To keep my academic interests
in trim, in 1947 I published
A Study of Fishes, a book
intended mainly for anglers
and heavily illustrated with
my own line drawings.
What I did not know (I must have been out of the country when he died aged 100 in 2014) was that Henry Chapman Pincher started off with a degree in zoology and botany from King’s College, London, became a school teacher because no university posts were available, and after service in the army became science correspondent of the Daily Express. It was in the 1940s that I found him, ensconced in the Express as a favourite of the proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, in the pages of the Aquarist, where and seemingly presaging his entire career, his writing proved controversial in some circles.
In the March 1947 issue of the Aquarist, A.G. Evans wrote to say that he had complained to the editor of the Daily Express about an article on goldfish that was published on 21 December 1946; the text of the letter was added. The gist of the complaint was that it described research that had later been falsified to the effect that fish can absorb microparticles of food through the skin. Evans also noted but did not expand in the letter to the editor on a claim made in the Express that ‘the skin of a goldfish secretes a substance beneficial to other goldfish’. Chapman Pincher replied but did not deal with the main complaint only to ‘substance beneficial to other goldfish’ claim. He noted that the work had been published, quoted the reference and informed Evans that he could find the journal in the Zoological Society’s library.
Then Alec Frederick Fraser-Brunner (born 1906), the Editor of the Aquarist, took up the cudgels but in doing so actually scored an own goal. He began by quoting from the original newspaper article and then explained that it was the second claim in Pincher’s article that was wrong since it had been shown that goldfish do not absorb small particles of food through the skin. Fraser-Brunner also asked why Pincher ‘chose this abstruse matter, still in the experimental stage, rather than something simpler and more instructional for the children’ and then criticised the illustration in the Daily Express, saying it was of a Crucian Carp, not a goldfish.
The own goal? Well, Fraser-Brunner quoted the paper that Pincher had suggested Evans read in his reply. The authors he said were Allen, Finkel and Hoskins. But the senior author’s name was not Allen but Allee*. This could not have been a typo because he made the mistake twice.
Looking at Fraser-Brunner’s letter 70 years later, I have some sympathy for Pincher. He was at least trying to pass on the latest information, as he saw it—albeit imperfectly, and was not taking the patronising tone in what appears to have been an article for children that Fraser-Brunner was advocating.
The matter did not end there. In his letter to the Aquarist, Chapman Pincher wrote:
Your correspondent [Evans] states that I must be hard up for what he amusingly calls “piscicultural information”. I would refer him to my “Study of Fishes,” shortly to be published by Messrs. Herbert Jenkins, Ltd.Shortly afterwards, Alec Fraser-Brunner produced a long, scathing review of Pincher’s book for the Aquarist. It started as it continued:
A journalist steps in where ichthyologists have feared to tread. The task of collecting, collating and interpreting data from the large amount of recent work on fishes is one that would be considered by those who have made a life-study of the subject to be a formidable task. Mr. Pincher has viewed it as a little thing to be tossed off between purveying titbits to “Daily Express” readers, organising exhibitions of atomic power and writing on such matters as livestock breeding. The result, as might be expected, is superficial and undigested.After criticising the lack of a bibliography, the diagrams, the simplification of terms and the drawings of various species, he concluded:
That it should be left to a journalist to produce this work as a pot-boiler is due to the preoccupation of ichthyologists with discovering new facts, and their realisation that the selection and interpretation of our knowledge takes a great deal more time and experience than has gone into the present work. This is very sad.
Having read the snippets from the Aquarist, I can only guess at the motivation for Fraser-Brunner’s carping—(could not resist it)—criticism. That guess is professional jealousy pure and simple. I do not think that Fraser-Brunner could have been aware of Pincher’s biological background since in the review he seems to imply it must have been in general science.
I suspect that Alec Fraser-Brunner, having worked his way up the hard way as a descriptive ichthyologist and taxonomist and as a well-known aquarist and fish fancier, was pretty put out by a stranger on the scene, Chapman Pincher, writing articles and books on what he, Fraser-Brunner, had a proprietorial interest. Pincher was, in fact, very well connected scientifically even at that time. He had produced two papers while still an undergraduate and had befriended the joint editor of Nature, L.J.F. Brimble (1904-1965).
Soon after this spat with Chapman-Pincher, Freser-Brunner got a job with the Colonial Office to survey the fish of the Gulf of Aden. He also worked for the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations on fisheries. He was appointed Director of the Van Kleef Aquarium (now demolished) in Singapore in 1956; in 1970 he became Curator of the Carnegie Aquarium (now also demolished except for a wall) at Edinburgh Zoo. He died in 1986 in Edinburgh.
Alec Fraser-Brunner left a lasting legacy in Singapore. He designed the Merlion logo for the Singapore Tourist Board which has become symbolic of Singapore since a statue of the beast was constructed in 1972.
Fraser-Brunner’s replacement as editor of the Aquarist was Anthony Evans. I assume this was the A.G. Evans who wrote the original criticism of Pincher’s piece in the Express. Evans edited the Aquarist until 1966 when he defected to a new magazine, Pet Fish Monthly.
†I have found anomalies in his autobiography. His birthplace is given there and on websites as Ambala in India. However, the British Armed Forces And Overseas Births And Baptisms Register shows his place of birth as Sabathu, a hill station and military cantonment, 97 km to the north. His autobiography reads as if he was teacher at the Liverpool Institute, a famous grammar school for boys, from 1936 until he was called up in 1940. However, the 1939 Register shows that he was living 79 miles from Liverpool, at 91 Farrar Road, Bangor, North Wales with his first wife, Margaret Stanford, and another couple.
*Warder Clyde Allee (1885-1955) of the University of Chicago. Allee WC, Finkel AJ, Hoskins WH. 1940. The growth of goldfish in homotypically conditioned water; a population study in mass physiology. Journal of Experimental Zoology 84, 417-443.
Evans AG. 1947. Misinformation. Aquarist 11 (12, March 1947), 379.
Pincher C. 1947. [letter]. Aquarist 12 (1, April 1947), 4.
Fraser-Brunner A. 1947. The goldfish and the newspaper. Aquarist 12 (2, May 1947), 40.
Pincher, C. 1948. A Study of Fishes. London: Herbert Jenkins
Pincher C. 1948. A Study of Fish. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce. (U.S. edition of Pincher’s book)
Fraser-Brunner A. 1948. Book Review. A Study of Fishes by Chapman Pincher B.Sc. Aquarist 12 (12, March 1948), 365.
Pincher C.2014. Chapman Pincher. Dangerous to Know. A Life. London: Biteback.