Sunday, 26 July 2015

Dr Burgess Barnett and his departure as Curator of Reptiles at London Zoo

This post is the latest in the series on Burgess Barnett (29 January 2014, 30 June 2015).

In London for a day I found time to spend a couple of hours in the Zoo library to see if I could find more information on the departure of Burgess Barnett as Curator of Reptiles in 1937. The minutes of the council of the society provided the information but did not, of course, shed much light on the background to the decisions or reveal in any detail the battles that must have been going on between individuals and factions. Minutes are often an unreliable source because they were and still are so frequently massaged to veil the true picture or the reason for a difficult decision. Even when a minute is challenged by those who were present at a meeting, the tone is always biased towards those in control. It is as well to remember a key commandment of the civil servant: he who controls the agenda and the minutes has his hands on the levers of power*.

Barnett, like so many people before and since, must have been extremely upset about his treatment and his case must have contributed to the notoriety the Society gained over many decades as an unhappy place for officers and officials.

In terms of Council meetings, the Burgess Barnett affair lasted from December 1936 until March 1938. On 16 December 1936 Council endorsed a recommendation of the Garden Committee (i.e. the one responsible for the Zoological Garden or London Zoo) that: there should be two curators only; E.G. Boulenger, should be both Director of the Aquarium (his current post) and Curator of Reptiles (i.e. taking over Barnett’s job in addition to his own; before being Director of the Aquarium he had though been Curator of Reptiles); Burgess Barnett should be an Honorary Research Fellow, subject to annual reappointment.

It would probably be worthwhile reading the minutes of the Garden Committee to see if more can be gleaned about the background. However, knowing that Julian Huxley had been appointed Secretary in 1935, one can see a pattern emerging that led to Huxley’s dismissal in 1942. The question I would ask at this stage, when I suspect the answer is ‘yes’, is: was Huxley changing the management of the zoo in order to free resources for his own ‘popularisation’ as well as more ‘scientific’ foci (the two are not mutually exclusive) for the future of the society? At this time, as Joe Cain points out in his analysis of Huxley’s activities at the Zoo, he appointed two assistant curators (one of whom was James Fisher) but that these two  were not used as curatorial assistants in the Zoo itself but were employed by Huxley to further his various projects to make the Zoo a centre for ‘modern’ biology.

I should point out that the Secretary was the paid chief executive of the Society, akin to the secretary of a golf club or a permanent secretary in the civil service. It is also interesting to note that Huxley was a candidate for election to the Royal Society during 1937 and that he was elected in 1938, a distinction he was apparently more than eager to secure. Council meetings with the non-scientific menagerists like Albert Pam on one side and the comparative anatomist FRSs of the old but still politically powerful school of zoology (including two Lamarckists) on the other, with the ‘modern biology’ grandson of Darwin’s Bulldog as Secretary must have been amusing for a fly on the wall.

Barnett though had an academic champion on Council willing to fight his corner. On 21 April 1937, Professor E.W. MacBride FRS argued that Barnett should be employed in some capacity as adviser on the health of reptiles and amphibians.

There had clearly been moves behind the scenes, as well as a hostile Annual General Meeting of Fellows, because on 19 May 1937, it was agreed that there should be no part-time Curator of Reptiles (clearly a role MacBride had intended for Barnett) and Council confirmed that Boulenger would hold the two posts (but without an increase in pay).

Professor James P. Hill FRS then asked what Barnett should be paid for his duties as anatomist (he was obviously doing some prosectorial/pathological work on the dead animals from the zoo which were never at this time in short supply) and where did all this fit in with his work on snake venoms (see my post of 29 January 2014)? In response, a sub-committee of Council was set up. It comprised: Professor James P. Hill FRS (Chair), Professor W. Le Gros Clark FRS, Richard H. Burne FRS, Martin A.C. Hinton FRS, Professor E.W. MacBride FRS.

The Sub-Committee

James Peter Hill (1873-1954, elected FRS 1913) was Jodrell Professor of Zoology, University College, London 1906-1921 and then Professor of Embryology and Histology in the Department of Anatomy until 1938. He was well-known for his discoveries in the reproductive biology and embryology of monotremes and marsupials while working in Australia and later for his work on placentation and primate embryology.

Wilfrid Edward Le Gros Clark (1895-1971, elected FRS 1935) was then Professor of Anatomy at Oxford, remaining so until his retirement in 1962. After service in the Royal Army Medical Corps in the First World War, he was, for three years, Principal Medical Officer for Sarawak where he collected tarsiers and tree-shrews for study. He went to Oxford after being appointed first to the anatomy department at St Bartholomew’s Hospital medical school and then to St Thomas’s. Comparative anatomy of primates, tracing neural connections within the brain that would today fall within the ambit of neuroscience, and the phylogeny of primates, particularly, in later years of the ancestry of Man, were his main areas of interest. Zuckerman wrote a Biographical Memoir for the Royal Society which contained a devastating criticism of his views on orthogenesis and on the hominid line of evolution. He was one of the authors of the paper that exposed the Piltdown hoax.

Richard Higgins Burne (1868-1953, elected FRS 1927) was Physiological Curator at the Royal College of Surgeons  from 1912 until 1934; thereafter he worked as a volunteer at the Natural History Museum on cetaceans. He was a wide-ranging comparative anatomist working on, for example, the lamellibranchs collected during Scott’s Terra Nova expedition to the antarctic, fishes and mammals, including animals that died at the Zoo such as rhinoceroses and okapis.

Martin Alister Campbell Hinton (1883-1961, elected FRS 1934) had no formal qualifications or university degree. Starting out as a clerk in barristers’ chambers, he made use of legal hours (short) and vacations (very long—3½ months a year) to pursue his interests in palaeontology. in 1910 he was given the status of Voluntary Worker at the Natural History Museum. He was taken on to the staff of the Museum in 1921, raising to become Keeper of Zoology in 1936; he retired in 1945. A late Lamarckist, he worked on the taxonomy (he was a ‘lumper’) and evolution of rodents and whales; he was also involved in work on rodents as pests. Intriguingly, he has been implicated by some in the Piltdown hoax, most often as a secondary hoaxer.

Ernest William MacBride (1866-1940, elected FRS 1905) was Professor of Zoology at McGill University, Montreal, Canada from 1897 until 1909. In 1914 he was appointed to T.H. Huxley’s old chair of zoology at Imperial College, London; he retired in 1934. Noted for his work on showing how the bilateral symmetry of larval echinoderms turns into the radial symmetry of adults, he was another of the last Lamarckists and a supporter of Paul Kammerer. One might say he was not exactly from the same stable as Julian Huxley.

The Sub-Committee Reports

The next meeting of Council (16 June 1937) received the report that Barnett had been bitten by a venomous snake (see my post of 29 January 2014). He was described as Curator of Reptiles. However, there is a hand correction with a note to the effect that at the time he was bitten he was not Curator of Reptiles. Council also received the report of the sub-committee which recommended that Barnett should be retained for one month on research duties. The question was raised whether he would need a Home Officer licence under the 1876 Act for experiments on animals. It was decided that Barnett should be employed until 30 September 1937 (i.e. for just over three months) at a salary of £600 per annum (Boulenger was on the same pay) to continue his work on snake venom as a potential treatment for epilepsy and that the work should be directed by a sub-committee of the Prosectorial Committee comprising Hill, Burne, Le Gros Clark, E.A Carmichael and the Secretary (Huxley).

E.A. Carmichael
On this sub-committee Hinton and MacBride were no longer involved but E.A Carmichael was. Edward Arnold Carmichael (1896-1978) was Director of the Medical Research Council’s Neurological Research Unit from 1932 until he retired in 1961. He has become famous in recent years on websites for his 1933 paper with H.W. Woollard on referred pain. It was then normal practice for physiologists and physiology students to be the subject of their own experiments whenever possible. Woollard and Carmichael certainly lived up to that ethic and suffered severe pain in the process. They piled weights onto one or the other testis in order to record the degree and location of the pain. One example will suffice here: 650 grm…Severe testicular pain on the right side.

In the minutes there is a curious reference to Barnett’s ‘practice’ as in medical practice. Barnett, Huxley said, regarded his practice as a natural extension of his research. I do not know if he had any sort of conventional medical practice while employed at the Zoo or what premises he was using for these clinical trials of snake venom on epilepsy, other than those he published in collaboration with Macfarlane on blood clotting.

Claims that snake venom could be used to cure epilepsy were not new and Barnett was helping to examine the basis of some of these earlier claims. I wonder if members of the sub-committee were keen to close Barnett’s work down in the light of a report by Isidore Finkelman that appeared in the March 1937 issue of Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine (22, 572-575) entitled, Snake venom (moccasin) in the treatment of epilepsy. The findings were stark: It is concluded that venom therapy not only does not induce a refractory state to convulsive seizures in institutional epileptics but may render them more susceptible to seizures.

On 15 September, Council decided in discussing Barnett’s position that ‘no paid official of the Society should hold a licence for experiments on living animals’ thereby effectively disbarring him from any employment by the Society if he continued in his research. One cannot help wondering if this hardening was a deliberate attempt to get rid of Barnett once and for all rather than as further appeasement of the periodically vociferous anti-vivisection lobby. Joe Cain discussed the attitude of the Society in this regard in his paper on Huxley. Although Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell FRS, the Secretary before Huxley, had banned animal experiments on the premises and from the Society’s scientific publications, ZSL employees simply undertook the necessary research elsewhere. This hardening of apparent appeasement by Huxley (who gave up his Home Office licence on appointment to the Zoo) I find difficult to interpret other than as a measure to ensure that Barnett was sent on his way.

At this meeting Council went further:

After the discussion of the proposals of Major [Albert] Pam and Mr Burne, it was agreed that Dr Barnett should receive a special payment of £600 and that he should then cease to have any official connection with the Society.

Done and dusted? Not quite

At the meeting on 20 October, the decision reached on 15 September was confirmed. However, MacBride had it minuted that in his view Dr Burgess Barnett should be re-instated as Curator of Reptiles. On 17 December 1937 MacBride attempted to re-open the case but was told by the President (Lord Onslow) that Standing Orders decreed MacBride must get support for the issue to be included as a main item on the agenda of a subsequent meeting.

MacBride did get the item on the Agenda for the meeting on 15 December and he proposed a motion to reinstate Barnett as Curator of Reptiles. The scientists on Council were split and MacBride was opposed by Le Gros Clark, amongst others, and including the Secretary (Huxley). However, management of the agenda by the official, presumably Huxley, who drew it up is clear. MacBride’s motion was low on the list; Council was running late for their lunch or tea; further discussion and a vote was put off until the next meeting. MacBride had been outmanoeuvred but did manage to insist that for the meeting in March, the item should appear early in the agenda. Relatively highly it appeared in the agenda for the meeting of 16 March 1938. However, MacBride withdrew his motion because in the meantime Barnett had been appointed Superintendent of Rangoon Zoo. Barnett was finished at the Zoo.

Barnett was only in post as Curator of Reptiles for just over four years. The new high-profile, Joan Procter-designed Reptile House by the end of 1936 had no dedicated curator. In fact had the Garden Committee recommendation been enacted in full, the zoo per se would have had just three senior staff: Geoffrey Marr Vevers as Superintendent; David Seth-Smith as Resident Curator of Mammals and Birds; Edward G Boulenger as Director of the Aquarium and Curator of Reptiles. The decision to dismiss L.C. Bushby was reversed so that the post of Curator of Insects was retained. Many questions remain, the role of Dr Geoffrey Marr Vevers, Superintendent, in the deliberations on the management structure of the Zoo, for example.

After his departure, as I showed in my post of 30 June 1025, Burgess Barnett remained on good terms with the Zoo, providing an article on his exploits in South America for the then house publication, Animal and Zoo Magazine (one of Huxley’s initiatives in popularisation), and sending specimens from Burma in 1939. Seth-Smith referred to him warmly as ‘our old friend’ in reporting the arrival of the tortoises in the October 1939 issue of the magazine.


*P. Kellner & Crowther-Hunt, N. Civil Servants. 1980. London: Macdonald.

†Cain, J. 2010. Julian Huxley, General Biology and the London Zoo, 1935-42. Notes and Records of the Royal Society doi:10.1098/rsnr.2010.0067

‡£600 was a year’s salary for a Curator. In present terms it is worth between £57,000 and £116,000; for former if calculated by the change in retail prices; the latter if calculated by the increase in pay. Advertisements in The Times for university positions offer some basis of comparison. In 1937, an Assistant Lectureship in Zoology at University College London paid £250-300; A lecturer at Aberdeen University warranted £400; a Readership in Bacteriology at the Postgraduate Medical School paid £800. I seem to remember being told that Curators at the Zoo were for a long period paid at about the same rate as a Senior Lecturer in a university and the £600 Boulenger and Barnett were paid is at that level.