Thursday, 12 February 2015

Eric Thomas Brazil Francis (1900-1993). Zoologist

This story starts in the 1999 when Kraig Adler was looking for photographs to illustrate the biographies of herpetologists for his series, Contributions to the History of Herpetology. I told him that I had a distant shot of E.T.B. Francis but that the University of Sheffield was sure to have a portrait of him somewhere. Unfortunately, the university could not find one. Then, more recently and while looking for something else, I noticed that the Society for the Study of Reptiles and Amphibians had published in 2004 a reprint edition of ETBF’s book from 1934, The Anatomy of the Salamander with an introduction by James Hanken. I also knew of but had not seen the dedication by the late Carl Gans to ETBF in volume 19 of Biology of the Reptilia published in 1998. When I did see that I realised I could add and correct some information to that gathered by Carl Gans from former colleagues. With all the volumes of Biology of the Reptilia now being online, I will not reproduce the dedication here. Jim Hanken kindly sent me a copy of his introduction to the reprint of The Anatomy of the Salamander which explains why ETBF is so highly thought of and why his book is still used today.

The frontispiece to The Anatomy of the Salamander is from a
paper by E.G. Boulenger.
According to Hanken, the chromolithograph is by John Green

ETBF loomed large in the life of zoology students at Sheffield. Our time there (1962-65) was at the crossover between classical zoology and what were then more modern approaches, so we still had to know vertebrates and many invertebrate groups backwards and inside out while getting to grips with comparative physiology, experimental biology, genetics and the like. Comparative endocrinology was the department’s major research activity, driven by Ian Chester Jones who had been appointed to the chair in 1958, and we were exposed to its influence from day one, with a lecture on the pituitary given, we discovered later, by Chester Jones wearing a sweater in need of darning and carpet slippers. A suitable culture shock was delivered to students accustomed to being taught by begowned grammar school teachers.

In our time at Sheffield, for the non-special part of Special Honours, the second and third years were combined for lectures. Thus ETBF gave his lectures on vertebrate zoology every second year, I think over two terms. As Gans picked up from the people he asked, ETBF was highly respected for his broad knowledge of the animal kingdom. That was the way then; university staff were expected to know a lot about a lot not just a lot about a tiny field. His knowledge of marine invertebrates emerged on a field course to the biological station at Rovinj in what was then Yugoslavia at Easter 1964. He was the man who knew what all the odd-looking things were we collected and where to find them in the dense German books that catalogued the fauna of the Adriatic. He was the man who also fixed students up with jobs in labs near their homes during the summer vacation; he knew lots of people throughout Britain and what they were doing.

St Mark’s Square, Venice, early April 1964. Sheffield University Zoology Field Course at Rovinj in Yugoslavia (now Croatia):
A day trip to Venice.
Enlargement from a 4 x 4 cm transparency showing ETBF and Oskars Lusis.

Eric Thomas Brazil Francis was born on 3 August 1900 in Hackney in the East End of London, the son of Thomas Brazil Francis and Emile Anne Tourtel. At the 1901 Census, ETBF was seven months old and the family was living at 22 Bishop’s Road, Hackney, London. In 1912 this street in the east end of London was renamed Killowen Road; the house is a three-story terrace house. Thomas Brazil Francis, born in Peppard, Oxfordshire, was a pork butcher’s assistant. His mother, born in Peckham, London, was the daughter of Thomas J Tourtel, a printer’s reader and widower, born in Guernsey, who, with three sons and a daughter, also lived at 22 Bishop’s Road.

At the 1911 Census, the family lived in a very different environment. Thomas, Emilie, ETBF (age 10 and at school) and Emilie’s sister were living at Chalk House Farm, Great Kidmore End in Oxfordshire. Thomas was manager of a game farm (I presume a pheasant shoot).

Thomas Brazil Francis’s father was James Francis; he married Phillis Brazil in 1872 in Oxfordshire. James Francis is difficult to trace in the censuses since he was never present with his wife. However, there is a James Francis who fits the bill; he was a baker born in Kidmore End. Phillis Brazil was the daughter of Thomas Brazil (born about 1820) who, in 1881 was living about six miles from Kidmore End. He was a farmer employing three men and one boy; his wife was also called Phillis, and their daughter, by then Phillis Francis, and grandson, Thomas Brazil Francis, were also present on the night of the census.

Looking at the records, it is clear that the Brazils (originally, apparently, of Irish origin) were, over the years, butchers in London and the area of Oxfordshire north of Reading or farmers, also in that area north of Reading, over the county border in Berkshire. Kidmore End is only four miles from Reading, and ETBF was a student at, and graduated from, University College, Reading. Because at the time of his graduation Reading was not a university and able to award its own degrees, his was an external B.Sc. from the University of London. However, University College, Reading became the University of Reading in 1926 and his Ph.D. is a Reading degree; I suspect it was one of the first Ph.D.s awarded by the new university.

We know from his preface to The Anatomy of the Salamander written in August 1933 that he had worked in the laboratory of Professor F.J. Cole FRS (who wrote a remarkable historical introduction to ETBF’s monograph) at Reading. However, he was then aged 33 and we do not know anything of his what he was up to until that date. Did he have a position in Reading and how was he financed? There are uncatalogued archives in the University library and I hope somebody will be stimulated to start searching for information there.

The Gans dedication states that ETBF moved to Sheffield as Lecturer in 1933.

ETBF married Vera Christine Davison (born 26 September 1901) in 1938 in the Northumberland West Registration District. According to the 1911 Census, she was born in Hadley Wood, Enfield. However, at the census she was with her sister at her grandmother’s house, 8 Washington Terrace, Tynemouth which may account for why they were married in that part of England. Her grandmother, Annie E Ewart was a widow, aged 65, and a schoolmistress.

The Sheffield telephone directories from 1944 to 1983 show their address as 120 Brooklands Crescent, Sheffield 10.

Their son, Eric David Francis, was born in 1940. He was a classicist and his suicide in 1987 while employed by an American university must have been a great blow to ETBF and his wife, then aged 87 and 86.

At Sheffield, ETBF progressed from Lecturer to Reader in Vertebrate Zoology. Carl Gans stated that ETBF retired in 1973. However, I think this is unlikely since the retirement age for others in the department was at the end of the academic year when they reached the age of 65; some may have had agreements to stay until 68 as in some other universities. I suspect 1973 was the year in which he gave up appearing in his old department. Again, we need a search of the old university Calendars or the Commonwealth Universities Yearbooks.

ETBF died in 1993 in Sheffield, aged 93; Vera Christine Francis died aged 98 in 2000.

It would be easy to believe that ETBF was a dyed-in-the-wool comparative anatomist of the E.S. Goodrich kind. In that respect, The Anatomy of the Salamander probably counted against him; it was descriptive and descriptive zoology was out. His interests were actually wide and fully embraced experimental biology. Thus, in Scientific Research in British Universities 1960-61, his research activities are listed as:

  • The conductive system of the vertebrate heart 
  • The salivary enzymes of amphibia
  • Water relations in reptiles
  • Host reactions to parasites with special reference to the gut
  • Nutritional requirements of intestinal worms with special reference to larval stages 

By the 1962-63 edition, the list had shortened to:

  • The conductive system of the vertebrate heart
  • Water relations in reptiles
  • Host reactions to parasites with special reference to the gut

The work on the heart and on the salivary enzymes appears in the list of publication that accompanies Garl Gan’s dedication. I was well aware of his work on water relations in reptiles. As a new student walking along the zoology corridor to the large lab at the end, the offices/small labs were on the left. ETBF’s door was open (I never remember it closed) and he had a number of glass aquaria/vivaria on an iron stand on the right. In them could be seen a few reptiles; the most noticeable was a Stump-tailed Skink (Tiliqua rugosa). At some stage I learnt that he was measuring water losses across the skin and, once when I went to see him, he and his technician were actually doing so. All I can remember is that they were holding a small cylinder against the flank of a skink and saying they were not having much luck. He told me that he really wanted to look at cutaneous water losses in chamaeleons and needed some animals. I imported two species from Kenya during the 1964 summer vacation and he had about ten of them. I have been unable to find any reference to publication of his physiological work on reptiles. Earlier he had supervised work on rats in drift mines done by Graham Twigg, adding an ecological dimension to his interests.

I had, until I found the book online on research in British universities yesterday, forgotten that he also worked on the physiological effects of gut parasites on the host. I now remember, seeing in the animal house cages of mice (?) and somebody in a white lab coat telling me all about them. But I cannot remember who that was; it wasn’t ETBF, it wasn’t his technician who I think was called Martin. Was it a PhD student or an MSc student? I cannot find any reference to the work being published but it could have been, without ETBF as a co-author.

I can add a publication to the list given by Gans. ETBF was a contributor to A Dictionary of Birds* published in 1985, when he was 85. That volume was remarkable for the inaccuracy of some of the contributions on physiology but ETBF’s articles do not fall into that category!

Gans only knew ETBF in his later years but his correspondents noted that he had during his working life seen a transformation of the way university departments operate. Such change did not seem to suit him. At a student event, my now wife spoke to Mrs Francis for some time. The latter was apologetic and said that such occasions were much better for students in Professor [L.E.S.] Eastham’s days as head (1931-58) while the former received the strong impression that ETBF was unhappy with the direction in which universities, including Sheffield, and academic zoology were moving.

E.T.B. Francis was highly respected and remembered not only as a zoologist but as an Englsh gentleman.


†Hanken, J.  2002.  Eric Thomas Brazil Francis and the evolutionary morphology of salamanders.  Introduction to the reprint of E.T.B. Francis, The Anatomy of the Salamander, pp. v–xiv.  Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, Ithaca, New York.

*A Dictionary of Birds. 1985. Campbell B & Lack E (editors). Poyser.