Saturday, 12 August 2017

The Kitching-Ebling split, Lough Ine (Hyne) and Reflections on a Summer Sea

Scientific divorces, whether of long-term collaborators, scientist and technician or scientist and past research student,  are horrendous—both to both the parties involved and to onlookers and friends. The reasons are often obscure and may take years to come to the boil. Jealousy, perceived slights, perceptions of unequal work load can all come into the mix.

One of the saddest cases was that of Jack Kitching* and John Ebling†. Their exploits each summer in exploring the ecology of Lough Ine, or Hyne as it is now known, a sea-loch in Ireland, with zoology students initially from Bristol and then, when Kitching moved, from the University of East Anglia, was known more widely and it was a constant feature in both of their lives from 1937 and 1938. Kitching was then a young lecturer and Ebling an undergraduate. They published many papers together and pioneered an experimental approach to ecology. Ebling moved from Bristol, had a short spell in Hull and then established himself in Sheffield where he rose through the ranks to the second professorship in zoology—then a vary rare promotion. Throughout, he headed the logistics of getting the equipment and people to Ireland each year and organising the supplies of food and alcohol. There seems no doubt, though, that Kitching regarded Loch Ine as his show and as his territory.


The Kitching and Ebling Summer Show at Loch Ine was captured superbly by Trevor Norton’s 2001 book, Reflections on a Summer Sea. He began it by quoting a letter he had written to Jack Kitching in 1994:

I have begun to write the story of Lough Ine. I want to tell of the stunning scenery and terrible history of the place, the myth and the magic, and to recapture all the fun and excitement we had in those summers when we waded and dived in the lough. Perhaps I can convey the wonder I felt when I first came to Lough Ine in the 1960s, and maybe slip in a bit of marine biology too…

and continued:

This is the story of the menagerie of eccentric and talented ecologists who, as a hobby, established a privately owned field laboratory in south-west Ireland and took part in one of the most unlikely projects in the history of marine biology.

I heard of the Kitching-Ebling split around 1987 from John Ebling himself. I found him or, more correctly, heard him, holding forth in the Staff Club at Sheffield in, I think 1987 or ’88. I left my host and went over to talk to him. In our student years in the 1960s, John had waxed lyrical about the summers on Lough Ine and so I asked him if he was still going. ‘No’, was the reply and he went on to explain that Kitching had cut all ties with him some years earlier and that he was no longer welcome. He was clearly distressed and utterly bewildered about the whole affair. We moved on to pleasanter matters and I left him to resume his conversation. That was the last time I saw him.

Trevor Norton saw at close hand the whole relationship between Kitching and Ebling and the eventual break up. The immediate cause appeared to be Kitching’s proprietorial attitude to Lough Ine and his attempting to hang on in research after his retirement against a background of tightening funding and lack of recognition of the importance of work there. It would also seem that Kitching came to resent his former student’s success in other fields, for John was at home with errant polychaetes, moulting patterns of mammals, hormonal effects on the skin, clinical dermatology and the effects of cosmetics.

So while it seems pretty clear that John Ebling was the injured party, as was Trevor Norton himself when he disagreed with Kitching on the direction the research should take, there did come a sort of and rather sad rapprochement. Trevor described a symposium in Cork in 1990 on the research at Lough Ine. Kitching and Ebling were both invited:

Although it was a relief to John to have an invitation and a chance to visit the lough, he was nervous about meeting Jack again. He needn’t have been, for Jack was no longer formidable. John was a ebullient as ever, but a stroke had stolen Jack’s vigour. He looked and sounded frail, a ghost of his old self. I feared his lecture might be a disaster, but on stage he rose to the occasion and spoke well. I saw John helping him across the road. They were chatting, perhaps about old times.

There Trevor left it and so I was delighted to find that a book of photographs illustrating the history of the people who made Lough Ine famous—now the subject of over 450 scientific publications had been published in 2011. Many of the photographs are Trevor Norton’s but it covers work from 1885, when the first studies of the lough were made, until 2010. When I received my copy I was delighted to recognise people I had met and worked alongside in parallel universes without knowing they had spent one or more summers there.

I cannot help but end with a John Ebling story. Trevor Norton explains how Jack Kitching disapproved of John’s ribald sense of humour especially in front of the students, “these tender plants”. My abiding memory is of Venice at Easter 1964. We had arrived by bus from Rovinj where we were being exposed to a marine biology field trip (Lough Ine lite is the best description I can think of with hindsight). The bus journey had taken several hours and we were dropped off at a vaporetto-stop where we found public lavatories before heading for St Mark’s Square. Italy at that time had the lira and inflation had led to massive numbers of lira being needed for everything. The relatively small number of men and the larger number of women lined up with John heading the queue (student prostates were smaller and bladders possibly bigger) to pay and enter. After several minutes inside he re-appeared. ‘I am reminded of that old rhyme written behind the door in gents’ lavatories’, he said. And continued:

Here I sit, broken hearted, 
Paid two-thousand lira and only farted.

I cannot enter a public lavatory anywhere in Europe without repeating that incantation. Kitching would not have been amused.

These are photographs from Terri Kearney's superb book of photographs:


Jack Kitching on his first visit in 1938
Ebling and Kitching on the front row at the conference in Cork when they met again in 1990

*John (“Jack”) Alwyne Kitching OBE FRS (1908-1996)
†Francis John Govier Ebling (1918-1992)

Norton T. 2001. Reflections on a Summer Sea. Century (paperback 2002, Arrow Books)

Kearney T. 2011. Lough Hyne. The Marine Researchers - in Pictures. Skibereen Heritage Centre. Obtainable from here.