found, beyond all shade of doubt, that the strain of work had become too great for my strength and my nerve force, which has been greatly reduced during the last year. I have pulled through this Session, but only barely, and often at the week-end, I doubted if I could start afresh on Monday for another week.
I return to Edinburgh tomorrow and must apply myself to business of many kinds, and especially the dismantling of my house, and disposal of many of my goods, eg. books, for which I shall not have room in a smaller house in London. To uproot one’s home of 21 years is a work of much sadness and I cannot trust myself to allow my thoughts to go freely over all that it means. Still I have not lightly made this resolve and know that it is inevitable.
I will write presently and suggest a time which may suit you to look in on me, if you are still at home.
Yours ever,
S.H Butcher
I have a good deal of riding and open air exercise here at my brother’s and am the better for it.
(GB 237 Coll-14/9/9/44)

However, Butcher by no means became inactive after his retirement from the Chair. The remaining five letters from Butcher to Ewart in the collection all postdate Butcher’s retirement and show him to have kept a reasonably active life. One letter from June 1904 has him reporting on a recent lecture tour of America, though he states he found this ‘difficult’ (GB 237 Coll-14/9/10/69), another in September 1905 has him debating with Irish politicians on Irish language and politics (GB 237 Coll-14/9/11/32). Socially, Butcher and Ewart must have been rather close, as he was asked to be trustee of Ewart’s marriage settlement to his third wife, Edith F. Muir. Upon hearing of Ewart’s engagement in September 1904 he remarked: ‘I rejoice to think that the lonely life you have spent for so many years is now to be brightened with human companionship’ (GB 237 Coll-14/9/10/104). After his retirement, Butcher also served as President of the British Academy 1909-1910, was Trustee of the British Museum (1908), and was one of the two MPs for Cambridge University from 1906 until his death, representing the Unionist Party. Samuel Henry Butcher died in London on 29 December 1910 and is interred at the Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh.

Butcher’s lecture notes and papers are held in Edinburgh University Library Special Collections, while his letters to other individuals are held at Oxford, Cambridge, London, St Andrews and the National Library of Scotland.

Letters in the Limelight: Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913)

Coll. Alfred Russell WallaceCataloguing the correspondence of zoologist/animal breeder James Cossar Ewart (1851-1933), I have been intrigued by the various ‘life stories’ which emerge from the letters. Periodically I will be including some highlights in a series of posts entitled ‘letters in the limelight’ .

We heard last week about Robert Wallace, Professor of Agriculture and Rural Economy at the University of Edinburgh: in this week’s ‘Letters in the Limelight’ we will hear about explorer and naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (no relation!) who, independently from Charles Darwin, discovered that evolution is governed by natural selection. However, Wallace was a pioneering thinker in a dazzling array of other subjects, including land reform, glaciology, astrobiology, anthropology, socialism and spiritualism. The theory of natural selection came to Wallace in February 1858 when he was suffering from a fever on the remote Indonesian island of Gilolo (now Halmahera). He wrote a detailed essay and sent it to Charles Darwin, who he knew to be interested in evolution. What he didn’t know was that Darwin had been working on the same theory, more or less in secret, for over 20 years. Naturally, Darwin was horrified and asked his friends Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker for advice. Their response was to combine Darwin’s writing on the subject with Wallace’s essay – without Wallace’s knowledge or permission – and the resulting paper appeared in the Linnaean Society’s Journal in August 1858. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species appeared the following year: Wallace, on the other hand, remained in the Malay Archipelago for another four years.

Considering that James Cossar Ewart corresponded with a vast array of individuals prominent in the field of science, it is hardly surprising that a letter from Wallace appears in his collection of correspondence. However, considering that this year marks his centenary, it was a nice to see his signature appear whilst cataloguing. In the letter, written from Dorset on 07 March 1899, Wallace thanks Ewart for sending him his copy of the Penycuik Experiments (the book, published in that year, in which Ewart was able to disprove the theory of telegony by showing that the influence of a first sire could have no influence on the offspring from subsequent sires). However, he considers that Ewart does not emphasize the importance of breeding in telegony tests from pairs of animals of the same colour as well as the same breed. Going on to discuss of the heredity of characteristics, Wallace contrasts the idea of ‘infection’ (as telegony’ was also known) with ‘prenatal impression’, and tells an anecdotal story to illustrate the theory of ‘the influence of mental impressions of the mother on the offspring’. This curious story, Wallace explains, was told to him by a doctor friend of his:

A gamekeeper had a gun accident which led to the amputation of his right fore-arm, at the North Devon Infirmary at Barnstaple of which Dr Budd was Physician. Being anxious to get home he left before the wound was healed, taking instructions for the dressing, which he said his wife would do for him. His wife however was so nervous that she could not do it, so a friend of hers – the recently married wife of a farmer near – offered to come and do it, which she did, till it was quite healed. About 6 months later this farmer’s wife had a son born without any right fore-arm, the stumps exactly resembling that of the gamekeeper.

This, for Wallace was ‘conclusive’ in proving the theory that maternal impressions, particularly those produced by a shock or unpleasant experience, could contribute to causing deformities in offspring. Although of course we now do not hold with this theory, it certainly makes for a good story! One wonders what James Cossar Ewart would have made of it.

In his own lifetime, Wallace was considered to be the most famous scientist alive. His place in the story of evolutionary science has since been eclipsed by Darwin, but in this his centenary year, there are plenty of opportunities to learn more about this extraordinary man, including The Alfred Russel Wallace website: http://wallacefund.info/ and the Natural History Museum: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/science-of-natural-history/wallace/

Letters in the Limelight: William Herdman and HMS Challenger’s ‘weird deep sea forms’

Coll. William Herdman and ChallengerCataloguing the correspondence of zoologist/animal breeder James Cossar Ewart (1851-1933), I have been intrigued by the various ‘life stories’ which emerge from the letters. Periodically I will be including some highlights in a series of posts entitled ‘letters in the limelight’ .

Last week’s ‘Letters in the Limelight’ focused on Dorothy Thursby-Pelham’s drawings of penguin embryos from Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic; this week, we are staying with the theme of exploration by looking at a letter (dated 25 June 1915) to Ewart from the Edinburgh-born zoologist and oceanographer Sir William Abbott Herdman (1858-1924). Ewart had evidently written to Herdman, who was then Professor of Natural History at the University of Liverpool, requesting some biographical details, to which Herdman modestly replied: ‘what an awful question you ask me! What on earth am I to say? I am the last person who ought to answer it. Will Who’s Who not supply what you want? However I suppose I must help you with any facts I can think of…’ He manages to recover from his reticence sufficiently to provide a brief career history, although he is careful to stress that ‘I had nothing to do of course with the Challenger expedition – was a school-boy at the Edin[burgh] Academy at the time; but I was one of Wyville Thomson’s young men at the ‘Challenger Office’ after he came home.’

Herdman of course refers to the HMS Challenger expedition which visited all of the world’s oceans except the Arctic between  1872 and 1876. The expedition aimed primarily to determine deep sea physical conditions such as temperature and ocean currents, although other forms of investigation, including those of a biological nature, were also carried out. In charge of the scientific staff on board was Charles Wyville Thompson (1830-1882), whom Ewart was to succeed as Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh. Thompson’s location decided that the ‘Challenger Office’ mentioned by Herdman was set up in Edinburgh in order to analyse the findings of the expedition. The resulting Report on the Scientific Results of the Voyage of HMS Challenger was as monumental as the trip itself, appearing in 50 volumes up until 1895, and much of the scientific data gathered by the Expedition is still in current use.

As Herdman writes to Ewart, he became involved in Wyville Thomson’s ‘Challenger Office’ after graduating from the University of Edinburgh in 1879. He was given the collection of Tunicata (a group of marine organisms) to investigate, a work which he continued after he departed for Liverpool in 1881, and which was to be published as a report in three parts between 1882 and 1888. It was research that he evidently enjoyed: he wrote to Ewart of his ‘luck to have a lot of weird deep sea forms to describe which were of course new to science, so I was able to add some new morphological facts.’ Herdman remained in Liverpool for the rest of his career, maintaining a room in the Department of Zoology far beyond his retirement. He was also a generous benefactor to the University of Liverpool, endowing two chairs and funding a geological laboratory. He established biological stations on Anglesey, in Barrow, Lancashire and on the Isle of Man, where he also helped to found the Manx Museum in Douglas. He received honorary degrees from several universities, was actively involved with the Royal Society and was knighted in 1922. However, Herdman’s personal life was marred with sadness when his only son was killed in the Somme and his wife died suddenly after a two-day illness. Herdman himself suffered from heart disease, and died on the eve of his daughter’s wedding, after attending a family dinner in London. His obituary in Nature (2857, 114, 02 August 1924) states that ‘Sir William Herdman’s life, if it is ever written, will be an inspiration to every man, whether he is interested in science or not.’ In his own life summary which he provided to Ewart however, Herdman retains his characteristic self-deprecation, concluding the letter thus:  ‘Oh – finally, I have probably made quite as many mistakes as any other zoologist who has ranged over a pretty wide field of work.’

Edinburgh University Library Special Collections also holds the HMS Challenger Papers: http://www.archives.lib.ed.ac.uk/catalogue/cs/viewcat.pl?id=GB-237-Coll-46&view=basic