Wednesday 29 January 2014

Burgess Barnett. Curator of Reptiles, London Zoo 1932-37. Herpetologist, Medical Man and War Hero

Very few books on reptiles and amphibians, let alone keeping reptiles and amphibians, were published during the middle decades of the 20th century. Even when they were published they were in print for only a short time and soon disappeared from booksellers’ shelves. One day in the late 1950s I found Hardy Reptiles and Amphibians by L.G. Payne in a bookshop. It was undated but marked as the second edition. It was clearly from the early 1950s because it had a full-page advertisement on the back (paper) cover for Robert Jackson (Naturalists) Ltd at an old address. The advertisement contained the statement, We are at present importing on Board of Trade permit for resale to zoos, schools etc, but have many species, native, and bred in captivity, for sale in the open market. In other words, postwar austerity was at its height when this version of the booklet was published and the £ sterling was being protected.

Inside the front cover was an advertisement for The Terrarium, a book by Dr Burgess Barnett (Curator of Reptiles, London Zoological Gardens). I never managed to find a copy and only later did I learn that Burgess Barnett had left London Zoo in 1938 for Rangoon, so whatever its content, it was 20 years out of date when I began my interest in reptiles and amphibians. Indeed, only recently have I acquired a copy.

These old books are interesting because they show how knowledge of keeping reptiles and amphibians has advanced and at what level such knowledge was at a particular time in history. However, I was also intrigued by who Burgess Barnett was and what happened to him. As I began my recent search for information, a new book appeared which threw light on his heroic role in the escape from the advancing Japanese army through Burma in 1942. But that is jumping the gun. I shall start by describing what I have found out about his earlier life.

Burgess Barnett was born in 1888 in Camberwell, London. He was christened at St Giles, Camberwell on 10 October 1888. His parents were Horatio Frederick Barnett, a solicitor, and Isabella Jane Parker who had married at Camberwell in 1882. Horatio Frederick (a widower) and his son by a previous marriage were lodging with his future in-laws and wife at Camberwell at the time of the 1881 census.

At the 1891 census, the family of Horatio, Isabella and Burgess were living at Rydal House, The Elms, Ramsgate in Kent. Horatio was 59, Isabella 44 and Burgess 2. Both parents died in 1898 and by 1901 he was living as the adopted son at Maisey Hampton in Gloucestershire of John Lane Burgess, aged 44 and  Elizabeth Ann, aged 45. John’s mother, aged 87, a companion and a servant are also listed in the census. It surely cannot be a coincidence that the surname of those who adopted him and his own christian name were the same. Were they related or old friends of the family?

In the 1911 census he is shown as a medical student, a visitor in the house of Thomas Granville Hockridge, a general medical practitioner, of 26 Lloyd Square, London W.C. A son of the house, Hugh Granville Hockridge, was also a medical student.

His obituary in British Medical Journal (8 July 1944) shows that he was educated at Marlborough and then at St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical School. He qualified with the old ‘conjoint’ medical qualification, LRCP MRCS, of the royal colleges in 1915. His obituary states that he served as a house-physician at Bart’s. He was commissioned as a temporary (i.e. wartime) lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps on 12 February 1915. He was promoted temporary captain on 20 January 1918 and served until 17 August 1919.

He married in 1915, at St George’s, Hanover Square in London, Gladys. Gladys’s maiden name was also Barnett and my best estimate from the census and index of births, marriages and deaths is that she was his cousin.


We next find Barnett as a medical man working for Lobitos Oilfields Ltd, a British company, in Peru, from at least as early as 1920 until 1932. Lobitos had a refinery in Ellesmere Port and eventually became part of Burmah Oil and then BP. Searches in genealogical sites show him leaving Liverpool on 25 August on the SS Ortega (famous for escaping the German Cruiser Dresden in 1914) for Peru with his wife and two children. They can be found returning to Liverpool on 14 April 1924 on the SS Oroya with the address shown as ‘Clydesdale’, Laton Road, Hastings, by then the home of his step-father, John Lane Burgess. They returned to Peru, sailing from Swansea on the SS Lautaro on 20 August 1924, taking with them a nurse, Doris Hopkins.

They arrived back in Britain (Plymouth or Liverpool) on the Oroya in May 1928. By this time the family comprised Joan Burgess Barnett, age 10, Betty Muriel, 8, and Jack Burgess, 6 (birth registered as John Burgess Barnett in Peru). Burgess is shown leaving Liverpool for Peru without his family on 16 August 1928 on the SS Oroya.

The 1931 records also show Burgess leaving for Peru, without his family, on 15 October aboard the US Lines President Harding, with his UK address shown as 76 Elmcroft Avenue, Sidcup, Kent. His step-father had died on 25 July and he was a mourner at the funeral on 29 July, reported the Hastings and St Leonards Observer.

In Lobitos, Peru

At the start of an article on his bravery in Burma, the Evening Telegraph (8 May 1943) stated:
After serving in the RAMC in the last war, he became medical officer on oilfields in Peru, where he was able to extend his knowledge of reptiles. Similarly, his BMJ obituary states that he practised in the Lobitos oilfields of Peru, where he made a special study of snakes.

Two sources suggest that he also ran a zoo in Lobitos. First, in an interview in the Meath Chronicle published on 28 July 2010, his daughter, Betty Geraghty1 said that he ran a zoo. Secondly, a bookseller selling some of his letters sent from Rangoon to a niece states that he ran a zoo in Peru. The second source could of course be derived from the first. There is a zoo in present-day Lobitos (now a major surfing venue) and I wonder whether Burgess Barnett was involved in some way in starting a small zoo there. Certainly he was collecting specimens and sending or taking them to London.

The Evening Telegraph (6 June 1932) reported on his arrival to take up his post at London Zoo:

…he told a reporter how for eleven years he has spent all the time he could spare searching for strange and often dangerous reptiles in the jungles and deserts of South America…“To get into forest country we had to go six days’ mule ride across the desert, about 100 miles journey”, he said. He declined to admit that there were any dangers. “Of course, pumas would come and eat our meat at night sometimes, but they never touched us. Then we had to send the mules back at once—vampire bats used to suck their blood…I have bought home with me two rare fer de lance snakes. They are very interesting little beasts—specially adapted to desert life and very poisonous…”

Specimens were sent or brought to London. Whether the ones in the Natural History Museum arrived via the Zoo, I do not know but H.W. Parker named the newly described species, Barnett’s Lancehead Bothrops barnetti Parker, 1938, after the collector of the holotype and paratypes.

The Times has a number of reports of his gifts of reptiles, mammals and birds. It reported on 13 March 1926 that he had given snakes, an Andean Condor and a coot, and on 14 August of the same year, three Tsuchdi’s Coral Snakes, a Townsend’s Amphisbaena and six Peba armadillos.

London Zoo

The Times (11 December 1932) announced his appointment at the Zoo:

Curator of Reptiles at the Zoo

Miss Joan Procter’s Successor
Dr Burgess Barnett, a corresponding member of the society, has been appointed Curator of Reptiles to the Zoological Society, and will take up his appointment next May [1932] on his return from Lobitos…For many years Dr Barnett has devoted his leisure to living reptiles and amphibians, and has sent as gifts to the society a very large number. On his visits home he was a frequent visitor to the Reptile House and often assisted the late curator, Miss Joan Procter, in the handling of dangerous snakes in the laboratory…The council of the society were anxious to get a curator who was not merely a scientific specialist, but who would carry on the late Miss Procter’s work on the lines she originated. It was with special pleasure that it was found possible to obtain the services of Dr Burgess Barnett, as the late curator, a few days before her death, told the secretary of the society that she would be quite content if Dr Barnett were to succeed her.

The Evening Telegraph (6 June 1932, see above) expanded on this:

Dr Burgess Barnett, the new curator of Reptiles at the London Zoo, has just arrived in this country. He flew from Amsterdam with a three-foot crocodile [presumably a cayman], the first to cross the Channel in an aeroplane. In his baggage were a monkey, a gaudily coloured toucan, a few foxes, and several very poisonous snakes…”It is far too early yet to talk about new plans at the Zoo. I have got to settle down first and get used to the weather”.

A press cutting from December 1932
(Added 29 September 2020)

At the Zoo, as well as reporting on the collection to Society meetings, on the addition of the Marine Iguanas shown above from the Galapagos, for example, his activities made the national and local newspapers. He also wrote articles for magazines. Lurid accounts of his exploits with venomous snakes filled the press. The Nottingham Evening Post of 10 February 1934 provides one example:

Cobra’s Deadly Poison

Zoo Attack Foiled by Glass
A black cobra, which has the habit of spitting venom with deadly accuracy, [sic] at the eyes of anyone who excites its anger, arrived at the London Zoo yesterday. It was one of the specimens in a collection of reptiles presented by Mr St Alban Smith, a resident of the Malay States. A keeper, wearing goggles and armed with the nooses which are used in dealing with dangerous snakes, ushered the black cobra into its den. The moment it was free it looked round for a victim and saw Dr Burgess Barnett, the Curator of Reptiles, standing not six feet away. At once there came a spurt of venom, but Dr Barnett only laughed—for there was a sheet of plate-glass between him and the angry snake. “It was an excellent shot,” he said afterwards. “If there had been no glass to intercept it the poison would have caught me in the eye and I should have been blind for months.”

A report in The Times on 13 February 1934 was headed, Reptile Skins, Beauty and Commercial Value, and continued:

An exhibition of reptile skins was opened yesterday at the Imperial Institute, South Kensington, by Lieutenant-Colonel DJ Colville, Parliamentary Secretary to the Department of Overseas Trade…The exhibition, a description of which was given in The Times of February 9, illustrates modern uses of the skins of snakes, lizards and crocodiles.

Barnett fired off a letter to The Times (17 February):

Sir,—The exhibition of reptile skins now being held at the Imperial Institute has for its object the further popularizing of these skins for fancy leather and the increase in the trade in them within the Empire. Already hundreds of thousands of reptiles are killed annually for their skins, and there would appear to be a danger of disastrously disturbing the balance of life if their collection increases or continues unregulated.

He went on the argue the beneficial role of snakes in eating rodents but ended up by scoring an own goal for the reptile side:

On the other hand, much good might result if the expedition would popularize the use of leather from such poisonous snakes as cobras and Russell’s vipers. It is usually dangerous to interfere with the balance of nature in any way, but as these snakes are responsible for many thousands of deaths annually in India they probably do more harm than good.

Barnett’s letter, suggesting that the trade should be regulated provoked a long response from a Richard S Forman, Secretary of the Reptile Skin Marketing Committee, arguing, spuriously, that the activities of skin importers would help to maintain, if not to increase the supply in the wild. He continued:

But in any case Dr Barnett must surely agree that there are vast tracts of country where no restrictions are wanted, the Amazon Delta, for example, the forest of the upper reaches of the Amazon and other parts of Brazil, the immense stretches of uncultivated land in Nigeria, and the jungles of Java and Malaya; here there are thousands of square miles with a huge reptile population and no cultivation at all.

Supporting Forman’s view was Lt-Col R.H. Elliot, formerly of the Indian Medical Service, with whom Barnett was actually collaborating on the potential uses of snake venom to treat epilepsy.

The whole exchange provides an interesting insight into the mindset of individuals to the natural world in the mid-1930s. Then, as now, trade associations wrote to The Times, their letters full of unsubstantiated statements and oozing with vested interest. Now, as then, they should be ignored.

This strange report from Cornishman of 28 November 1935 must have caused the moustaches of the more knowledgeable Fellows of the Society to twitch a little:

Radio Charms Cobras, Pythons and Boa Constrictors at London Zoo Before Large Audience
Radio sets have now reached such a state of perfection that snakes can be charmed by broadcast. This was demonstrated before a large audience on Friday, in the Reptile House at the Zoo, when deadly cobras, harmless pythons, and a small boa constrictor were charmed by oriental music received on a new Philco high-fidelity set. The demonstration was held under the strict supervision of Dr Burgess Barnett, MRCS, LRCP, FZS, Curator of the Reptile House at the London Zoo. When snake charmers’ music came through the set with amazing true-to-life reproduction the cobras did their famous Dance of Death. Later when the cobras were taken away the pythons and boa constrictors wrapped themselves lovingly around the set.

This public relations rubbish must have been syndicated because the Nottingham Evening Post had published the same story on 26 November.

The Times (10 June 1937) reported:

Dr Burgess Barnett…was bitten yesterday by a South African night adder while examining a recently-arrived consignment of snakes. The bite might have proved fatal if Dr Barnett had not known how to deal with it, as a bite from that particular species may cause death in a few minutes. Dr Barnett, however, cut the wound immediately and applied potassium permanganate crystals. Dr G.M. Vevers, the Zoo superintendent, arrived with serum, which was injected, and Dr Barnett was taken to the Hospital for Tropical Diseases as a precaution.

This episode was expanded in the later report of his escape from Burma by the Evening Telegraph on 8 May 1943:

Dr Barnett’s job of handling thousands of reptiles was reputed to be the most dangerous in the country. Every day he faced agonising death—but only once did he get badly bitten. That was on the eve of his retirement on being appointed superintendent of Rangoon Zoological Gardens. A South African night viper, one of the deadliest of all snakes, bit him as it was being unpacked on arrival from Cape Town. Dr Barnett was in hospital for a week.

Telephone directories for the period show the Barnetts living at three addresses in Edgware.

Snake Venom

While at the Zoo, Barnett developed his interest in snake venoms and their potential use as therapeutic agents. Important research was done with Robert Gwyn MacFarlane (1907-1987, FRS 1956) which really set off the latter off on his successful career in haematology and later as the author of brilliant biographies of Howard Florey and Alexander Fleming.

Macfarlane’s biographical memoir for the Royal Society, written by Gustav Born and Sir David Weatherall (Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 1990, 35, 211-245) reads:

In 1934 he learnt from the Professor of Physiology at Bart’s, Hamilton Hartridge, that snake venoms affect the way the blood clots. This led Gwyn to the Zoological Gardens in Regents Park where he met the Curator of Reptiles, Dr Burgess Barnett, who seems to have been instantly fired by Gwyn’s enthusiasm. He agreed that, together, they should explore the effects on blood coagulation of venom from a large number of poisonous snakes in the Zoo. Thus started one of the most productive areas of Gwyn’s research.
In  reading Gwyn’s own account of his early activities in this field there is no doubt that extracting venom from snakes did not come easily! Writing about this period many years later he recounts that he developed a genuine aversion to snakes and often had nightmares about them. However, he and Barnett managed to collect venom from about 20 different species, made appropriate dilutions, and tested them on haemophiliac blood to see if they shortened the clotting time. The venom of the first group of snakes tested, colubrines including kraits and cobras, turned out, if anything, to be anticoagulant. On the other hand, the vipers included several that had quite a marked coagulant effect; crotaline snakes were sometimes coagulant, sometimes not. But the one venom which stood out was that of Russell’s viper, which at a dilution of 1:10000 clotted haemophiliac blood in 17 seconds. In fact, in subsequent experiments Gwyn showed that Russell’s viper venom ha a measurable effect on haemophiliac blood at a dilution of 1:10000000, or more2. He was very excited by these early results because it appeared that this venom might be a useful local haemostatic for controlling haemophilic bleeding. Initially it was used in a 1:10000 solution and seemed to be effective in stopping surface bleeding. It was then tested on a haemophilic patient who needed a tooth extraction and appeared to prevent much of the expected bleeding. This approach was used successfully and formed the basis for an important paper in the Lancet in 19343. The venom was later produced commercially by Burroughs Wellcome under the name of Stypven.

Stypven is still used in a diagnostic test for disorders of coagulation. Stypven Time is the time taken for blood to clot in the presence of Stypven; it is used to investigate deficiencies of clotting factor X.

A fuller account of the trials on patients described in the Lancet paper was provided by Barnett as the sole author4:

As well as this work, Barnett published a letter offering to help those interested in the reported beneficial effects of snake venoms on epilepsy. This was at the instigation of Lt-Col R.H. Elliot, formerly of the Indian Medical Service, who did not consider sufficient notice was being taken of trials in other countries. Barnett’s letter was published with that from Elliot in British Medical Journal, 8 December 1934.

Leaving the Zoo

His obituary in BMJ mentions that he resigned from the zoo after five years (i.e. 1937) in order to devote his time to further research on snake venom and it application in medicine. Where he did that research I have not been able to determine. Was it with MacFarlane, or with Burroughs Wellcome?

Barnett was clearly having problems at the Zoo. The Times of 1 May contained an account of the annual general meeting of the Zoological Society:

Protests at Zoo Meeting
…Lieutenant-Colonel WPC Tenison moved the rejection of the annual report, and made a protest against the fact that notices of dismissal had been given to Dr Burgess-[sic]Barnett, curator of the Reptile House. The dismissals were on “grounds of economy”, according to the council of the society. When the motion was put to the vote the voting was equal. Lord Onslow, who presided, then gave his casting vote against the motion and declared it lost. Lieutenant-Colonel Tenison then moved that the matter should be further considered by the council of the society, and this motion was carried…

‘Further consideration’ must have taken place because Bushby remained in post for many years. Did then Barnett resign before he was pushed out or had he seen the writing on the wall? The only clue to why he took this course of resignation is in a paper by Joe Cain on Julian Huxley (Julian Huxley, General Biology and the London Zoo, 1935-42. Notes and Records of the Royal Society doi:10.1098/rsnr.2010.0067) One footnote reads …1937, when the unrelated matter of the employment of Dr Burgess Barnett (curator of reptiles) was active…. It might be worth reading the minutes of the Council Meeting on 15 September 1937, on p. 8, together with the accounts of earlier meetings in ZSL Archives, to see what was going on.

[Note added 9 February 2020: On reading Solly Zuckerman's autobiography, From Apes to Warlords, it would appear that money was tight in 1937 when Barnett's post was proposed for abolition. However, and presumably as a result of the protests by Council members, the newly vacant position of Prosector was not filled. The money saved was used to fund Barnett's continuation in his job. As noted though, he did not stay for long.]

These stirrings were of course all going one at the time of warfare between the opponents and supporters of Huxley as Secretary that culminated in the latter’s dismissal in 1942. The Council of the Society resorted to the trick they used so often of simply abolishing the position. It would be interesting to know where Barnett stood in the spectrum of support for Huxley.

From ZSL's Amnnual Report for 1937 it would appear that Barnett parted company from ZSL on good terms:
Dr. Burgess Barnett continued his researches on the medical properties of snake venom, and on his leaving the Society's employ, was given a grant of £600 with the aid of which he is prosecuting them further during the present year.

Animal and Zoo Magazine
July 1938 (volume 3, No. 2)

Rangoon Zoo

Nature, 19 March 1938, had the following news item:

Dr Burgess Barnett, who was curator of reptiles at the London Zoological Gardens in 1932-37, and since then has been doing research on snake venom, has been appointed superintendent of the Zoological Gardens at Rangoon. Dr Barnett will take up the new post in June.

The Times expanded:

Dr Barnett said last night that a new reptile house was being built at the Rangoon Zoo, and he intended to continue his experiments with snake venom and its application to medical practice. He also hoped to establish what might be called a snake farm, for the collection of venom of different kinds…The Rangoon Zoo, he said, was not large, but was an old-established one situated in the Victoria Park, and was notable for having housed the sacred white elephant which was taken by the British Army in the Burmese war of the last century.

I can find no information on his time at Rangoon Zoo (rebuilt after the war and still, it would seem, going strong with over 2 million visitors a year).

He wrote the section on snake bite for Index of Treatment (12th edition 1940, edited by R Hutchison and H Hilton, Bristol: John Wright).

His daughter, Betty, in the article in the Meath Chronicle, indicates that the whole family went to Rangoon. Burgess decided to stay when the family left in the face of the Japanese advance north.

Two days before the Japanese army entered Rangoon, Andrew Martin (see below) quotes an army chaplain who approached the zoo. It is likely (see below) that Barnett had not been at the zoo for some time:

Fortified by a report that all animals of a dangerous nature had been destroyed, we made our entry only to discover that some were very much alive and outside their cages! There was a very tense moment when it was discovered that a ‘tree trunk’ was really a crocodile, and a ‘rope’ hanging from a tree was a full-sized boa constrictor. There was also an orang-utan loose in the town, handing out a nice line in assault and battery to anyone who crossed its path.

Retreat from Burma

Flight by Elephant by Andrew Martin (London: Fourth Estate, 2013) describes the rescue of those escaping the advancing Japanese in 1942 by a route through the Chaukan Pass into Assam. Barnett was a member of one of those parties.Tens of thousands—British, their Indian servants and workers, Chinese—set out to escape to India but only a few hundred attempted the route through the Chaukan Pass.

In the description of his letters for sale (see above), it is stated that in order to make his own contribution to the war effort, Barnett accepted in 1941 a position of Principal Medical Officer to the Burma-China railway that was being constructed at the time. He was located at Lashio near the Chinese border. He organised a series of hospitals along the route for the 20,000 plus Chinese and other workers employed to build the line. Whether he had joined up with Sir John Rowland, the head  of Burma’s railways and his new boss, there, while the latter was trying to organise the evacuation of his staff or when the Chaukan route escape party formed in Myitkyina in early May I do not know. However he came to be there, he was designated Sir John’s medical officer for the trek north by ‘The Railway Party’ through their chosen route, the Chaukan Pass..

An advance party got through the pass and a rescue mission was set up, headed by Gyles Mackrell (1888-1959), a tea planter and fighter pilot (awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in 1919 for services in India). The evacuation and reception of evacuees was largely organised and executed by the tea planters of Assam and their workers. The conditions for both trekkers and rescuers can only be described as horrendous. The Chaukan Pass had only been crossed a few times. It involved not only jungle, with the attendant leeches, malarial mosquitos and sand flies but wide, deep river crossings during the monsoon, major hill climbs and constant heavy rain. In short, it was thought to be impassable at that time of year.

The remoteness and difficulty of passing through the Chaukan Pass can be seen on the Google Earth view of the area. It is worth looking at the area shown in the map in Flight by Elephant to see how difficult the terrain is and the size of the rivers they had to cross.

The party, including a young child and a pregnant woman, made slow progress and came near to starvation. Other parties caught up with and sometimes passed the Railway Party and Barnett treated their bites, wounds, fevers and dysentery. Leeches were a major problem. Rowland was removing between five and six hundred leeches from his own body—every day. I expected sympathy for a couple of attached leeches in Borneo and three last year in Sr Lanka. I had proper calico leech socks; the Burma evacuees had only rotting clothing and disintegrating boots or shoes.

The Railway Party could not get across the Tilung Hka River. Eventually, air drops of food from an RAF Dakota, reached them. The party split several times, leaving Barnett each time with those who could not move in the conditions or get across rivers in spate. Barnett’s condition was also deteriorating.

Before the final push to get the whole of The Railway Party, Mackrell had been forced to withdraw. He went to his house in Shillong. While there he visited Barnett’s family who were by that time also living in Shillong. He promised the family that he would get him out.

Mackrell then organised another mission. Meanwhile, Sir John Rowland had split his group and his sub-group went ahead and succeeded in reaching safety with the help of the army. The final group—Barnett’s—of around 25 (now comprising civilians as well personnel from the various defence forces including an officer in the Royal Engineers and Gurkha soldiers) was left.

On 2 September the Aberdeen Journal contained a report on refugees in Burma:

A final attempt will be made to wean from the perilous Tibet [!] border, the balance of Roland’s [sic] party, which was not rescued by soldiers, and another party headed by Burgess Barnett, formerly of the London Zoo.

Mackrell’s men and elephants got them all out.

On Sunday 11 October, Mackrell and Barnett drove to Shillong. Makrell dropped Barnett at his house and waited:

The noise from the doctor’s house…”sounded like a football match”. He thought he might have to go in and “rescue him all over again” (Flight by Elephant)

Gyles Mackrell was award the George Medal for his acts of bravery5. The citation (London Gazette, 29 Jan 1943) reads:

Gyles Mackrell, Messrs. Octavius Steel and Company, Calcutta
Mr Mackrell, while in charge of the elephant transport, heard that a number of refugees were attempting to reach Assam over the Chaukan pass. In appalling weather he led his elephants by forced marches over a route hitherto considered impracticable. At great personal risk and after several vain attempts he took them across the flooded river, the bed of which consisted of shifting boulders. He thus rescued 68 sepoys and 33 other persons who were facing starvation. Without medical assistance he fed and doctored them until they were fit to proceed. He fell ill with severe fever, but remained behind and was responsible for saving the lives of over 200 persons. Mr Mackrell showed the highest initiative and personal courage, and risked hardships which might easily have proved fatal.
Remarkably, Mackrell carried a 16 mm cine camera and recorded some of the happenings during the rescue. Cambridge University now has his documents and films. The university has put the film on YouTube. It is essential viewing:

Mackrell possibly filmed Barnett as he emerged in the final party. However, since I have not been able to find a photograph of Burgess Barnett, I cannot look for him in the film..

Unfortunately, the author of Flight by Elephant, got Barnett’s name wrong. He is referred to throughout the book and in the index as Dr Burgess-Barnett, a double-barrelled surname.

Barnett’s bravery and devotion as a ‘medical man’ did not go unrecognised. He was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) (London Gazette, 7 May 1943). The citation reads:

Burgess Barnett MRCS LRCP, Principal Medical Officer, Burma China Railway Construction. Dr Burgess Barnett was a member of the party which evacuated from Burma via the Chaukan Pass and was one of the last dozen men to be rescued from Tilung Hka. Although he is an elderly man he elected to remain with the remnants of the party until the end. He thus secured to them the medical attention they all so sorely needed. Dr Burgess Barnett’s conduct throughout this long and difficult march over uninhabited country, in the most trying conditions of the monsoon, was worthy of the best traditions of the medical service.

Barnett was widely known in the British press from his time at the Zoo. His escape and subsequent honour were widely reported.


Sadly, Burgess Barnett lived for only eighteen months after his rescue. He died on a tea estate in Dooars, Bengal, on 9 April 1944, aged 56. His death was widely reported in the British press (an obituary in The Times on 19 June, for example) and attributed to heart failure. The catalogue describing some of his letters to a niece (see above6) shows that on 6 May 1943 he was considering taking a tea-garden medical practice about 100 miles east of Darjeeling. His final letter sent on 15 February 1944 suggests that he had done so. It was sent from Matelli, Jalpaiguri, Dooars, North Bengal. Matelli is in the heart of tea country near the Bhutan border.


Burgess Barnett’s Book, The Terrarium

I have scanned The Terrarium. A copy in .pdf format can be downloaded from my other blog which is concerned with the development of wild animal husbandry, particularly of reptiles, amphibians and birds:


1 Betty married Michael Geraghty, who travelled to Burma to work as an engineer, four weeks after meeting him in 1942. He enlisted in the Royal Engineers rising to the rank of  Lieutenant-Colonel in the Burma Army. One daughter was born in Darjeeling in 1943, another in Shillong in 1945 after which they travelled to England and settled in Ireland. Betty became Secretary of the Burma Star Association, the organisation to remember and support those who drove the Japanese back through the jungle of northern Burma—the ‘forgotten’ 14th Army commanded by the great General ‘Bill’ Slim—and, like her father, was appointed MBE for her services. Betty Geraghty, née Barnett, died on 10 January 2011.
2 Barnett, B.; MacFarlane, R.G. 1934. On the relative potency of certain snake venoms to coagulate haemophilic blood. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 104 977-978.
3 MacFarlane, R. G.; Barnett, B., 1934: The haemostatic possibilities of Snake Venom. Lancet Nov, 3: 985-987.

4 Barnett, B. 1935. The haemostatic uses of snake venom. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 28, 1469-1472.

5 Mackrell’s GM and his DFC sold for £8000 at auction in 2010.

6 Meridian Rare Books, London.

Last Updated 12 February 2024

Monday 20 January 2014

The Afterlives of Animals: Musing on Museology. Why Did Zoology Museums Decline?

I am reading The Afterlife of Animals*, a book about iconic specimens in natural history museums. Essentially a sociological book on museology, I have difficulty coping with all the verbalised nouns that this field seems to employ and with the prolixity of some of the contributors. Nevertheless, some of the chapters are an enjoyable read and I shall return to one or two in future posts.

I could not let one statement that caused a slight twitch in the left eyebrow go without comment:

While zoological collections were a key means of studying, recording, and communicating scientific knowledge in the past, increasingly they have come to occupy a marginal position in contemporary biological research. As the fields of molecular biology and biochemistry began to undermine morphological approaches to the study of evolution in the 1950s and 1960s, “laboratories outgrew museums and herbaria as the premier places of modern science” and were therefore no longer considered as active sites of scientific research.

I suppose if one considers ‘the study of evolution’ in the narrow museum approach as taxonomy and phylogeny, then the statement is exceptionable only in terms of anachronism. In the wide sense, museums, particularly university museums, declined in importance because biology, with evolution at its core, simply moved on. Experimental Biology replaced Comparative Anatomy, slowly at first but inexorably. Molecular Biology came much much later.

Medawar described with his usual eloquence what happened to comparative anatomy:

In my time [at Oxford] the Professor of Zoology was a rather selfish little man named Edwin Goodrich. Goodrich was in spirit a member of the great generation of European comparative anatomists of the immediate post-Darwinian era—men such as Karl Gegenbaur, Ernst Haeckel, Karl Ernst von Baer, and Jan Willem van Wijhe. These were the men who demonstrated the theory of evolution—that is, who provided the evidence from comparative anatomy that soon began to make it eccentric or perverse not to accept the evolutionary hypothesis. Edwin Goodrich was in spirit one of them and to understand his career and attitude towards the science of zoology and how it should be taught, one has to have in mind that until his dying day Goodrich saw himself as a revolutionary, a torch bearer, the evangel of the new and exciting doctrine of organic evolution, and felt that the principal task of zoology was to put it upon a secure foundation…The great achievements of comparative anatomy had already passed into scientific history by the time I was a student [1932].

Dated as a major discipline comparative anatomy had become, it was firmly entrenched in university zoology departments and another set of revolutionaries set about to overturn the old order. This they did, essentially in Britain at least from the 1920s on.

Medawar describes taking over the Jodrell Chair at University College, London in 1951:

The Department also housed a museum that was crying out for demolition and I called to mind Lancelot Hogben, my predecessor in Birmingham [1941-47], who abolished the museum in his Department [Zoology] there. Indeed, the staff I inherited from Hogben had told me with awe how he had been seen staggering across the campus carrying a stuffed dugong and probably in search of an incinerator.

University museums by the 1960s were deeply unloved. They represented a remnant of a once major discipline that the experimentalists found rather embarrassing. In Britain at least another force was emerging: space. With the Robbins expansion of the universities, space in university departments was at a premium. Space wars within and between departments were common, leading on one well known occasion at least to physical violence. Attic spaces, old wooden huts and garages were all adapted for lab and office accommodation. It is not surprising that in these circumstances departmental museums were squeezed until many really became storage space for anatomical material for laboratory practicals. However, museums often carried a currency that was in short supply: one or more staff posts that had been created in the heyday of the museum and which could be filled by the department. In essence, the curator could take some of the lecturing load in a small department. So, retention of the old museum in some form meant keeping the post.

Oskars Lusis, a Latvian refugee, fulfilled such a role in Sheffield in the 1960s. Nominally the Curator of the Alfred Denny Museum, Oskars lectured, demonstrated and took part in field courses. I still remember his excellent four-week course on molluscs in summer 1963 and can never look at a garden snail without trying to remember all he told us about torsion in gastropods. Incidentally, he was the only person I have ever known who used a concave-bladed or crescent-shaped Swann-Morton scalpel (Blade No 12) as an all-purpose dissecting instrument. He kept the scalpel in the top pocket of his lab coat, bringing it forth to help a hapless student reveal with a few deft strokes the bit of the anatomy he was seeking.

Comparative anatomy did not, of course, die under the onslaught of experimental biology and other  approaches that emerged under its cover nor under the later onslaught of ‘molecular’ biology but it ceased completely to exert its stranglehold on zoology. It still continues to yield very important discoveries to add to the triumphs of the past. 

More recently there has been a resurgence of interest in the departmental museums that have survived. They show how teaching and research in zoology has evolved over the last century and a half while still holding the specimens used for practical classes. Those open to the public are popular attractions, often showing more effectively what real museums were like than the large collections which have gone for trendy exhibits and educational overkill. Even the museum that Medawar wanted to demolish has been resurrected on a different site. Walking down Gower Street last year, we saw that the Grant Museum of Zoology, the UCL collection, is open to the public.

I wonder if Birmigham misses its dugong?

* Alberti, Samuel J.M.M. (ed) 2011. The Afterlives of Animals. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press.
Patchett, M., Foster, K., Lorimer, H. 2011. The biogeographies of a hollow-eyed harrier. In Alberti op cit.
Medawar, P.B. 1986. Memoir of a Thinking Radish. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Saturday 11 January 2014

What Triggers Birth in Mammals?

I was reminded of my post from 31 August 2013 on the length of pregnancy and on animals which synchronise the onset of parturition when I read the Biographical Memoir written by Peter Gluckman and Tatjana Buklijas on ‘Mont’ Liggins*. Liggins set off a whole train of research from the 1960s onwards on the control of the onset of parturition by finding that, in sheep, the fetus provides the trigger for parturition through activation of the hypophysio-adrenocortical axis and the production of glucocorticoid. Gluckman and Buklijas describe Liggins’s discoveries very well in the context of all that was happening in research on the fetus and to who was doing what, where and why.

I kept a close eye on research on the control of the onset of parturition throughout the 1970s and 80s, in view of the link between parturition and the onset of copious milk secretion which we termed ‘lactogenesis stageII’†. It was soon obvious that, and quoting from Liggins and Buklijas, …there was no shared mechanism controlling the onset of labour across the entire eutherian clade. In some species, such as mice, goats and rabbits, the maintenance of pregnancy depended on the persistence of corpus luteum to the end, and a decrease in progesterone levels signalled the onset of labour. In other species—sheep, cows and primates including humans—the placenta took over the role of the corpus luteum, so these species were termed ‘placentally dependent’, yet even this group was far from homogeneous, with sheep and cows showing much clearer evidence of a marked hormonal change preceding parturition than did primates.

A number of large teams throughout the world, including a number of personal friends, have been working on the control of parturition in the decades following Liggins discoveries, both in collaboration and competition. However, I was surprised to find that there is a stark truth. Returning to the Biographical Memoir:

Writing in the 1990s, Liggins summed up the results of the decades of research into the physiology of human parturition: first, rather than either the fetus or the mother occupying the leading role, the mechanism involved an interaction between the two participants, fetus (chorion) and mother (decidua); and second, the synthesis and release of prostaglandin F2α from decidua was a key event in the onset of parturition. Little has changed since that time, although we now know much more about the complex paracrine interactions between the amnion, decidua and chorion in driving this process and of the possible role of placental corticotrophin-releasing factor.

In short, we still do not know the trigger for parturition in any species or indeed whether there is a single trigger in a particular species. Those animals that synchronise parturition, like the wildebeest and banded mongoose, provide an intriguing glimpse into control mechanisms that, as far as I am aware, has not yet been exploited.

I end on a large ‘phew’. The link between parturition and lactogenesis stage II is much simpler.

Wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus). Masai Mara, Kenya, 1991

*Gluckman, P., Buklijas, T. 2013. Sir Graham Collingwood (Mont) Liggins. 24 June 1926 — 24 August 2010. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 59, 195-214.

†Fleet, I.R., Goode, J.A., Hamon, M.H., Laurie, M.S., Linzell, J.L., Peaker, M. 1975. Secretory activity of goat mammary glands during pregnancy and the onset of lactation. Journal of Physiology 252, 763-773.