Tuesday 18 December 2018

The Not So Simple Shape of the Human Birth Canal

Any scientific conversation on the process of giving birth in medical, veterinary and wild animal husbandry circles ends up on one topic: any mismatch between the size of the offspring to be born and the width of the route out into the world equals disaster: death of the offspring and death of the mother if there is no intervention.

The evolutionary trade-offs involved between maternal genes and paternal genes in an offspring and survival of a mother giving birth are well known. One might have expected that the degree of variation in the shape of the birth canal would not be great, especially in human mothers which have to accommodate the large head typical of the species. However, a recent paper* shows that this is not the case: there is considerable variation in the shape of the birth canal which means that the turns the baby has to make from its position in the uterus is not so simple as once thought.

By measuring the pelvis of skeletons from many parts of the world, Lia Betti (University of Roehampton) and Andrea Manica (Zoology, Cambridge) found:

Sub-Saharan African populations are overall characterized by a deeper birth canal in the anterior–posterior direction, throughout the three planes (inlet, midplane, and outlet), while Native American populations fall at the other extreme of variation with a more transversally wide canal. Asian and European/North African populations show an intermediate morphology. The differences are particularly obvious for the inlet, which tends to be more markedly oval in Americans and Europeans/North Africans, and for the outlet, which tends to be sagittally oval in sub-Saharan Africans and Asians, while it is generally transversally oval in Americans and Europeans/North Africans. It is worth noting, however, that canal variation is continuous and without abrupt differences between regions, when analysed at the level of single populations.

The authors presented evidence that the variation is neutral, i.e. no selective advantage or disadvantage, and is more marked the greater the difference from the presumed ancestral origins of Homo sapiens. There is the possibility, as the authors suggest, that the constraints on pelvic diversity may have been less evident before the adoption of agriculture led to an increase in fetal growth. In other words, the fit between fetal head and maternal pelvis might not have been quite so tight during the initial spread out of Africa. And yes, my 10½ lb birthweight to a non-diabetic mother might be explained by her fondness of food—in quantity.

The authors also point out the consequences for midwifery and obstetric practice of their work:

The magnitude of canal shape variation in human populations revealed by this study sits in stark contrast with the simplified description of the typical human canal morphology in many anatomy books. The description is often based on the most common shape in European individuals, and does not take into account the wide range of variation showed by our species. The rotation movements required by the fetus to negotiate the twisting passage are also generally reported based on an average European experience. Substantial differences in the shape of the canal in modern populations, especially in the outlet, might translate into differences in fetal movements and presentation. Indeed, X-ray studies of labouring women from the first half of the twentieth century provide some evidence of differences in fetal presentation during labour depending on the shape of the mother’s pelvic inlet. The head of the fetus tends to align to the wider diameter of the inlet at engagement. A different rotation of the fetus from the norm might, therefore, occur in women with a differently shaped canal, and should not necessarily be interpreted as a problem. Given the geographical differences in canal shape among modern populations showed by this study, a wider range of variation in childbirth might be expected in modern multi-ethnic societies, and should be taken into account in obstetric training and practice.

I read the paper with considerable interest since an old research activity suddenly loomed large in my mind. The birth canal of eutherian mammals is not limited a rigid bony cage. Relaxation, particularly of the public symphysis but also of the sacro-iliac joints, brought about at least in part by the hormone, relaxin, results in an enlargement of the birth canal, particularly transversely. While the effects of relaxation in the human pelvis are not usually so spectacular as that, say, in the guinea-pig I do have two questions:

1. Are the differences in orientation of the birth canal found by measuring the structure of the pelvis in skeletal remains maintained during parturition? 

2. Is there variation in the extent of pelvic relaxation in late pregnancy, and does any such variation correlate with the initial shape of the pelvis?

In short, an important and fascinating piece of research.

Betti L, Manica A. 2018. Human variation in the shape of the birth canal is significant and geographically structured. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 285 20181807. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2018.1807 

*The research described was supported in part by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. I wrote about its formation and the role of Paul Fejos in my article Komodo Dragons in the 1930s: a zoo quest before ‘Zoo Quest’ with links to Adolf Hitler, nazi spy scares, the FBI, a cuckolded husband and John F Kennedy of 6 July 2017.

Friday 14 December 2018

Jim and Sylvia Tait, discoverers of aldosterone, on what's wrong with how science is funded

I have been reading the excellent recent biographical memoir of James Tait FRS (1925-2014) written by Gavin Vinson and the late John Coghlan (1934-2018) for the Royal Society. Jim Tait with his wife Sylvia (1917-2003) discovered the hormone aldosterone, secreted by the adrenal cortex. For this work, published in 1952, they were both elected to the Royal Society in 1959.

Until I read the obituary I had not realised the Taits had published an account of their life and work as well as a defence of those they thought should have been recognised for their part in key biological discoveries. A copy was soon in my hands. It was published shortly in 2004 after Sylvia died. Sadly, it appeared in need of hard editing while Jim Tait was ill. However, there are a number of cogent observations on how research is funded and organised in the 21st Century:

…in the opinion of the authors, the advantages of Institutional Grants in encouraging highly original research outweighs the disadvantages…
     The reader may have gathered by now that the authors favour the system of research funding, operating as in the 1960s in the UK and USA, with mainly Government funded support (both Project and Institutional). Unfortunately, there is a tendency in central administration of any activity, even including medical research, which even if a successful method is found then it must be changed to indicate progress.
Amen to that - but why is nobody listening above the clamour of vested interest?

Denton DA, MacIntyre I. 2006. Sylvia Agnes Sophia Tait. 8 January 1917-28 February 2003. 
Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 52, 379-399.

Tait SAS, Tait JF. 2004. A Quartet of Unlikely Discoveries. Twickenham: Athena Press.

Vinson GP, Coghlan JP. 2018. James Francis Tait. 1 December 1925-2 February 2014. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 65, 381-404.

Sunday 9 December 2018

Joan Procter, Arthur Loveridge and the Pancake Tortoise. 2. Joan Procter in London: Structure of the shell and the question of defensive ‘inflation’

Embed from Getty Images

Not content with gross anatomical description, Joan Procter threw whatever modern technique she could find to discover as much as she could about the Pancake Tortoises, now known as Malacochersus tornieri, sent to London by Arthur Loveridge, the dead ones at the Museum and the live ones at the Zoo. She used X-rays and fluorescent screen x-ray equipment provided by the surgeon Sir John Bland-Sutton (1855-1936) of the Middlesex Hospital. He was a keen supporter and vice-president of the Zoological Society of London.  She collaborated with Richard Higgins Burne (1868-1953, elected FRS 1927) who was Physiological Curator at the Royal College of Surgeons on the structure of the jaw. Burne was also a key member of the Zoological Society in the 1920s and 30s.

Boulenger had commented on the first specimens sent by Loveridge to confirm the pliable nature of the carapace and plastron. Instead of solid bone underlying the epidermal shields as in other tortoises, Joan Procter found areas with no bone at all, especially, as suggested by Loveridge in the centre of the plastron. Deep sutures between the shields also indicated a marked degree of mobility.

Figures from Joan Procter's paper showing the bony
carapace with the large areas (hatched) lacking bone

The bony plastron showing the lack of bone in the
large central area

In all, Miss Procter was able to work on 23 dead specimens, preserved in spirit, as well as handling the two live ones at the Zoo. Another unusual feature, apart from the areas of the carapace and plastron without bone, the tortoise is the appearance of teeth on both jaws. These teeth which are not true teeth are part of the jawbones with an overlying continuous horny sheath.

By studying young specimens and comparing the development of the carapace and plastron in other tortoises she concluded that the adult Pancake Tortoise resembles to a great extent the young of other species in which the bone then continues to grow and fill the gaps. In other words, the fenestration seen in the adult is caused by arrested development of the bony shell rather than by breakdown of a complete bony structure.

Procter noted the great variability in the shells of the Pancake Tortoise—the subject of a recent paper describing the variation between individuals in more detail.

A question that Joan Procter addressed, whether the bone of the carapace is derived from the skeleton or from the skin I will not deal with further here but will return to in the future since the question has been the subject of research for getting on for two centuries and there is recent work suggesting that old views are wrong. However, before turning to a functional problem it is worth considering how Procter argued on the mechanism evolution of the shell of the Pancake Tortoise. It is difficult for those of us who first got to know the history of theories of evolution in the 1950s to appreciate just how common Lamarckian explanations were in the 1920s or of how powerful and combative some of the individuals like Ernest MacBride FRS, who rejected both natural selection and modern genetics until his dying day, were in the zoological circles of London. Joan Procter sat on the fence:

     It can be argued on the one hand that the flattened carapace is brought about by the habit of living beneath stones and squeezing into rock-crevices. This habit, induced by environment, would be bound to have a modifying effect; for, during youth, the development of a domed and solid carapace would be interfered with by the constant application of pressure, and in a sufficient number of generations the ability to form a normal carapace might be lost altogether. The fact that the Burrowing Tortoise, T. polyphemus, has a thin or fenestrated and somewhat flattened carapace supports this view. Could this be proved experimentally, it would furnish a convincing argument in favour of the heritance of acquired characters. 
     On the other hand, it can be equally well maintained that an inherited tendency to the arrest in development is orthogenetic, brought about either gradually or as a mutation, and that the furtive habit of hiding beneath stones was the natural result, since the tortoise no longer possessed adequate protection from enemies. 
     Possibly both principles come into play, the reduced armour and loss of ribs being orthogenetic, and the depression and relative condition of the vertebrae being subsequently induced by the rockdwelling habit.

Apart from the developmental origin of the bony shell, the subject that has stirred interest in the Pancake Tortoise has been the question of ‘inflation’.

The suggestion that Pancake Tortoises inflate to jam themselves more effectively into crevices between rocks came from Loveridge (see previous post of 22 November 2018):

The tortoise takes full advantage of this flexibility, as I soon found on trying to remove one from beneath a boulder. It inflated its lungs sufficiently to obtain additional purchase against the roof and floor of its retreat and, bracing its strongly clawed feet—some of the claws were over half an inch long—used them as struts so as to render its extraction extremely difficult.

Joan Procter described the animal’s characteristics thus:

In general appearance it looks as if it had been crushed in youth and had only survived by a miracle. When taken in the hand alive it has a boneless feeling which is uncanny; both carapace and plastron react to pressure on the abdominal region with a springy motion, and the animal is able to inflate itself to a slight degree.

The key question, does the Pancake Tortoise inflate itself and thereby jam itself into a space between rocks, was tackled by Leonard Ireland and Carl Gans (1923-2009), then of the University of Michigan; their paper was published in 1972. They noted that only Robert Mertens, in a paper published in wartime Germany, had questioned the occurrence of inflation: wedging yes; inflation no, he had concluded.

Carl Gans
The background to their work was that Gans had recently worked with George Hughes (1925-2011) in Bristol to sort out the method of respiration in the Spur-thighed Tortoise, Testudo graeca, itself then a matter of controversy. This tortoise and other chelonians were found to draw air into the lungs using muscles that acted in a manner akin to a diaphragm in mammals but acting within the confines of a fixed frame, the shell. There was no mechanism to force air into the lungs (as in frogs, for example). To Ireland and Gans it seemed unlikely that inflation of the body occurs during a threat. They monitored the pressure in the lungs of the Pancake Tortoise while trying to pull it backwards out of an artificial dark crevice 10 mm higher than the depth of the shell. The tortoises attempted to dig their claws of their forelimbs into the floor and rotated their forelimbs outwards. Those actions raised the front of the body and wedged it in place. The hind limbs were stretched out to the rear such that the claws tended to engage in any irregularities in the floor. The authors remarked that the wedging action was most effective; they gained the impression that the forelimbs would have to be broken before the tortoise could be pulled free of a rocky crevice in the wild. At no time during this pulling and wedging in response did pressure within the lungs rise consistently. There was no inflation. Wedging was purely mechanical and achieved by the positioning of the limbs.

Although inflation of the body cavity appeared to have been excluded as part of the mechanism by which the Pancake Tortoise wedges itself into rocky crevices or under boulders of the kopjes on which it lives, that knowledge never found itself into much of the popular literature or have reached what was then the more scientifically-isolated world of the museums. Books and papers still appeared without any reference to the work of Ireland and Gans. Some make it appear that the degree of inflation is enormous, with the impression created that the tortoise is the next best thing to a puffer fish.

However, was the wedging action of the limbs shown by Ireland and Gans the only way the Pancake Tortoise can fasten itself into crevices? Their test apparatus was arranged such that the ceiing was 10 mm greater than the height of the tortoise’s shell. Calculating the depth (i.e. the distance between the outsides of the plastron and carapace) from the photograph they show and the approximately median length of the carapace of the animals they studied, any ‘bulge’ from inflation would have to reach a 23% increase in the depth between plastron and carapace in order to reach the ceiling of the artificial crevice, a surely impossible ask.

The wedging action also leaves the limbs exposed. While offering protection in a relatively wide crevice, would it not be better to seek a narrower crevice in which the legs and head could be withdrawn. In those circumstances, movement outwards of, say, the soft area of the plastron by only a millimetre or so would really jam the tortoise in place. This is the mechanism proposed by Moll and Klemens in a paper published in 1996 but which I have not yet seen. They suggest that drawing the legs into the shell can ‘inflate’ the soft area of the plastron thus supporting the original observations of Loveridge in the field and of Boulenger and Procter in the museum and zoo. How would that work and can predictions be made that could be tested experimentally?

Respiration in tortoises is very different to the process in other land vertebrates. The lungs are attached to the carapace and are inflated and deflated by a diaphragm-like structure separating the lungs from the other internal organs. As the limbs are withdrawn into the confines of the shell there is additional inward pressure on the body cavity and, indeed, movements of the limbs are known to take part in the movement of gases into and out of the lungs. For sufficient pressure to be built up inside the body cavity to push upon the gap in the plastron the lungs would also need to be full or probably very nearly full of air. The flow of air outwards from the lungs in response to strong and sustained withdrawal of the legs and head would have to be stopped. The other alternative to stopping the outflow from the lungs would be for the lungs to be emptied completely by the build-up of pressure in the body cavity. Because tortoise lungs are so large and so capacious it seems unlikely that the decrease in volume of the body cavity would be sufficient for the lungs to be emptied and for the the covering of the plastron to be pushed outwards.

Proceeding on the assumption that the lungs are held full or close to full, the most likely scenario is that the glottis is closed and that the pressure of gases inside the lung increases, as assumed by Ireland and Gans. The other possibility, that the ‘diaphragm’ between the lungs and the rest of the body cavity is held tight such that fluid pressure changes are not transmitted to the lungs seems unlikely since that membranous diaphragm would appear to be much more compliant than the horny layer overlying the ‘hole’ in the plastron.

If this mechanism, the movement outwards of the leathery centre of the plastron brought about by  withdrawal of the legs and neck, does operate the corollary is that the tortoise ceases to breathe. And here we come to the known ability of tortoises to hold their breath for long periods. As anybody who has tried to anaesthetise a chelonian using a gaseous anaesthetic will affirm, the tortoise usually remains unanaesthetised by simply holding its breath for tens of minutes while keeping its legs and head drawn into its shell. I have seen such a tortoise after about 30 minutes suddenly thrust its head out and forcibly exhale, and I do mean forcibly. The sudden exhalation was as if pressure was first applied to the lung and then the glottis opened. The best analogy I can think of is the movement down the runway of an aeroplane first held in check by the brakes until the engines reaches full power.

Other factors would come into play. Terrestrial tortoises have large bladders. If full, less inward pressure would be needed on the body cavity from the active pulling inwards of the legs and head; if empty, more. The legs and head would have to virtually seal the gap between carapace and plastron, otherwise the soft skin would be expected to bulge outwards rather than leathery plastron.

This latter point brings me to suggest that an experimental test of the bulging plastron hypothesis is needed; in other words an extension of the approach of Ireland and Gans to see what happens in narrower crevices. I am not entirely convinced by the present arguments in favour. The reason I suggest more work is needed hinges on the properties of the horny material that covers the large hole in the bony plastron. The late bob Davies had a pair of Pancake Tortoises in the early 1990s. When I handled them, I found the horny covering of that hole to be thick and relatively inflexible. However, there was ‘give’. A slight push on the centre would move it inwards by a few millimetres—the ‘springy motion’ described by Procter when she handled the first living examples at the Zoo. The question of whether sufficient pressure can be exerted on the body cavity to make that horny material bulge outwards even by a few millimetres needs to be answered.

Joan Procter’s legacy, judged at the time to have been a tour de force, stills leaves intriguing questions about the Pancake Tortoise.

Embed from Getty Images

Ireland L, Gans C. 1972. The adaptive significance of the flexible shell of the tortoise, Malacochersus tornieri. Animal Behaviour 20, 778-781.

Mautner A-K, Latimer AE, Fritz U, Scheyer TM, 2017. An updated description of the osteology of the Pancake Tortoise Malacochersus tornieri (Testudines: Testudinidae) with special focus on intraspecific variation. Journal of Morphology 278, 321-333.

Procter JB. 1922. A study of the remarkable tortoise, Testudo loveridgii Blgr., and the morphology of the chelonian carapace. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1922, 483-526.

Wednesday 5 December 2018

Some Birds Collected during the Voyage of H.M.S. Sulphur 1836-1842. John Gould’s Illustrations

John Gould FRS (1804-1881) was responsible for the text and illustrations in the section on birds in the Zoology volume, published in 1844.

Here is a selection of Gould’s paintings shown under their current names.

Long-tailed Manakin, Chiroxiphia linearis. Central America

Golden-collared Manakin, Manacus vitellinus, Central & South America

Pale-mandibled Aracari, Pteroglossus erythropygius, Ecuador & Peru

Madagascan Sandgrouse, Pterocles personatus, Madagascar

White-bellied Chachalaca, Ortelis leucogastra, Central America

Ultramarine Lorikeet, Vini ultramarina, Marquesas

Of the birds shown I have seen two in the wild, Madagascar Sandgrouse (2003) and the Critically-Endangered Ultramarine Lorikeet on Ua Huka, its last remaining location, in 2010.

The volumes from the voyage give some indication of the distance travelled and the places visited by Sulphur during its voyage and why, because of its length and the fact that she had taken part in a war, the crew were given extra pay and allowances. I found this map showing the route round the world and have emphasised it using a red overlay:

Tuesday 4 December 2018

Some Mammals Collected during the Voyage of H.M.S. Sulphur 1836-1842. Some Original Colour Plates

I mentioned in my last post the extensive collections made by the captains and assistant surgeon of the Royal Navy’s survey ship Sulphur, a small bomb ship (i.e. equipped with deck-mounted mortars for long-range fire rather than cannon) together with the fact that the Assistant Surgeon, later Surgeon, Richard Brinsley Hinds FRCS, took on the responsibility of editing and superintending the publications arising from that epic voyage around the world. The Lords of the Admiralty met the costs of publication - not the only occasion, I submit, to thank the Navy.

The section on mammals in the Zoology volume, published in 1844, was written by John Edward Gray FRS. Keeper of Zoology at the Natural History Museum in London from 1840 until 1974. 

I cannot resist showing some of the illustrations from that volume. They are by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894) best known for sculpting the dinosaurs at Crystal Palace. Bear in mind that he had not seen the living animals and was working from the skins and skulls sent back to London.

The mammals are shown under their present names, not those used by Gray.

Golden-faced and White-faced Saki Pithecia chrysocephala and P. pithecia, South America

Rio Tupajós or Gray's Saki, Pithecia irrorata
Crowned Lemur, Eulemur coronatus, northern Madagascar

Wrinkle-faced Bat, Centurio senex, Central America
Long-tailed Weasel, Mustela frenata, the Americas

Raccoon, Procyon lotor psora. California subspecies

Black-tailed Jackrabbit, Lepus californicus

Wednesday 28 November 2018

Edward Belcher of the Royal Navy: Zoological collector, Hong Kong surveyor—and how to behave like an absolute ….

Captain Edward Belcher
(National Maritime Museum)
Invigilating practical examinations was a bore. School pupils came to the University of Hong Kong for their practical biology ‘A’ levels in the 1960s. Once the ID of each pupil had been checked (including fingerprints) to prevent personation, there was little to do but to wander round, stare again at the museum specimens in their cases, be thankful that you had an easy dissection in your own A-level practical and then look out of the window at the bustle of Hong Kong and its harbour below. The Northcote Science Building of the University of Hong Kong, which survived the Japanese Occupation and looting but not road-widening in the 1980s, looked over a mass of housing on the downward slope towards Kennedy Town. The housing blocks to the left (also now demolished) were called Belcher Gardens. That whole area once contained Belcher’s Fort and Belcher’s Battery and commanded a view over the western half of the harbour. Land reclamation schemes have obliterated the original coastline but the bay beneath the two batteries was called Belcher’s Bay, while the narrow passage between Hong Kong Island and Green Island was, and still is, Sulphur Channel named after Belcher’s ship, H.M.S. Sulphur.

By an accident of history, Belcher had become involved in the First Opium War and the occupation of Hong Kong in January 1841.

Belcher, who became Admiral Sir Edward Belcher KCB (1799-1877), was in many ways admirable but in others he was a Grade A Shit. He became an embarrassment to the Royal Navy but, as I discovered long after staring out of the window, he was a major player in the collection of zoological specimens for London Zoo and its then museum.

Edward Belcher was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His family returned to England and he joined the Navy. He studied surveying and natural history. He was, therefore, ideally placed to join the famous Admiralty surveys. As Assistant Surveyor on H.M.S. Blossom he sailed to the Bering Strait. His first command was Aetna in 1830 for a survey of the West African coast. That’s when the trouble started. On the ship’s return, his officers complained about his treatment of the crew. Charge followed countercharge but Belcher was acquitted of abuse and again took command during a twenty-month voyage. The crew laid further charges of abuse and this time the Admiralty took action. He was posted to H.M.S. Lightning to survey the Irish Sea. That was disgrace number one.

Well, not quite number one, since his wife whom he had married in 1830 announced in 1833 she would not live with him again on the grounds that he had twice infected her with venereal disease. A protracted legal struggle for formal separation followed which Belcher apparently prolonged out of spite. Despite her wish to be rid of him, his wife was content, as one biographer has noted, to call herself Lady Belcher after Belcher was knighted a decade later. 

But Belcher had a powerful backer—Francis Beaufort FRS, Hydrographer of the Navy and inventor of the eponymous wind-speed scale. Reading between the lines it seems that Beaufort was impressed by Belcher’s professional abilities. Beaufort persuaded the Admiralty to give Belcher the command of the survey ship, Sulphur. In 1836 he set sail to Panama to take over command of Sulphur after the captain was invalided home. He was to survey the west coasts of North and South America. In 1838, he had one officer arrested plus the ship’s surgeon; they had complained on behalf of the crew about the lack of provisions. A court of inquiry set up by the Admiral stationed in Lima, Peru, exonerated Belcher and had the arrested officer sent home. The surgeon apologised for his conduct and was kept on. The Times of 22 November 1838 reported, ’The evidence of the parties proved that the captain had been kind and humane in the exercise of his duty. The court honourably acquitted him, and the commander-in-chief issued his public order to the squadron, to be read on board each ship, fully exonerating him. These facts are stated in a letter from Captain Belcher himself, which we have seen.’ Accusations of hard treatment of his crew—and officers—were, to put it kindly, becoming something of a habit.

Some account of Belcher’s less endearing behaviour to members of his crew during the exploration off the coast of California are outlined by Richard Beidleman in his book, California’s Frontier Naturalists.

Belcher was actually casting a Nelsonian eye to his orders from the Admiralty: ‘large collections of natural history cannot be expected, nor any connected account of the structure or geological arrangement of the great continent which you are to coast; nor indeed would minute enquiries on these subjects be at all consistent with the true objects of the survey’. His own interests though were firmly on ‘minute enquiries’ in natural history, especially in mollusc shells, and very large collections were amassed during the voyage. As the Summary of the first volume on the zoological collections states:

The arrival of Commander Belcher, by the isthmus of Panama, to take the command, gave a new impulse to affairs, particularly as he was much attached to certain departments of Natural History. His cabin was henceforth applied as a museum, and the dredge now began to be frequently in use.

Conchology, to reiterate was Belcher’s great interest. The volume on those species collected during the voyage begins:

The voyage of H. M. S. Sulphur proved eminently prolific in shells, and a very considerable acquisition has been made to science. The very careful search which was unceasingly made on all the shores visited throughout the voyage, and the constant use of the dredge and trawl, whenever circumstances permitted, have contributed to this; but, above all, the close examination of the proceeds of the dredge, by siftings and diligent washings, brought into notice a great number of small but very interesting species, the great majority of which was previously unknown.

On Sulphur Belcher had collecting assistance: Assistant Surgeon Richard Brinsley Hinds (1811-1846) as well as a civilian botanical collector from Kew. Hinds collected the first botanical specimens from Hong Kong. There was rivalry and resentment, with the botanical collections going to different recipients. Barclay, the Kew collector, obviously sent his specimens there; Hinds sent his to George Bentham’s private herbarium. Hinds was invalided home from the China Coast in April 1941. However, he was kept on by the navy to work on the natural history collections and the publications (they are his words from the zoology volumes above) arising from Belcher’s voyage on Sulphur. For his work Hinds was highly praised by the Admiralty. Their Lordships contributed £500 towards his expenses in editing the publications and promoted him Surgeon. He was proposed by the head of the medical services for the Navy for election to Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons. But he was ill (‘phthisis’, usually meaning in today’s terminology, tuberculosis). He was placed on the unfit list and travelled to Western Australia. Hinds died there in 1847.

After the survey of the Americas, Belcher took Sulphur across the Pacific. While at Singapore he received orders to proceed to the China coast to take part in the First Opium War. During the attack up the Pearl River by naval ships and the secretly-built East India Company’s steamship, Nemesis, Belcher was in charge of the ships and he used the six guns of Nemesis, the first steamship to be used in action by Britain and of very shallow draught, to devastating effect.

Nemesis and boats of Sulphur, Calliope, Larne and Starling destroying the
Chinese war junks on 7 January 1841
(from Allom & Wright, The Chinese Empire Illustrated, 1858

As a result of these actions, Hong Kong was ceded by China. Belcher landed on Hong Kong Island on 25 January 1841. The formal possession of Hong Kong took place the next day. Belcher in Sulphur then surveyed the new possession and its surrounding waters and islands. However, fighting continued and after further actions Sulphur was only released to return to Singapore in late November.

Belcher won high praise from his Commander-in-Chief, Commodore (later Rear-Admiral) Sir James John Gordon Bremer (1786-1850), who described him as ‘that able and intelligent officer’ in a despatch published in The Times on 11 October 1841. Others on the scene were less impressed and there were disputatious exchanges in print.

For his actions, Belcher was promoted Captain and appointed Companion of the Bath. Further survey work and collection of specimens followed on the voyage back to Britain. He arrived home in July 1842 after six years away and was knighted in January 1843. He was given command, as Captain Sir Edward Belcher, of another vessel, H.M.S. Samarang, to survey the South China Sea and the East Indies. He returned after nearly four years, in December 1846.

No naval job followed until 1852 when he was given command of five ships to search for the ships and men of the Franklin expedition to the Canadian arctic who had not been seen since 1845. The fact that the remains of those famous ships, Erebus and Terror, were not discovered until 2014 and 2016 respectively is an indication that Belcher’s mission was a failure. But it was more than that; it ended in debacle.

The summer ice conditions were not kind but Belcher apparently refused to take the advice of experienced navigators in the Arctic and found himself trapped in the heaviest ice. He had split his ships; his other division was also stuck. Instead of waiting to see if they would eventually be freed, Belcher ordered all the ships to be abandoned. The crews found their way back to Beechey Island where transport ships were waiting. An automatic court-martial for losing the ships followed but Belcher, to everybody’s surprise, was acquitted since his orders had given him complete discretion over his actions. Belcher’s sword though was returned to him 'without observation’ i.e. in silence. By contrast, the other captains who had lost their ships (under Belcher’s orders) were acquitted with honour and warm words of praise.

Belcher’s active naval career was over. To add insult to injury, one of the ships, H.M.S. Resolute, commanded by Henry Kellett* (1806-1875) broke free of the ice and drifted off to sea. An American whaler spotted her and towed her to New London, Connecticut. The U.S. Congress bought the salvaged vessel and returned her to the U.K. As a mark of gratitude timber was taken from the ship when she was being broken up and made into a desk as a gift from Queen Victoria to the President of the U.S.A. The desk is still used in the Oval Office of the White House.

Belcher's illustration of the winter quarters dubbed 'Crystal Palace' during
the search for the Franklin Expeditiion

The naval historian Sir John Knox Laughton (1830-1915) wrote of Belcher’s appointment to the expedition in the Dictionary of National Biography:

The appointment was unfortunate, for though an able and experienced surveyor he had neither the temper nor tact for a commanding officer under circumstances of peculiar difficulty. Perhaps no officer of equal ability has ever succeeded in inspiring so much personal dislike, and the customary exercise of his authority did not make Arctic service less trying. Nor did any happy success make amends for much discomfort and annoyance, and his expedition is distinguished from all other Arctic expeditions as the one in which the commanding officer showed an undue haste to abandon his ships when in difficulties, and in which one of the ships so abandoned rescued herself from the ice and was picked up floating freely in the open Atlantic.

Belcher in 1861, the year of his
promotion to Rear-Admiral
Carte-de-visite by Camille Silvy
The end of Belcher’s active career did not stop his automatic upward progression from Captain to flag officer as those higher in seniority died or retired. It is difficult to conceive that such a system ever operated but operate it did and Belcher became a Rear-Admiral in 1861, Vice-Admiral in 1866 and Admiral in 1872—at the age of 73!

Belcher was a prolific writer and illustrator; a book was written about each voyage. Even on his failed Arctic expedition he collected specimens vigorously and the book contained notes by luminaries such as Richard Owen. He even wrote a novel.

Basil Stuart-Stubbs !1930-2012) summed up Belcher in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography:

During his career, Belcher was one of the most controversial figures in the Royal Navy. As an officer he had many desirable attributes: scientific curiosity, technical competence, inventiveness, physical energy, and sometimes reckless bravery. However, he suffered from an irritable, quarrelsome, and hypercritical nature which made relations with superiors and subordinates alike extremely difficult. Although he was in many ways a capable officer, his record remains blighted by his ignominious failure as commander in chief of the Franklin search expedition, an appointment which has been described as “unfortunate” since Belcher’s temperament did not enable him to function as the situation demanded.

Anybody reading the story now would conclude that Belcher was in the wrong job. The description of his attributes temperament would fit many a university professor of the 20th Century.

In the volume celebrating the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Zoological Society of London, its librarian, Mr R. Fish, and the occasional zoologist, film maker, promoter of table tennis, journalist, communist and Soviet (GRU) spy, Ivor Montagu (1904-1984) wrote of Belcher:

He might almost have had a subsidiary profession as animal collector. From everywhere that Belcher went, specimens were sure to go. Skins to the museum, live animals to the menagerie. Remember the conditions on board in that era, the tiny working space available, the problems of live transport. Yet he was one of the most prolific donors the Society was ever privileged to have. He contributed four papers to PZS [Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, now Journal of Zoology] and wrote a book about every voyage.

Belcher had a number of species named after him including the sea-snake Hydrophis belcheri, the gull Larus belcheri, the prion Pachyptila belcheri, the Chinese amphioxus Branchiostoma belcheri, the fish Psettodes belcheri, the pipefish Phoxocampus belcheri and the sea star Nepanthia belcheri.

Larus belcheri at Arica, Chile
Photographed by Alastair Rae (Flickr)

Belcher’s name lives on in Hong Kong. Belcher Gardens was demolished but a collection of  six residential tower blocks was built on the site as The Belchers. Belcher street remains in the newly trendy Kennedy Town along with the nearby Belcher Bay Park.

†The officer who fell foul of Belcher appears not to have suffered from his arrest and dismissal. He became Admiral Sir Richard Collinson (1811-1883). He too was involved as Captain of H.M.S. Plover, along with Kellett, in the survey of Hong Kong (hence Plover Cove) and in naval actions during the First Opium War. He was appointed surveying officer to the China fleet, to the intense annoyance of Belcher who had had him dismissed from Sulphur in Peru. His surveys of the China Coast (1842-1846) form the basis of subsequent Admiralty charts. Like Belcher, he was unsuccessful in a search for Franklin and his ships, a result that did not impress the Admiralty. He resented the lack of appreciation and refused further appointments, nevertheless being promoted to Admiral on the retired list in 1875, three years after, but considerably younger than, Belcher. His brother, Thomas, was a military surveyor in Hong Kong after whom Cape Collinson is named.

*Kellett was one of the captains acquitted with honour and warm words and who had protested at Belcher’s order to abandon his ship in the ice. Kellett had been in command of another survey ship, H.M.S. Starling, which accompanied Sulphur on its long voyage and in the First Opium War (hence Starling Inlet in Hong Kong). He became Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Kellett and Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s China Station in 1869 (Kellett Island, Mount Kellett in Hong Kong).

Video footage of Belcher's Sea Snake:

UPDATED: 14 December 2018