Saturday 20 February 2021

Frank Evers Beddard: Descriptive zoology at the turn of the 20th century

Frank Evers Beddard

Those browsing in public libraries in the middle of the 20th century would be excused, I hope, since I was one of those browsers, for gaining the impression that F.E. Beddard’s life’s work had been on mammals. Libraries sometimes had on their shelves volumes in the Cambridge Natural History, a series of ten volumes published, out of numerical order, between 1895 and 1909. Beddard wrote volume 10 in 1902; it was on mammals.

It seemed obvious that Beddard was a specialist in mammals; at the time he wrote it he was Prosector to the Zoological Society of London, and London Zoo had lots of dead mammals each week to work on. However, he made his name on an entirely different group of animals, earthworms, the oligochaetes.

Frank Evers Beddard was born in Dudley in 1858, the son of a prosperous businessman. Educated at Harrow and Oxford (graduated 1880) he was appointed to work on the animals collected by the Challenger Expedition of 1872-1876, involving a circumnavigation of the earth for oceanographic research. The job was in Edinburgh and he was assigned the isopods to describe and identify; his results were published in two of the 50 volumes, a marathon of descriptive zoology. In Edinburgh he also began to take an interest in earthworms.

A plate from Beddard's report on isopods
collected by the Challenger Expedition

Beddard was appointed to the prosectorium at London Zoo in 1884. At that time Philip Lutley Sclater was Secretary (i.e. chief executive). It is unfortunate that Beddard’s obituary notice for the Royal Society was written by Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell, who succeeded Sclater after a bitter, highly political election. In some respects Mitchell was an ideal biographer of Beddard since he had worked in Beddard’s prosectorium and obviously knew him well. However, Mitchell throughout his life seemed hellbent on deriding Sclater and Beddard’s obituary was yet another chance he did not pass over.

Chalmers Mitchell praised Beddard’s working habits in the days of the gentleman scientist:

For a large part of his life he was a harder worker than persons with more ordinary habits could guess. He rose very early, and was usually at his table in the Zoo Prosectorium before 8 a.m. On many days he lunched at the Gardens, taking his notebooks into the restaurant, then worked until 4, when he went home, wrote until an early dinner, again worked after dinner, going to bed at 9. When the routine was broken by his going to a club to lunch, he already had a good morning’s work behind him and could linger in apparent idleness long after the ten-to-four men had ostentatiously hurried away. In later life, naturally, he was easier with himself. 

Beddard did not enjoy a happy life. He married Anne Fletcher in 1886 and had two children but the couple split up. He with the children moved in with his mother in Hampstead. Mitchell continued:

These domestic circumstances are related because they were the first cause of a sense of grievance against life which increased with age, until it became almost a mania of persecution. Apart from the subject of his wrongs, Beddard was a charming companion, with a fund of amusing anecdote that made him a welcome neighbour in clubs or social gatherings. 

It was in his description of Beddard’s work at the Zoo that Mitchell took the opportunity to have a dig at Sclater and remind the world what a great replacement he had been:

During the greater part of Beddard’s tenure of the Prosectorship, there was the unfortunate tradition that the Prosector must always be ready with a paper for the fortnightly Scientific Meetings of the Society. P. L. Sclater, moreover, his official chief, was interested mainly in systematic zoology, and not being an anatomist himself, was over-ready to believe that even a hurried dissection would settle doubtful points in classification. The double pressure led Beddard to produce far too many short papers, and to draw systematic inferences from dissections of single species or even single organs in species. It cannot be said that his output in any part of vertebrate anatomy had a value at all com­mensurate with its bulk. A volume on the ‘Structure and Classification of Birds,’ published in 1895, brought together much useful information ; one on ‘Whales ’ (1900) was pleasantly written; his volume on ‘Mammals in the Cambridge Natural History ’ was a sound and useful compilation. Several others need not be mentioned.


A list of the books he wrote with, in some cases, links to full text sources can be found here.

From Beddards book on animal coloration

Beddard was praised for his work on oligochaetes (which he had done while fulfilling his duties as prosector). Quite how he had time to do this isn’t made clear because he was also lecturer in biology at Guy’s Medical School, as well as external examiner in Oxford and London:

Beddard’s permanent place in Zoology depends on his great ‘Monograph of the Oligochaeta’ (Oxford University Press, 1895) and on the prolonged researches on which it was based. There were already in existence accounts of the group published by F. Vejdovsky in 1884 and L. Vaillant in 1890, but both of these writers had rather neglected the literature on the subject, and subsequent to their volumes very much new information had been obtained by the study of collections from most parts of the world. Beddard had himself dissected and examined nearly all the important types that were known, and had searched the literature carefully. The general account of the anatomy he gave was much in advance of that of any of his predecessors, and his systematic descriptions were clear and well arranged. 

Beddard was elected to the Royal Society in 1892.

The unfortunate taste in the mouth left by Chalmers Mitchell’s account of Beddard’s life—as indeed with much of his writing—extended to reminding the reader, again, of who won the election to succeed Sclater. Beddard, Mitchell wrote, was a candidate but ‘he did not press his claims in face of a general opinion, which he himself frankly shared, that he was not well adapted to the continuous duties of administration of a large organisation’.

Beddard retired from the Zoo, where he was a popular lecturer, in 1915. He died of a heart attack at his house in Hampstead in 1925, aged 67.

Chalmers Mitchell’s comments on the book written by Beddard echo those written by William Plane Pycraft (1868–1942) of the Natural History Museum in an obituary for Nature:

In his books Beddard did himself less than justice. His volume on whales, for example, was good but he could have given us a much better book. The same may be said of his volume on the classification of birds and that on the coloration of animals. In these he seems to have shirked the labour of coming to a decision on the very vexed and controversial points which these two themes presented. He nowhere commits himself to a definite opinion as to whether he does or does not agree with the conclusions arrived at by others, whose views he sets forth without comment. His pages are almost too dispassionate to be helpful.

I looked at the book on animal coloration. I found it an excellent introduction for its time, and surely he should have been praised for presenting different views on ‘controversial points’ without necessarily, in the absence of further evidence or informed knowledge, coming down on one side or the other.

Pycraft (who, remember, was one of those duped by the Piltdown hoax) praised the talks that Chalmers Michell so derided; part of the job of the prosector was to keep the amateur and professionals who gathered for Zoological Society meetings content with their membership:

Those who were privileged to listen to his discourses, at the scientific meetings of the Society, will ever remember his extraordinary facility of expression and the clear and rapid way in which he laid abstruse points before his audience. Few, probably, who were listening had ever made the dissections he was describing, yet so admirable was his presentation of the facts he had gleaned, that they could not fail to grasp the essential points laid before them. He had no rival in this regard.

Beddard’s preserved specimens and descriptions live on. I think Beddard is now best described as an exemplar both of what zoology was all about at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries and of the sort of man who worked in the field. And I still rather like, dated as it is,  his mammals book.

Pycraft WP (as WPP). 1925. Dr FE Beddard FRS. Nature 116, 215-216.

Mitchell PC (as PCM).1926. Frank Evers Beddard—1858-1925. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 99, xxxvi-xxxvii.

Sunday 14 February 2021

HONG KONG: An Urban Wild Boar

AJP was walking to the Aberdeen MTR Station a couple of weeks ago when, much to his surprise, he spotted a wild boar walking along the footpath towards him.

In the 1960s wild boar were very rare, having previously been abundant. So rare that Patricia Marshall in her Wild Mammals of Hong Kong (1967) wrote of ‘there being possibly only one or two families of not more than five individuals in each. One family on Lantau [island], one in the New Territories’.

Now they are said to be everywhere with a massive increase in the past few years. People feeding them are being blamed for their presence in urban areas. This one was the epitome of nonchalance as it sauntered along the street.

It reminds me of the 1934 temperance song:

Yes, the pig got up and slowly walked away

Slowly walked away, slowly walked away

Yes, the pig got up and he turned and winked at me

As he slowly walked away

The genetic history of these pigs would be interesting, especially since there were thought to be none on Hong Kong island (Aberdeen is on the island for those unfamiliar with the place) by the late 1960s.