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

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:


Play It Again, Dolly – An Audio Interview with Playback Magazine

Masterpieces III Recently, a wonderful opportunity arose for me to promote the Towards Dolly Project and the Masterpieces III exhibition to the visually impaired community through an audio interview with John Cavanagh and Playback Magazine for the June 2013 issue. The specific feature is:

Masterpiece 3 Exhibition John Cavanagh speaks to Kristy Davis about this Exhibition taking place at Edinburgh University Library. Acting as a sequel to Masterpieces I and II, shown in 2009 and 2012, Masterpieces III continues to explore and expand the concept of a “masterpiece”, but this time approaches it from the perspectives of science and medicine.

During the interview I describe the glass slides from the Towards Dolly Project and one of my favourite objects in the collection – Mansur ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Yusuf ibn Illyas’s 14th century illustration Tashrih-i Mansuri  (The Anatomy of Mansur of Shiraz) – the human body in Islamic medicine:

Glass SlidesAhmad illustration









Playback Magazine is part of Playback Recording Service, a registered charity, based in Glasgow at the Centre for Sensory Impaired, created to provide a free service to blind and visually impaired people to provide professional-quality recorded material to the UK, as well as parts of the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. A more comprehensive history of this wonderful organization can be found on Playback’s website. Presenter John Cavanagh is an independent broadcast media professional with over 20 years of experience in the voice artist and broadcasting industries.

I hope you enjoy listening to the feature as much as I enjoyed talking to John and having the opportunity to promote this fascinating material to the visually impaired community – I’ll certainly be listening to future editions of the excellent Playback Magazine and I hope that others will as well!

Images were created by the Digital Imaging Unit, Centre for Research Collections, Edinburgh University Library and are © The University of Edinburgh.

Letters in the Limelight: Tahitian sheep and the lost Japanese garden of Perthshire

Coll. F. Bailey mentions Ella ChristieCataloguing 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’ .

Sometimes even the smallest mention of a name in a letter contains the kernel of a fascinating story. On 13 June 1915, Mr Bailey writes to Ewart that he is currently staying with a ‘Miss Christie’ at Cowden Castle, Dollar, Perthshire, where a ‘Tahitian boy’ is lodging and receiving a military education. Bailey also provides some details about the sheep he has seen in Tahiti, which would have been of relevance to Ewart’s researches into different sheep breeds at this time. But who was this ‘Miss Christie’, Mr Bailey’s host at Cowden Castle?

Isabella (Ella) Robertson Christie (1861-1949) was an independent woman who travelled the world, photographed and wrote about her experiences and was made a Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society as well as the Royal Geographical Society. However, she is now best remembered for the Japanese garden she commissioned in the grounds of her home at Cowden Castle. When visiting Japan in 1907, Christie was especially struck by the gardens, which she wrote ‘were first copied from the Chinese, and then improved upon the lines of nature till one can scarcely see where the artificial and natural join.’ Once back at Cowden, Christie created a lake out of some marshy ground and employed Japanese designer Taki Hionda, from Nagoya’s Royal School of Garden Design, to help create a garden filled with symbolic stones that traced a route around the lake. The garden, named Shah-rak-uenor (Place of Pleasure and Delight) was frequently used for entertaining the friends and visitors who came to Cowden from all over the world. A favourite activity of visitors would be to take a fishing trip on the lake before tea, served in the tea house on an island in the middle of the lake.

Christie later called upon the advice of Professor Jiju Soya Susuki of the Soami School of Imperial Design, who deemed the gardens ‘the best in the western world’, except for the bridge, which he called ‘a flaw in a precious gem.’ Suzuki insisted on redesigning the bridge. In 1925, Christie used her contact with Susuki to employ a gardener called Matsuo, who had lost his entire family in an earthquake in Japan. Matsuo was able to provide specialist care for the plants and although he had little English and Ella Christie had no Japanese, they were clearly able to find a way to communicate. Christie granted Matsuo an estate cottage, and when he died in 1937 he was buried next to the Christie family plot in the cemetery of Muckhart Church.

After Ella Christie’s death in 1947, the Japanese gardens were maintained and kept open to the public, even after Cowden Castle was demolished in 1952. However, things quickly deteriorated. Several acts of vandalism in the 1960s, including the burning of the teahouse, the destruction of the bridges, shrine and lanterns, left Ella Christie’s beloved garden in ruins. Now, despite efforts to raise money to restore the gardens, not to mention the enthusiasm of Christie’s great-nephew and the current owner of the estate, Sir Robert Stewart of Arndean, little remains of Sharakuen except the lake, some stonework and a few tantalising fragments of the shrine, although the rhododendrons that Christie imported from the Himalayas can still be seen.

Although it would be nice to know more about the ‘Tahitian boy’ undergoing military training that F. Bailey mentions, his letter’s brief hint does at least point the way towards the fascinating life of Ella Christie and the garden she created.

You can read more information about the Ella Christie’s Japanese garden, and also see some pictures, here: http://www.geocities.jp/kita36362000/perthshire_english.htm

Photographs from Ella Christie’s travels can be seen on the Royal Geographical Society’s website: http://www.rsgs.org/ifa/gemellachristie.html

I am also indebted to Catherine Horwood’s book, Gardening Women: Their Stories from 1600 to the Present (Virago, 2010).