Letters in the Limelight: stolen birds’ eggs and ‘the curse of ornithology’

Cataloguing 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’ .

Coll. Zetland eggsAs the Easter weekend approaches, we have eggs on the mind (albeit mostly of the chocolate variety) so this week’s ‘Letters in the Limelight’ follows this theme (eggs that is, not chocolate). A letter sent to James Cossar Ewart on 8th September 1904 from J. Kirkland Galloway, Procurator-Fiscal of Zetland (Shetland), concerns the prosecution taking place in Shetland under the Wild Birds Protection Act. Kirkland-Galloway describes the taking of two eggs of the Great Skua and one egg of the Sea Eagle and writes that he has been instructed to send the eggs to Ewart ‘to dispose of as you may best in the interest of science’.  The ornithologist William Eagle Clarke wrote earlier to Ewart (28th July 1904) to suggest that the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art, where he worked, might be the best place for the eggs. He angrily comments that egg-lifting ‘is a senseless business and is the curse of ornithology.’

Historically, the effective protection of birds and their eggs was a gradual process.  The Wild Bird Protection Act (1880) was a start but it fell short in many areas: it failed, for example, to stop the collection of eggs. This was an activity which became highly organised during the Victorian era, where specimen collecting in various forms was all the rage. The 1896 Wild Birds Protection Act which Kirkland-Galloway mentions gave county councils the right to apply for orders to protect particular areas or species of birds, while an Act of 1902 allowed birds or eggs taken illegally to be confiscated. The Society for the Protection of Birds (which got its Royal Charter in 1904) was obviously a driving force in this legislation, culminating in the Protection of Birds Act of 1925. However, the legislation didn’t stop everyone:  in 1916 a vicar stole the last native White-tailed Sea Eagle eggs on Skye and the last adult bird was shot on Shetland two years later (although the species was successfully reintroduced to Scotland in 1975).

The details of the prosecution mentioned in Kirkland-Galloway’s letter are not known and neither is the ultimate fate of the eggs, but it is sobering to see a snapshot in time where the eggs of wild birds did not enjoy the same protection as they do today.

Art of the Animal

The illustrated artistic representations of animals in the slides that I’ve been cataloguing have shown both an artistic romanticization and an attempted realistic depiction. Additionally, in pre-photography days it was important for breeders and scientists to have artists depict the high quality animals to show the traits of the best of the breed. It’s been interesting to see how the physicality of the animal compares between an illustration from the 19th century and a photograph from the 20th century. http://www.societyofanimalartists.com/

From bulls:

Man with BullBull




To cows:

Mr Bates' Pet, Duchess 34th cowMan with Cow





American BisonCatteloes





And boars!:

Boar HuntBoar Captured by French in WWI


Letters in the Limelight: Susanna Carson Rijnhart

Cataloguing 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’ .

Coll. Cockerell Rijnhart mentionThis week’s ‘Letters in the Limelight’ focuses on a postcard dated 14 February 1902 which was sent to Ewart from the American naturalist Theodore Dru Alison Cockerell (1866-1948). Cockerell is worthy of a blog post in himself, but here we will focus on the name of a woman who Cockerell mentions quite casually: Susanna Carson Rijnhart. Cockerell writes:

We have been staying in Las Vegas at present [with] Dr (Mrs) Rijnhart, a Canadian lady who has spent a number of years in Tibet. She tells me that male yellow dun horses, with dark dorsal stripe and dark mane and tail…are very common in Tibet. She says they are quite like those we have here in New Mexico. This may not be new, but it is interesting.

Ewart’s abiding research interest at this time was studying those breeds of horses which bear the marks of being of more ancient stock than the popular Arabian horse, which emerged at a later date. Dr Rijnhart was obviously able to provide some information on possible examples of this ‘ancient breed’ from her experiences in Tibet, but there is no indication here of exactly how harrowing that experience was…

Born in Ontario in 1868, Rijnhart graduated as a medical doctor from Toronto at the age of 20 and practised for 6 years. But it was her meeting and marriage to the controversial Petrus Rijnhart, a Dutch-born missionary, that really sent her life on its turbulent course. Before they had been married more than a few months, the couple set out to work as independent missionaries in Tibet. Life was hard, particularly considering the Muslim revolt which broke out in 1896 in Kumbum, where the couple worked. They tended to the wounded and sick and opened a medical dispensary nearby, but their ultimate aim was to reach Lhasa, the Tibetan capital unvisited by Westerners since 1846 and which lay 800 miles away across a series of mountain ranges. In May 1898, Susanna and Petrus left for Lhasa on horseback with their baby Charles and three local hired men, but things swiftly went wrong for them. After two months, two of their hired men deserted, their pack animals were stolen and the baby Charles died suddenly. Determined, the couple pressed on, but it wasn’t long before their caravan was attacked by bandits, leaving them helpless and completely alone. Petrus left Susanna behind to seek help and was never seen or heard of again. A revolver and a little money was all Susanna had left. Still she pressed on across the mountains, bribing a series of local guides, until she reached Kangding (then the most remote outpost of Chinese missionaries) in rags and with frost-bitten feet. There she made her way to the China Inland Mission, where she met James Moyes, who would become her second husband. In 1900 Susanna returned to Canada with failing health and wrote a book about her experiences With the Tibetans in Tent and Temple (Edinburgh, 1901). She bore a son to James in January 1908 but died a month later.

From small names on postcards do big stories come…

A Trick of the Eye…

One of the joys of working with older forms of visual resources is stumbling across a wide array of images from the banal to the fantastic. Two images in particular have caught my eye – the first depicts men shearing sheep in a shed at Burrawang Station in New South Wales, Australia in the late 19th or early 20th century: Sheep Shearers, NSWThe second depicts a bridge and a cathedral and simply labelled: ‘Zambesi Bridge and Cathedral’: Victoria Falls Bridge St Pauls

Can you spot what makes both of them unusual?

The first image – while it is a photograph several of the men shearing sheep some of those standing in the front have been painted in–possibly to cover up or make clearer a blurred image. The second image is slightly trickier – hint – it’s an early form of Photoshop! The photographer has placed a cut-out of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London underneath the Victoria Falls Bridge in the gorge at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe in the early 20th century.

While one might also wonder how these fit into ‘animal genetics’, as I’ve written before in a post, the slides images cover a wide range of natural and anthropological sciences, besides it’s great to see scientists have a bit of fun!


Happy Birthday to Crew!

Walton, Thompson, Kammerer, Hogben, Fell, Crew, Cytovich 1924Tomorrow (2nd March) marks the birthday of Professor F.A.E Crew (1886-1973), who was the first Director of what became known as the Institute of Animal Genetics in Edinburgh from 1921 until 1944. It would be a long blog post indeed to try and do justice to this remarkable man. Crew, medically qualified but with a lifelong interest in breeding fowl, steered the Institute from its penniless early days into its heyday as a world renowned research centre, attracting such individuals as Nobel winner H.J Muller. The image above shows Crew (second from the right in the natty cravat) with a group of similarly renowned visitors to the Institute including Dame Honor Fell (Director of Strangeways Laboratory, Cambridge) and zoologist/medical statistician Lancelot Hogben. However, Crew’s influence was by no means confined to the sphere of genetics. He fought in both world wars, attaining the rank of Major in the First War, then Brigadier in the Second. By the time the Second War was at a close, Crew gave up the Directorship of the Institute in order to take up the Chair of Public Health and Social Medicine at Edinburgh University. He also established the Polish School of Medicine in Edinburgh (which awarded medical degrees recognised by the Polish government in exile until its closure in 1949), wrote the impressive six-volume official Army Medical History of the War, was World Health Organisation Visiting professor at Rangoon and Bombay (he also set up the first medical genetics clinic in India) and was happily driving around Turkey in a caravan well into his seventies.

Charismatic, handsome, a beautiful writer and renowned as a public speaker (his friend Hogben remarked that ‘he had a histrionic talent worthy of a Shakespearean actor’) Crew nevertheless remained self effacing all his life, always claiming that his career moves were down to ‘pure luck’ and that ‘mine has not been a very distinguished career’. Crew left no traceable personal archive, but treasures such as a photocopied draft of an autobiography and an endlessly colourful 8 hour interview recording with Margaret Deacon of the Science Studies Unit helps to fill out the picture. The latter recording captures Crew’s wry humour, compassion and humility perfectly whilst also providing such memorable anecdotes as his keeping of tame goats in his office at the Institute (whose constant grazing apparently saved him from having to be bothered by any official correspondence) and the experimental cocks which Crew trained to walk down to the cellar each night so as not to disturb the neighbours!

He remained eloquent and witty right up until his death aged 87.  As he was also a committed humanist, his conclusion to his essay ‘On the Meaning of Death’ published in A.J Ayers’ The Humanist Outlook (1968), is a fitting epithet: ‘In a world so organized that everyone equipped to do so would be able to enjoy life at least as much as I have done, there would be very few who would hanker after an existence beyond the grave for the life lived on this earth would be complete in itself.’