Friday 24 September 2021

The Blue-rumped or Little Malay Parrot: A tale of two birds

There is no difficulty in telling which are males and which are females in this species of parrot. The male Blue-rumped or Little Malay Parrot, Psittinus cyanurus, has a blue head; the female has a brown head. It is a small parrot, only around 18 cm in length, from south-east Asia. It ranges from the extreme south of Burma and peninsular Thailand through Malaysia to Borneo and Sumatra where it is a bird of lowland forest.

We saw the pair shown here in a bird shop in Li Yuen Street in Hong Kong in 1966. They were the only ones we ever saw. They were housed in a cage on their own and cowered at the sight and sound of large and squawking birds like the Moluccan Cockatoos living next to them. They seemed, unlike many parrots, to be gentle creatures. Half an hour later they were living in our flat.

Female Blue-rumped Parrot photographed in 1967

Male Blue-rumped Parrot, 1967

The male ‘Blue-head’ remained timorous. Although he ate well he seemed, for a parrot, rather dim and a little ponderous. Just before we were due to leave Hong Kong we found him dead one morning. We already had a specially constructed metal carrying box constructed to fly them and the two cockatoos to UK, and so it was ‘Brown-head’ who made the journey. She seemed to have a far more robust constitution and lived in the house for nearly three years. Then when Pru Hopkins who owned and started Linton Zoo called in one Saturday afternoon she was greatly taken by ‘Brown-head’ and so we gave the parrot to her in the hope that its appearance in the zoo might stimulate somebody to say, ‘I know where there is a male’. Disaster then struck Pru. Her son was killed and she immediately sold the zoo and house. She did not though include ‘Brown-head’; she took the parrot with her when she moved out. I was only in contact with Pru a couple of times after that since I did not wish to have to remind her of the events at Linton. Pru died in 2004 and I do not know, therefore, how ‘Brown-head’ had fared.

I have only ever seen one other pair of Blue-rumped Parrots—in San Diego Zoo in 1992. A Dutch breeder wrote in 200 that there were only a few people in Europe and two in the USA who kept and bred this species.

Over 55 years after seeing the little parrots in the shop in Hong Kong, the world has moved on. The species is now classified by IUCN as ‘Near Vulnerable’ but now, as then, relatively few have found their way into the pet trade or the serious avicultural circles in the west, although the bird markets of Indonesia remain the most likely places they are still traded. They are, I read, more common in the remnants of forest in Singapore than once though, so I suppose we can but hope to see this splendid small parrot in the wild if we are again in the right part of the world.

Thursday 23 September 2021

Miss Knobel and her Parrots; a forgotten bit of science

The simple death notice in The Times of 11 August 1967 or the account of a subsequent memorial service would have meant little to most readers. However, to the aficianado of parrots it was the end of an era. Emily Maud Knobel or Miss E. Maud Knobel, as she was known as, had in her 96 years made herself into an expert on their care in captivity and on their morphology, plumage and identification. She had a particular interest in those from South America, the Amazon parrots.

Miss Knobel became secretary of the Avicultural Society in 1922. That Society (still extant) comprised a vast social range within its membership, from the aristocracy with their estates, vast paddocks and aviaries, through zoo professionals, professional scientists including those from museums, industrialists, the comfortably off middle class and the nouveau riche to a few of the working class. All had an interest in, passion for, or obsession with, keeping and studying birds from all parts of the world. She was praised highly for sorting out the affairs of the Society and when she stood down from the honorary post was made a Vice-President. Then, from 1964 until her death she was President, officiating at meetings until shortly before her death.

Avicultural Magazine 54, Sept-Oct 1948

I always had Miss Knobel down as a highly gifted bird keeper who had the money to pursue her hobby. However, when looking for something else entirely I found she had worked as a visitor in the Prosectorium at London Zoo. For much of her life she lived on Regents Park Road near the north gate of the zoo and she is known to have spent a great deal of time there talking to the keepers and with the birds.

The reason she worked in the Prosectorium was to follow up observations on how to determine the sex of parrots. While in some species of parrot, the Eclectus (Eclectus roratus) and the Little Malay Parrot (Psittinus cyanurus) for example, the sexes are very different in appearance, in many, including the Amazon parrots in which Miss Knobel had a particular interest, it is not possible for the human observer to tell male from female. She, encouraged by the use of the method by pigeon fanciers, began to palpate the abdomen in order to estimate the distance between the publc bones. In adult parrots the distance between the pubic bones is much greater in the female than in the male, the argument being that the egg has to pass between the two on its way to the outside world. In her own words: ’in my live birds I have never made a mistake, but I was very anxious to prove this method by examining the pelvic bones of dead birds’.

In the eight species of parrot (varying in size from a lovebird to a macaw) she examined, the gap between the pelvic bones was 1.3-4.4 times greater in the female compared with the male. She published her results in Proceedings of the Zoological Society in 1924.

The tips of the pubic bones can be palpated through the body wall
From Knobel 1924


Miss Knobel’s method of sexing adult parrots was used for decades. However, in immature females the inter-pubic gap is similar to that of the males; her method therefore did not work in young birds.

Emily Maud Knobel was born in 1871 at Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire. She was the eldest child of Edward Ball Knobel (1841-1930). At the time of her birth, her father was working for the brewers, Bass & Co as an analytical chemist; he became head brewer. He had started out to follow his father into the legal profession but had swapped to science at the School of Mines (later incorporated into Imperial College London). After Bass, he became chief dye chemist for Courtaulds and manager of their crepe silk factory in Essex. In 1893 he moved on and joined the company of a ‘distant relative’, Alfred Harman, as a director. Harman retired the following year and Knobel became managing director of what was to become the major British player in the burgeoning photographic industry, Ilford Ltd. Harman’s company was originally making gelatine dry plates and called Britannia Works; the name changed to Ilford in 1900. Knobel and his board twice turned down takeover bids from Kodak, based in the U.S.A. However, as far as Knobel was concerned something went wrong and he was ousted by the board in 1907.

Within the Knobel family there was a rift between Edward and his younger daughter, Margaret Hilda (1874-1966). An interview with Margaret in connection with the history of Ilford Ltd revealed why she had become known as Miss Knobel-Harman and why, when she was often shown as Maud’s guest at meetings of the Avicultural Society, that rather mysterious name appeared in the list of those attending the dinners. Margaret said that when Harman’s wife died in 1902 and knowing that she, Margaret, was not on good terms with her family, Harman offered to adopt her provided that she agreed to change her name by deed poll. She accepted and lived in Harman’s palatial mansion in Surrey until he died in 1913; she was one of two executors of his will.. Part of the disagreement with her father was her insistence on becoming independent. To that end she trained as a sanitary inspector.

Margaret Knobel-Harman remarked during the course of the interview that at 92 her sister was even older: ‘Twenty of these birds [parrots] share her small home in St John’s Wood’ and ‘conversation is difficult’.

Maud Knobel shared her father’s interests in science and technology. He was a noted amateur astronomer and was awarded an Honorary DSc by Oxford. He served as secretary, treasurer and president of the Royal Astronomical Society. Father and daughter, Emily Maud, attended lectures at the Royal Institution where they were both members.

Dr Maurice Amsler* in an article noting her demitting the post as secretary of the Avicultural Society in 1948 described the development of her interest in birds:

A gift of a pair of Doves started this little lady on the fascinating road of aviculture at the tender age of two years; then followed a Canary which lived for twenty years, a good proof of the meticulous care which she has ever since bestowed on her birds and other pets. 

     The Canary was followed by hand-reared Blackbirds, Thrushes, a Magpie, and a Rook, but the most remarkable was most certainly a Sparrow, a species which, although cheeky and fearless in the wild, does not lend itself well to cage life. This bird learned the song of the Canary, and when liberated found himself a mate and reared a family which he brought back to his old cage-home for food. 

     Finally, in 1911, the first Parrot, a Blue-fronted Amazon, was purchased, and this started a series of birds of this tribe for which Miss Knobel has become justly famous. Of the forty-two species of Amazons, she has kept twenty-seven, and there have of course been many African Greys, Cockatoos, Parrakeets, Lovebirds, Budgerigars, and so forth—but one with so catholic tastes could not resist such charmers as Shamas (no pun intended), tame Bulbuls, small seed-eaters, Roller Canaries, and a pack of Pekingese. 

     To clinch her position as an authority on Psittacins [sic], she studied skins and skeletons at the Natural History Museum and also at Tring. It was during these investigations that she discovered the sexual differences in the pelves of Parrots.

The reason for her resignation in 1948 was to the modern world quite extraordinary. Dr Amsler explained:

…it is hardly necessary to remind members that for the past nine years [war and postwar austerity] aviculture has for various reasons become increasingly difficult, and it was therefore thought that a business man would be better able to deal with the various authorities who control the distribution of food and the importation of birds. 

Emily Maud Knobel clearly devoted a great deal of her time to her birds; I can find no record of her  ever having had to work for a living. She attributed her success to providing constant activity and amusement for her birds. She was essentially a keeper of pet parrots, not a breeder, and wrote articles on all aspects of their care.

Palpation of the pubic bones was the only method known for sexing parrots in which the sexes were otherwise indistinguishable. It was used for decades by those attempting to breed parrots. However, because young birds showed no difference, young females were often misidentified. In order to overcome that problem, laparotomy using an endoscope came into fashion much later in the 20th century. However, the risk of death under anaesthesia was always present but many sellers and breeders took that risk and could then advertise a bird as ‘surgically sexed’. Now, commercially available DNA sexing is the norm, using tiny samples from a freshly plucked feather, mouth swab or even the egg membranes of a hatchling.

To those who knew her Miss Knobel was known as ‘Maudie’. She appeared in a number of newspaper photographs surrounded by her parrots and often with cue in hand at her snooker table—she was by all accounts no mean player.

Emily Maud Knobel died on 9 August 1967.

Embed from Getty Images

*Albert Maurice Amsler (1877-1952) was born a Swiss subject but naturalized in 1912. Until his retirement in 1935 he was a general practitioner in Eton with a particular interest in obstetrics. He bred bull-terriers, raised plants and kept birds in his garden aviaries. 

Amsler M. 1948. Maud Knobel. Avicultural Magazine 54, 137-138.

Knobel EM. 1924. Some remarks on the pelvic bones of parrots. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1924, 789-792.

Festive Amazon
By Keulemans 1891
Catalogue of Birds in the British Museum

Tuesday 14 September 2021

Arthur Sowerby and the Shanghai Museum: A new paper sheds light on his achievements

 In my article of 11 May 2019, I described the activities in China of the explorer Arthur de Carle Sowerby (1885-1954). I noted:

For around 25 years he lived in Shanghai. He produced and published a monthly periodical, the China Journal. He served as honorary director of the Shanghai Museum, one of the activities of the Royal Asiatic Society. He was president of the China Society of Science of Art which was incorporated into the Royal Asiatic Society. He later served as president of the latter. He had his publishing business and was a director of other companies.

I am now able to put more flesh on the bones of his zoological activities in Shanghai as the result of a recent publication in Archives of Natural History written by Li-Chuan Tai of Academia Sinica in Taiwan. In his role, first as honorary curator then, from 1932, as honorary director of the Shanghai Museum Sowerby persuaded the Municipal Council of the International Settlement to permit the demolition and reconstruction of the North-China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society’s premises. The resulting expanded and re-designed museum was opened in 1933. New diorama-style exhibits were introduced showing stuffed animals in artificial compressed landscapes, following the latest fashion in museum display techniques.

Sowerby obviously did some of the work on the dioramas himself as this photograph from Tai (2021) shows


The most prominent diorama was that showing a Giant Panda and a Red Panda in a naturalistic setting. Giant Pandas were big news in the 1930s both when alive or dead since so few people had seen one. The animal in the Shanghai diorama was shot in 1932 by the Chinese-American explorer, Jack Theodore Young (1910-2000)*; he donated the panda to the Shanghai Museum.


The panda exhibit was installed in 1933 and became a major attraction. Another new exhibit, opened in 1935, was a diorama on Peking Man. Sowerby added labels in Chinese alongside those in English in 1934; school visits together with lectures and demonstrations for the public made the Shanghai Museum an important element of life in Shanghai. The number of visitors increased during the 1930s, reaching 65,000 in 1940.

Reading Sowerby’s accounts of the development of the museum in the Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society show how busy he was in developing the museum in the 1930s. But then of course came war both from the Japanese occupation and the struggle between the Nationalists and the Communists. After the latter’s takeover of the Shanghai Museum in 1952, by which time Sowerby had left Shanghai, the premises were closed and specimens moved to form the basis of the Shanghai Museum of Natural History which opened in 1956. In turn that museum closed in 2014 to be replaced by a new Shanghai Natural History Museum which opened in 2015.

During the lifetime of the Shanghai Museum, a family—the Tangs—had become established as taxidermists and their services had been used to prepare mounted specimens for local hunters and other museums, thereby contributing to the income of the museum. Tai writes that in the transfer of specimens to the new museum in 2014-15 many of those made by members of the Tang family were included. It would seem then that many of Sowerby’s additions to the museum, if not the displays themselves, live on in, as Sam Alberti described it, The Afterlives of Animals: A Museum Menagerie.

*The lives of Jack Theodore Young and his brother, Quentin, both in the Giant Panda story and later were remarkable and too complicated to detail here. However, three snippets will suffice: (i) Jack was ADC to General ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell; (ii) present at a meeting between Chiang Kai-Shek and Chou En-Lai; (iii) an American intelligence agent in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The brothers also donated other specimens, including a Takin from Sichuan, to the Shanghai Museum.

Tai L-C. 2021. The Shanghai Museum and the introduction of taxidermy and habitat dioramas into China, 1874–1952. Archives of Natural History 48, 111-130

Monday 6 September 2021

Sunday 5 September 2021

Frank Wall: Army Medical Officer and Snakeman of India

I first heard of Frank Wall in the 1960s, in John Romer’s checklists of Hong Kong amphibians and reptiles (see my recent post here). I later heard of his publications on Indian snakes but until I read his potted biography in that wonderful series, Contributions to the History of Herpetology, nothing else. I have now found a more material on his life. Herpetology was an area in which his profession coincided with his interest in snakes. Military authorities have long had great concern about venomous snakes and the treatment of snakebite

George Wall—Frank Wall’s father

Frank Wall dedicated his book on the snakes of Ceylon to the memory of his father, George Wall, reproducing in full the obituary in the Ceylon Independent. A great deal of background to the life of Frank can be gained from the roots his father established in England and in Ceylon and to the wide interests of George in matters scientific as well as in commerce, politics, engineering, journalism and the life of the people of the country of what is now known as Sri Lanka but still to stamp collectors and tea drinkers as Ceylon.

George Wall, who was born in Ashton-under-Lyne, now part of Greater Manchester, on 21 December 1820, was the son of a Methodist New Connexion minister*. Employed from the age of 18 in Manchester by Joseph Whitworth, the great engineer and he of the eponymous screw thread, George Wall became ill in the dank of Manchester and sought employment in warmer climes for the sake of his health. He moved to Ceylon in 1846 as manager of a group of estates belonging to the Ceylon Plantation Company around Kandy. Coffee—not tea—was the crop then being grown and his fortunes rose. In 1854 he founded George Wall & Co, dealing in coffee and the management of estates. In 1870 Ceylon exported 45 million kilograms of coffee and Wall’s company made a lot of money. But then came disaster. The firm foundered in 1879 as coffee rust fungus wiped out the plantations. The fungus reached Ceylon in 1875 and by 1889 production was down to 2 million kilograms. In under 20 years most coffee plantations had been destroyed.

George Wall did not spend his entire time in Ceylon during the time his company was active. He returned to Manchester in 1859, becoming a partner in Sir Joseph Whitworth’s company, where he took a large part in the manufacture and testing of the small arms that made the company so famous. He left for Ceylon again in 1863. His obituary for the Royal Astronomical Society noted that he had observatories at his two residences and ‘devoted much time and expense to astronomical studies’ but that his reduced circumstances after his firm crashed in 1879 and failing eyesight prevented continuation of these activities.

Not knowing the detailed political history of colonial Ceylon I find it difficult to estimate his impact on decisions taken there or in London. He had two spells as chairman of the chamber of commerce in Colombo and represented the colony at the parliamentary enquiry into the affairs of Ceylon in London. He was chairman of the planters’ association and a member of Colombo’s municipal council. He clearly found himself, along with other planters and businessmen, at odds with the colonial government in which he had served a term on the legislative council. He was clearly very active in the abolition of a grain tax (for which he was awarded the gold medal of the pro free trade Cobden Club), in distributing rice from his mills during a famine and in such projects as the breakwater for Colombo harbour, all of which were said at the time to have been of great benefit to the local population. He wrote articles and pamphlets under the pseudonym ‘Speculum’ and edited the Ceylon Independent from 1889 until his death, in London where he had travelled for treatment, on 18 December 1894.

Memorial fountain to George Wall in Colombo (Google Earth)

Apart from his other major interests, George Wall was an amateur botanist, with a particular interest in ferns, publishing two works on the ferns of Ceylon in 1873 and 1879. He was a fellow of the Linnean Society. Botanical interest in the Wall family—George had thirteen children by two wives—was continued by one son, Arnold, who served as Professor of English in Christchurch, New Zealand, for decades.

George Wall is the epitome of that great wave of amateur (in the best sense of the world) interest in natural history that swept Victorian Britain and which resulted in lasting work of great scholarship in many parts of the Empire.

Frank Wall

Frank Wall was born in the relative cool of Nuwara Eliya, the hill town still favoured by holidaymakers from Colombo, on 21 April 1868. He appears in a list of boys educated at Harrow School on Wikipedia but I do not know if that list was compiled from school records; I suspect not. He is listed in the 1881 Census as a pupil at Totteridge Park School while the 1891 Census shows him living there as a medical student. In the meantime he began his medical education at the Ceylon Medical College in Colombo. The Times of 9 April 1890 shows he passed part II of the old conjoint diploma of the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons in anatomy from Mr Cooke’s School of Anatomy and Physiology in London. Cooke’s private school—the activities of which were the cause of frequent complaints by neighbours—was often the recourse of those from the regular medical schools who needed extra tuition in order to pass the anatomy exam. Wall qualified from the Middlesex Hospital medical school, MRCS LRCP, in 1892. In 1893 he was accepted by the Indian Medical Service. whereupon he trained for a year at the Army Medical School at Netley. In 1894 he left for India and was commissioned in the IMS as a Surgeon-Lieutenant on 29 January 1895.

Wall served as a medical officer with a number of regiments across the Indian subcontinent, including Ceylon and Burma. He was officially part of the Madras Presidency IMS establishment. He was promoted Surgeon-Captain in 1898 and Major in 1907. It was as a Captain that he served in the expeditionary force during the Boxer Rebellion, as I described previously in relation to the snakes of Hong Kong; he received the China War Medal for service in 1900.

Frank Wall in 1919
from here
Advanced to Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel in 1914 and to the substantive rank in 1915 he served in France and Belgium from October 1914 until December 1915; he was Mentioned in Despatches twice in that year. Malcolm Smith, fellow medical man and herpetologist, states in an obituary that Wall’s CMG, awarded  in 1915, was for work at Boulogne, the site of the military hospital complex in France. 

Wall then served in Mesopotamia (Indian Expeditionary Force D) from January 1916 to May 1917. He was appointed Assistant Director of Medical Services (i.e. head of medical services for an army division) in January 1917. Promotion to full Colonel came in January 1921 and then, in 1923, he was appointed an Honorary Surgeon to the King, denoted by the postnominal KHS, until his retirement on 5 March 1925.

Captain Frank Wall married Margaret Georgina Cusse, the daughter of a farmer, in Wiltshire on 30 June 1903. A son, Frank William‡, was born in Bangalore, a major army cantonment, on 9 April 1904. Smith noted that he married Mildred Constance Evans in 1924. There are records from around 1911 onwards to suggest that Margaret Georgina was resident in England while Wall was in India. The probate notice for Margaret Georgina, who died in 1933, states that she was the wife of Frank Wall. However, it would appear that Wall and Margaret had divorced since a family history of the Evans family indicates that Frank did indeed marry Mildred Constance in 1924. Mildred, born in 1873, sailed from Liverpool on 1 August 1924 bound for Colombo on board Bibby Line’s SS Yorkshire. The family history on compiled by Brian Kent (Mildred was his paternal great-aunt) suggests Frank and Mildred were married in Colombo or Nuwara Eliya, which explains why I have been unable to find a record of the marriage in UK records. 


Malcolm Smith was clearly well acquainted with Frank Wall and his work on snakes. He wrote:

Wall’s interest in the snakes of India began as soon as he reached that country. In 1895 his name appeared in the list of members of the Bombay Natural History Society and it was in connection with that Society and as a regular contributor to its journal that he came to be recognized as the leading authority in India on the snakes of the country. His first article appeared in 1897, his last in 1925. A complete list of his writings will be found in my volume on the snakes of India and Indo-China (1943) in the fauna of British India series. All together they number 88. Most of his writings consisted of short notes or articles on Indian snakes, dealing with their structure and habits and with taxonomy; but Wall never wrote unless he had a good point to make, and he did not waste words in expressing himself. He took infinite pains to verify his facts, and whatever he recorded is accurate. As a writer he had an easy and lucid style. 

His larger works include The Snakes of Ceylon; The Poisonous Terrestrial Snakes of our British Indian Dominions, a small volume that ran into four editions; and A Popular Treatise on the Common Indian Snakes, This last work, which was published in serial form, is beautifully illustrated in color. It is a great pity that this valuable and interesting series of articles was never brought together and issued in book form. 

Wall’s attitude toward the study of ophiology was many-sided. He tackled the problem from every point of view, not only observing his species in the field, but dissecting them in an attempt to correlate structure with function, and keeping them in captivity to learn more about their ways and modes of life. Wherever he went, he collected. By offering small rewards to the natives he induced them to hunt for him, and in that way many thousands of snakes passed through his hands. Every specimen was critically examined. He made careful notes, and it was upon his notes and his excellent memory that he relied for his identifications and for what he pub­lished. His collection of skulls, all prepared by himself, is a very complete one. Every genus and every common species is represented, often by several specimens. After his retirement he presented this collection, together with his voluminous notes, to the British Museum (Natural History). To the Museum also came the types of all new species described by him, as well as many other specimens illustrating characters of particular interest. 

Wall’s work on snakes, although not his interest in them, ended when he left the country. He was not a Museum worker. His one contribution to pure systematics, namely, A Handlist of the Snakes of the Indian Empire, was, he told me, the most boring piece of work that he ever undertook. His interest was in the living creatures, and when these were no longer avail­able to him he turned to other activities to occupy his time. But his work in India will not soon be forgotten. It is due to him more than any other man that our knowledge of the habits and distribution of Indian snakes.

Malcolm Smith described Wall’s donation of specimens to the Natural History Museum in London. An article in a 2016 issue of Hornbill, the magazine of the Bombay Natural History Society, states that Wall also distributed specimens to many museum in India, ‘especially in the Natural History Section of Prince of Wales Museum of Western India,  Mumbai’.

Typical pages from Wall's series on Indian snakes. The plates were by John Green of London


The many-sided attitude to Wall’s study of snakes is evident in his book on the snakes of Ceylon published in 1921. Incidentally, the full title is Ophidia Taprobanica or The Snakes of Ceylon, Taprobanica being derived from the ancient Greek name for the island. Thus he wrote of all aspects of each species. For example, for the python, P. molurus, he has sections as follows: names in Tamil and Sinhalese; Synonymy, History, Identification, Coloration, Habits (haunts, disposition, strength, striking posture, nocturnal or diurnal, hibernation, progression, hissing, sloughing); Food;  Thirst; Breeding (the sexes. method of reproduction, season, period of gestation, period of incubation, number of eggs in the clutch, the eggs); Growth (before hatching, early life, maturity, maximum length, longevity); Parasites (ectozoa, entozoa); Lepidosis; Dentition; Distribution. That one species accounts for 31 pages. The only point I would make in addition to those made by Malcolm Smith is that he had correspondents throughout India, Burma and Ceylon who sent him specimens.

I have found litte by contemporary authors on Frank Wall. However, this Wall story, which shows his interest and venomous snakes and the treatment of snakebite, from the blog of Frederic Alois Friedel:

…here is some background: my father, Alois, a German clock maker and “horologist,” who migrated to Asia to set up navigational stations for ships, was imprisoned during WW I, in a British POW camp in Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat†. At the time it was a fairly rural place, surrounded by jungles. The camp had a snake problem, and one of the leading herpetologists at the time was called in to conduct research. Colonel Frank Wall was a member of the Bombay Natural History Society and had published a number of scientific articles and books on snakes…Col. Wall needed an assistant, but none of the British guards were willing to touch snakes. Then he heard about a “crazy German POW” who, he was told, was handling reptiles with equanimity.

So Wall recruited Alois to be his assistant. Together they studied the four poisonous snakes of the region and in fact developed the first anti-venoms against their bite (they injected horses with small amounts of snake venom, until they were immune, drew their blood and centrifuged it to get the serum, which was used to produce the antidote).

Smith noted that a complete list of Wall’s publications was included in the former’s book in the Fauna of British India series. A  more complete list was compiled by Simon Campden-Main for the Smithsonian Institution in 1969.


One of ‘other activities’ to which Malcolm Smith referred was genealogy. In his will, Wall left typescript copies of a book he had compiled, Wall of County Derby, on the family from 1539 to 1930 and another on Wills of the Wall family in Lichfield, Staffordshire, to the Reference Library in Derby. The librarian noted that neither bore a date but wondered if Wall had left them to the library because he had used it while compiling the information.

Wall and Mildred retired to England, first to Tonbridge in Kent. In 1939 they were living at Hill Rise, Quarry Hill Road; they employed a resident housemaid. By 1944 the Walls had moved to 30 Milton Road, Bournemouth. Frank Wall died, aged 82, on 19 May 1950 in a nursing home. Mildred died on 16 October 1955 at a nursing home in Cornwall.

Mildred Wall; Frank Wall’s sister, Rowena, Duchess of Somerset; Frank Wall. At Bradley House, Maiden Bradley, Wiltshire, the seat of the Duke of Somerset. Late 1920s. Rowena married Edward Hamilton Seymour in 1881; he became 16th Duke of Somerset in 1925 on the death of his distant cousin, the 15th Duke who died without issue. From Brian Kent’s family tree on

Frank Wall in 1935

*not as stated in Wikipedia quoting the same source (!); confirmed by parish records. His date of birth is as given in the parish records and not a day earlier (20 December) as in his obituary for the Royal Astronomical Society. Nor have I found any evidence that he was educated at Harrow, again as stated by Wikipedia—does that article confuse him with his son who was a Harrow boy.

‡Frank William Wall (1904-1970) married Thelma Geraldine Lightbody, Wall’s second wife Mildred’s niece.

†I suspect the author is mistaken in the location. The internment camp for German civilians was at Ahmednagar (in Maharashtra), not Ahmedabad (in Gujarat).

Anon. 1895. [George Wall obituary notice]. Monthly Notes of the Royal Astronomical Society 55, 202.

Anon. 2014. Wall, Frank (1868-1950). In Contributions to the History of Herpetology (Volume 1, revised and expanded), Edited by Kraig Adler, pp 71-72. Society for the Study of Reptiles and Amphibians.

Anon. 2016. Frank Wall. Pioneer snakeman of India. Hornbill (July-September 2016), 14.

Campden-Main SM. 1969. Bibliography of the herpetological papers of Frank Wall (1868-1950), 1898-1928. Smithsonian Herpetological Information Services: Washington DC.

Crawford DG. 1930. Roll of the Indian Medical Service 1615-1930. London: Thacker.

Smith M. 1951. Frank Wall, 1868-1950. Copeia 1951, 113-114.

Wall F. 1921. Ophidia Taprobanica or The Snakes of Ceylon. HR Cottle Government Printer, Ceylon.