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: Penguin Eggs from Antarctica

Coll- Dorothy Thursby PelhamCataloguing 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’ .

‘Dr Harmer has written me that you are undertaking the investigation of the Antarctic Penguin material’, writes Dorothy Thursby-Pelham to James Cossar Ewart, ‘and would like to use my drawings. As far as I am concerned I shall be very pleased, but strictly speaking they are the property of Mrs Assheton as I did them when engaged as Dr Assheton’s assistant. She has I believe written to Dr Harmer to give the required permission.’ The letter, dated 12 May, gives no reference to year, although it is likely to be from around 1922 when Ewart was conducting research on the Emperor Penguin. He had been interested for a number of years in exploring the origin and history of feathers in birds and their possible relation to scales on reptiles. Examining Thursby-Pelham’s drawings of embryonic penguins would have allowed Ewart to make a study of the process of early feather development.

Thursby-Pelham, a scientist at the Zoological Laboratory, Cambridge, has been called ‘England’s first female sea-going fisheries scientist’ and was an active member of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. However, as she mentions to Ewart, she had also worked as an assistant to Dr Richard Assheton (1863-1915), Lecturer in Animal Embryology at the University of Cambridge. The drawings to which Thursby-Pelham refers, and which Ewart evidently wished to use as part of his research, were the intricate and beautiful pencil drawings of the embryos of the Emperor Penguin eggs famously collected on Scott’s last expedition (1910-1913) to the Antarctic. This expedition, commemorated in Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s 1922 book The Worst Journey in the World (which contained Ewart’s report on the Emperor Penguin as an Appendix), aimed to be the first to reach the South Pole, collecting as much scientific data as possible along the way. In particular, it was hoped that evidence would be found about the embryos of Emperor Penguins (thought to be the most ‘primitive’ of the bird species) to support the theory that there was an evolutionary link between birds and reptiles. In 1911, Edward Wilson, the expedition’s chief scientist, and two colleagues embarked on a gruelling five week journey to the nearest penguin breeding colony, pulling heavy sledges in total darkness through temperatures of -40°C. They collected five fresh eggs, three of which survived the return journey. Back in Britain, the pickled embryos were sliced and mounted onto slides, with Richard Assheton being assigned the special task of analysing them. It was at this time that Dorothy Thursby-Pelham made her pencil drawings. Meanwhile, the bodies of Scott, Wilson and a third colleague, Henry Bowers, were discovered in 1913, having perished in the cold on the return journey from the South Pole (they were beaten to the spot by Roald Amunsden’s Norwegian expedition).

The outbreak of the First World War and Assheton’s death delayed the detailed study of the embryos until 1934 – the year after James Cossar Ewart’s death – when advances in science had discounted the theory of a link between between an embryological development and evolutionary history. However, the eggs, which can still be seen today in the Natural History Museum, remain as poignant reminders of the courageous and often deadly battle for scientific discovery.

You can see images of the eggs, as well as pictures from Scott’s expedition and one of Dorothy Thursby-Pelham’s drawings here:


Letters in the Limelight: Rowland Ward, taxidermist

Coll14.9.10.71 Rowland Ward billCataloguing 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’ .

For anyone seriously interested in studying the various physical and biological characteristics of animals in James Cossar Ewart’s time, taxidermy played an important role. Ewart’s correspondence reveal that he travelled extensively around the world observing or seeking out various breeds of animals (for instance in 1905 he went to Mexico to study mustangs). He was also able to acquire various breeds or hybrids at his home in Penicuik (most usually sheep, ponies and his famous zebra/horse hybrids). We also know that his correspondents sent him photographs or glass slides depicting various interesting specimens. However, sometimes travel or photography was not possible, or a particular animal Ewart wished to inspect died before he could visit, or he wanted to preserve one of his own animals for future research use, such as examining colouration or markings. This is where taxidermy came into its own. The picture shows a bill from the renowned taxidermist Rowland Ward. Dated 4 July 1904, it summarises the services Ewart had received since 1902, including ‘skinning Przewalski’s horse [a species of wild horse], preserving and dressing skin, making artificial skull’, ‘preserving and macerating skeleton’ and ‘skinning zebra hybrid.’ During the course of his research, Ewart amassed quite a collection of zebra and horse skins, skulls and bones, which allowed him to compare variations in markings, bone structure and other characteristics.

Born in London in 1847, Rowland Ward left school at 14 to begin work at his father Henry Ward’s taxidermy studio. His gift for taxidermy and sculpture soon became clear, and his hard work and entrepreneurship soon made him established. His final premises, The Jungle, was situated in London’s fashionable Piccadilly district and largely catered for wealthy sportsmen and game hunters, as well as naturalists like Ewart. He became widely known for his hugely detailed dioramas, often used at large exhibitions, depicting, for example, scenes of jungle life, as well as fashionable ‘animal furniture’. However, he also pioneered techniques in taxidermy which are still employed today, and his books on taxidermy and extensive compilation of horn measurements are still consulted. The business continued to flourish after Ward’s death in 1912, its subsidiary company finally closing in 1983.

You can see examples of Rowland Ward’s work here: http://taxidermyemporium.co.uk/15.html