Wednesday 30 March 2022

African Rhinos: Questions of Black and White

When I was writing about rhinoceroses recently, I noticed that even some of the most respectable sources of information repeated the story of why the White Rhinoceros is called that. Fitting into the category of what every schoolboy and schoolgirl knows, the story was that because the animal is not white, the ‘white’ is derived from the word ‘wyd’ (‘wide’) used by the Boers on account of its wide mouth compared with that of the Black Rhinoceros.

Before getting into evidence that was gleaned nearly 20 years ago which blew that idea out of the water, it did to me sound rather far-fetched. In the wild, you are most likely to see a rhino from the side or the rear and if you are faced close-up for a frontal view, the last thing you would be worrying about would be the width of its mouth.

Kees Rookmaaker of the Rhino Resource Centre in Cambridge looked at the history of the name, various suggestions of how the name came about and why the explanation based on the Afrikaans word ‘wyd’ is ‘unsubstantiated and historically incorrect’.

Rookmaaker outlined ten explanations of how the White Rhino may have acquired its name, a name in use in South Africa as a distinction from ‘Black’ since the earliest decades of the 19th century. I will concentrate on just the one.

It was the soldier turned game warden and herpetologist Charles Robert Senhouse Pitman, DSO, MC (1890–1975) who in 1931 was the first to suggest that ‘white’ was a corrupted version of a Dutch word meaning ‘bright’ or ‘shining’ in reference to its smoother hide. Then, it having been pointed out to him that there was no such Dutch word, he offered instead ‘widg’ meaning ‘great’. Pitman’s suggestion was soon buried when ‘widg’ was shown not to exist in Dutch. However, the idea of a word from Afrikaans was resurrected when Antwerp Zoo received its first specimens of the northern White Rhino by the zoo’s director, Walter van den Bergh in 1952. With his knowledge of Dutch he suggested that ‘white’ emerged from the word ‘wijde’ meaning wide.

Walter van den Bergh, who was director of Antwerp Zoo from 1946 until 1978, was influential and very well known internationally so it is perhaps not surprising that his explanation was repeated  until it became the common, perhaps only, explanation from the 1960s onwards. A meme was up and running.

Kees Rookmaaker with his first-hand knowledge of Dutch knew that the present-day Dutch word wijd, which earlier might have been spelt ‘weit, weid, wyd or wyt’, corresponds to ‘wide’ in English. However, for small objects or anatomical parts the Dutch equivalent of broad, ‘breed’ is used. Therefore, the other name for the White Rhino, Square-lipped Rhinoceros, is breedlipneushoorn in Dutch and breëliprenoster in Afrikaans.

Rookmaaker argued that if ‘white’ was corrupted from the Dutch or Afrikaans then the use of the Dutch or Afrikaans word for the rhino should have appeared earlier. He enlisted teachers of Afrikaans and old Dutch to help search for any use of words such as wijd, wijdlip, wijdmond or wijdbek together with neushoorn/rhinoceros/renoster. No such usage was found and Rookmaaker concluded that van den Bergh’s explanation or any derivation from Dutch or Afrikaans was wrong. A meme though takes some stopping.

He continued:

Another option could be that the epithet white is a translation or derivation from one of the original languages spoken in the African interior. The chief interviewed by Barrow [1801], the hunters reporting to Truter and Somerville [1802], and the Griquas accompanying Bain [1849] probably used the word white for the rhinoceros in accordance with the usage in their own vernacular speech. Preliminary investigations, however, have not yielded any clues that would strengthen this argument.

Whatever the explanation for the name given to distinguish the White from the other rhinoceros of Africa, the corollary to the question of why the White Rhino is called that when it is not white must be: why is the Black Rhino called that when it is not black?

You can identify this rhino from the prehensile upper lip evident in the photograph.
It is a Black Rhinoceros, photographed in Kenya's Masai Mara in 1991

Rookmaaker K. 2003. Why the name of the White Rhinoceros is not appropriate. Pachyderm no 34 (January-June 2003) 88-93.

Friday 25 March 2022

Longevity of Fellows of the Royal Society

In my last article I showed how Fellows of the Royal Society born around 1870 lived about 4 years longer than the man in the street who had reached the age of 50. That finding is not new. In 1925 Sir Arthur Schuster, in connexion with the size of the fellowship with various rates of annual admission, calculated that Fellows lived 6 years longer on average. He used life tables published in Whitaker’s Almanack in the 1920s to reach that conclusion. Demographers have also used longevity data for Fellows to compare them with national academies in other European countries.

Sir Arthur Schuster (1851-1934)
He died aged 83

In some countries, no difference was found in the 19th and early 20th centuries but as the 20th century progressed, differences became evident and increased. Other countries did show a difference in longevity for members born in the 19th century, i.e. they were like the Royal Society; the French Académie des sciences resembled London. Where there was no discernible difference in longevity between members and the general public (Austrian Academy of Sciences and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, for example), a difference did become evident as time progressed and that difference has continued to increase especially since the 1950s. One major study of the Royal Society and the Russian Academy of Sciences published in 2011 concluded that since the 1980s, life expectancy in the Royal Society has been higher than the maximum life expectancy (for those reaching the age of 50) among all high-income countries.

I am not sure that latter conclusion is still justified. I calculated the median age at death for the cohort of Fellows of the Royal Society born between 1920 and 1930. (I know some of that cohort are not dead yet but it is possible to find the median once over half of the cohort has died.) 82 was the median age of death. If one then compares that with UK life tables compiled by the Office for National Statistics between 1980 and 2020, the median age of death from those reaching the age of 50 has been steadily increasing from 74 (rounded years) in 1980-82, 75 in 1990-92, 78 in 2000-2002, 81 in 2009-2011 and 81 in 2018-2020. Since the cohort born in 1920-1930 would have reached 75 in 2000, my best guess is that an advantage of 4-6 years (i.e. similar to that I found for those born around 1870 and that calculated by Schuster in the 1920s.

Data from the fellowship of the Royal Society will prove interesting over the next few years since by then the impact, if any, of the Education Act of 1944 will have become evident. Free Grammar Schools followed by free university education has produced many Fellows from those born in Britain after the mid-1930s in circumstances very different from those who reached the top of their professions in earlier times. A ‘natural experiment’ is in the offing to see if a good start in life, even before birth, is an important factor.

Interpretation of data showing a difference in longevity between one particular group (the Generals of the First World War, Fellows of the Royal College of Physicians and Fellows of the Royal Society, as discussed in these articles, for example) compared with the population as a whole will continue to provoke discussion and argument on the cause or causes of the association. Caution though is necessary since it is one of those topics where political conviction rather than firm evidence often looms large.

One similar but possibly different group I have seen no data on longevity for is the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE). The Society is more broadly based than science. In addition, there was a tradition that the ‘lad o' pairts’ in the village school would receive a university education supported by a bursary. The RSE therefore had a mixed, by social origins, fellowship earlier than academies in other countries and regions. One example I often quote is Sir Thomas Symington FRSE (1915-2007), son of an Ayrshire miner who died in the flu epidemic of 1918, who became Professor of Pathology in Glasgow and then Director of the Chester Beatty Cancer Research Institute in London. Tom played golf well into his 80s (a handicap of 15 when he was 87) and had a locker close to mine in the clubhouse. On meeting while changing, we both realised that was perhaps the first and only time the function of the human fetal adrenal had been discussed in that location.

Extracting the relevant data on the longevity of the fellowship of the RSE might proved informative. I am tempted to do it if we get a miserable spell of Ayrshire winter weather or, maybe, another pandemic.

In case my fellow Fellows of both societies become too excited at the prospect of immortality, I should say that while we might or might not reach or exceed the median longevity for the male population as a whole, the maximum lifespan remains unchanged.

Andreev EM, Jdanov D, Shkolnikov VM, Leon DA. 2011. Long-term trends in the longevity of scientific elites: evidence from the British and the Russian academies of science. Population Studies 65, 319-334

Winkler-Dworak M, Kaden H. 2013. The longevity of academicians: evidence from the Saxonian Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Leipzig. Vienna Institute of Demography Working Papers, No. 3/2013, Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW), Vienna Institute of Demography, Vienna .

Schuster A. 1925. On the life statistics of Fellows of the Royal Society. Proceedings of the Royal Society A 107, 368-376.

Thursday 24 March 2022

How long did Fellows of the Royal College of Physicians and Fellows of the Royal Society live compared with the Man in the Street and Generals of the First World War?

In the previous article I showed that senior officers in the First World War, the ‘Generals’ lived approximately 4 years longer on average than a male in the general population who was born in the same era. I came across two other organisations of professionals of a similar part of the social structure as the army.

The online indexes for Munk’s Roll gives the names, dates of birth and death of Fellows of the Royal College of Physicians (FRCP)—the Physicians. I again extracted the age at death for those born between 1959 and 1875. As with the Generals, I calculated the age at death by subtracting the year of birth from the year of death. I found 266 records that fitted the criteria.

Similar records for Fellows of the Royal Society (FRS)—the Scientists—were also searched and provided 329 individuals (for comparison with the other groups Foreign Fellows were excluded).

For the Physicians (mean 75; median 76) and Scientists (mean 75; median 75) and Generals (mean 75; median 76), the mean and median age at death was virtually identical. All were statistically highly significantly (P<0.001) greater than the age at death of the whole male population born over the same period.

The survival curves are shown below:

In the case of the Royal Society, earlier research on the longevity of its Fellows has been done and compared with foreign academies which have shown no difference from the general population. That will be the subject of my next and final  article in the series, when I also look into the question of what happened next.

The biological questions raised by the differences in longevity seen in different social classes are well known and I will not deal with them here. What does seem clear is that the longevity was similar in the senior members of three professions with different lifestyles in Victorian and Edwardian Britain but longer than that of the male population as a whole. 

Wednesday 23 March 2022

How long did First World War Generals live compared with the Man in the Street?

In 2018, 100 years after the ending of the First World War, I read the Haig’s War Diaries. The editors had provided in footnotes a potted history, with the years of birth and death, of those mentioned in the text. Most were senior officers, brigadier-generals and above, but some were colonels and a few were majors. What struck me as I turned each page was that many had lived to a ripe old age. But did they live, on average, longer than the man in the street? I decided to find out since I did not know what to expect. Social class is known to be associated with greater longevity and these officers, brought up in wealthy families during the 19th century, were, for want of a better term, posh. However, being a senior officer in the First World War and in previous campaigns they would have served in, was not exactly a stress-free existence. Over 200 generals were killed, wounded and taken prisoner; many were sacked if they were thought not to be performing well.

For each British or Empire officer mentioned in the footnotes, I calculated the age at death (taken here as the year of death minus the year of birth, see below). I excluded any killed during that war. The average age at death, for the 247 senior officers (referred to from here as ‘Generals’) was 75 (median 76). But what about the general population?

The calculated lifespan was not that from birth; it was from men who had survived until 1915 and who had been born between 1850 and 1886 (median 1867). I could find no life tables used by insurance companies, for example, for the general male population born around 1867 and who had reached the age of around 50. Life tables for people born at different times cannot be used because average longevity has changed over the decades. So I decided to make my own. The procedure I used to obtain a random sample, using the database for civil deaths in England and Wales on is described in an annex below. I used a range of dates of birth, around the median for the Generals of 1867, equal to plus and minus one standard deviation (8), i.e. 1859 to 1875.

For English and Welsh men born between 1859 and 1875 and who lived until at least 1915, the average and median age at death was 72. The average General outlived the man in the street by about 4 years.

For those interested in statistical calculations, the probability for differences in mean and median, P, was <0.0001. In other words, there is less than a 0.1% probability that the difference is due to chance.

There is a small difference in the way the age at death was calculated. For the Generals it was obtained by subtracting the year of birth from the year of death which leads to an overestimate of, on average, 6 months. Data for the whole population were from the age at death reported to the registrar. However, having looked at hundreds of death certificates, there are many cases where the informant did not know the exact date of birth and the age recorded is that I used for the Generals. Whatever the true error, in round terms the Generals lived 4 years longer.

The graph below shows the survival curves for the Generals compared with the general male population. It is evident that the difference in longevity of around 4 years was established at a relatively early stage. The death rate of the general population was higher from the age range of 50 to the early 60s. The extent of the difference can also be seen in terms of survival to a certain age. For example, by 75 50% of the Generals were still surviving compared with 38% of men in the general population.

Douglas Haig himself, included in the data set, was not one even reaching the average age of death; he died at the age of 66.

But if First World War generals lived on average of 4 years longer than the man in the street, what about the longevity of men in other professions? That question I look at in the next article.

I have had helpful discussions with Professor Tom Kirkwood and Chris Daykin CB, formerly Government Actuary.

Haig D. 2005. War Diaries and Letters 1914-18 (edited by Gary Sheffield and John Bourne). Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 


Annex: Constructing the Life Tables for the Male Population of England and Wales

The life tables were made for men born between 1859 and 1875 who died aged over the age of 40.

On the index of death records (Civil Deaths and Burials) appears on the screen on pages of 20 names. In order to obtain as near to a random sample as I could devise, I used the following procedure to extract data.

I constructed one set of tables as follows:

I searched for all surnames beginning with ‘A’ (i.e. A**** as the search term). On the first page that came up, I took the age at death of the first male looking upwards from the bottom of the page who fitted the criteria. If no male in the date of birth range was on that page, I went to the next page until one was found. I then jumped to page 10 and repeated the process. When the ‘A’ surnames were exhausted, I moved on through the alphabet until I had collected the same number of records as I had for the Generals (247).

Being slightly concerned that there could still be a bias towards names near the beginning of the alphabet, I then repeated the whole process, this time beginning at the end of the alphabet and jumping by 1 screen page at a time rather than 10.

For the first group the mean age at death was 71; for the second 72. The standard deviations were such that there was no statistical difference between the two groups. The two were therefore combined into one ‘Male Population’ sample

Then as a final check, I extracted the ages at death from a single registration district of all the men (269 in total) born in 1865 who died in or after 1915. The mean age at death was 71.3.

In a life table for men born in 1870 sent to me by Chris Daykin, the median age at for those surviving beuond the age of 50 was 72., supprting my view that I had achieved a random sample from the procedures I used to extract data from

My tables, deaths from the age of 40, explain why the survival graphs from the age of 50 do not start at 1.00 (i.e. 100%).

Monday 21 March 2022

E.B. Verney’s Speech: a Physiologist’s View of Economics

In reading about something or somebody, the serendipitous finding of a little gem is sometimes the reward. Ernest Basil Verney’s (1894-1967) biographical memoir for the Royal Society contains such a gem:

There was quality in his irreverent comments on the passing scene (scientific or otherwise) as in everything else. This was true also of his after-dinner speeches…when he would cover a wide field of current events. On one such occasion he pretended to be perturbed at the prodigious expansion of the University curriculum, and when Economics gained Tripos standard he remarked: ‘Economics, for example—admittedly an important subject, as I feel sure the Bursar will agree—has in recent years gained Tripos status; and here, as I see from The Times, the examiners are alone in the happy position of being able to set the same questions year after year. The subject is, apparently, changing so rapidly that a particular question can be trusted to demand each year an entirely different and often contrary answer.’

I think we can safely assume that the scientists at the dinner applauded with considerable enthusiasm. Seventy or so years later I still would.

E.B. Verney

Daly, I deB, Pickford ML. 1970. Ernest Basil Verney 1894-1967. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 16, 523–542. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1970.0022

Strange Cargo: Ray Densham’s film and Audrey and Ivor Noël Hume’s hatching tortoises

On 24 February, I recounted the story of the the film Strange Cargo and how I first learnt of its existence.

Ivor and Audrey Noël Hume referred to the film in their books and in interviews. An imported female Mediterranean Spur-thighed Tortoise (Testudo graeca) they called ‘Mrs Callaway’ (after a character in a cowboy film they had seen) produced eggs and the filming of those eggs hatching was an important sequence in Strange Cargo. The whole episode was described by Audrey in her book, My Family of Reptiles, published in 1955 (see online here). A photograph of one of the tortoises hatching was included and attributed to Ray Densham, the producer and cameraman. It was clearly a still from the film, since when I extracted one from the film, I was obviously just a few frames away from the one he chose.

The hatching tortoise photograph from
My Family of Animals

Audrey continued:

He [Ray Densham] decided to take some more shots of mother and babies, so while she sat on a table Noël held the tiny How in his hand at one side of her. Mrs. C. could not have given a better performance if she had been rehearsed all afternoon. She turned her head to Noël's hand and peered at the baby for a few minutes. Then with the most self-satisfied expression that I have ever seen on the face of any mother, human or animal, she looked straight at the camera. Later she appeared on cinema screens all over the country when these sequences were included in the film Strange Cargo, and she even received a little fan mail. When Noël and I published a book about keeping tortoises it was inevitable that such an excellent sitter should pose for the cover photograph, and she can now be seen in bookshops as far away as America and Australia.

The book on keeping tortoises, Tortoises, Terrapins and Turtles in the Foyles Handbook series was published in 1954; it can be seen in full here. Ray Densham was thanked by Ivor and Audrey for his help.

You can find my earlier articles on the Noël Humes and their books here and here.

Ivor and Audrey emigrated to the U.S.A. where he became well-known as an archaeologist of Williamsburg and pioneer of historical archaeology. Audrey, also an archaeologist, died in 1993; Ivor in 2017. They were born in 1927 and married in 1950. New homes were found for their numerous animals before they left London, except for one. Her particular favourite, ‘Tigellinus’ was carried by Audrey onto the plane. ‘Tigellinus’, was identified in their book, as the species now known as Chelonoidis denticulatus. However, it is more likely that ‘Tiggy’ was a Red-footed Tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonarius) which even in the 1950s was the one more commonly imported from South America.

I have been unable to find out whether their interest in reptiles in general and tortoises in particular was maintained after they reached Virginia. Although much more has been learnt about keeping and breeding tortoises (and their mass import for the pet trade banned), their book was the best guide available for several decades, with reprints in different covers published into the 1980s.

Here are stills taken from Strange Cargo:

Audrey and Ivor Noēl Hume and the airing cupboard
used to incubate the tortoise eggs

Tuesday 15 March 2022

John H Tashjian. Herpetologist, photographer and fighter pilot celebrated his 100th birthday in the air—in the aircraft he flew 77 years previously

When I wrote about marsupial frogs (Gastrotheca) last May, I showed the illustration from Doris Cochran’s Living Amphibians of the World which was published in 1961*. It was a colour photograph by John H. Tashjian. He had another photograph in the book, and I found that his work had appeared in a number of herpetology books and papers.

Number one son left me a pile of issues of the historical aircraft magazine, FlyPast, over Christmas. Having reached the October 2021 issue I came across an unusual name I recognised. It was John H. Tashjian. On his 100th Birthday in July he was taken for a flight in an aeroplane he himself had flown in action during the Pacific Campaign in 1944 when he was in the US Marine Corps. The plane was the famous gull-winged Vought Corsair. The Corsair is now based at the Planes of Fame museum in Chino, California. The single-seat fighter has been fitted with a small seat (replacing the armour plating) behind the pilot enabling a passenger to be carried. The date of the flight was 77 years and 11 months to the day since Tashjian had last been in the aircraft.

Tashjian served in the US Marine Corps Reserve after the war. In 1955 he was flying a McDonnell F2H-2 Banshee (‘Banjo’) from the Naval Air Station at Oakland when he found himself parachuting to the ground after an involuntary ejection. Major Tashjian landed safely while the pilotless plane crashed into the mountains where its burnt-out wreckage still remain.

The stories of the 100th birthday celebrations and the ejection incident are on a number of aviation websites. One noted:

Tashjian settled in the San Diego area, where he became a firefighter before following his true passion—zoology. He worked at several major zoos and became an expert in reptiles and amphibians.

and here, again, is Tashjian's photograph of a marsupial frog in Living Amphibians of the World:

* published by Hamish Hamilton in London and by Doubleday in New York.

Saturday 12 March 2022

Giraffes in the Masai Mara, Kenya 1991

 A bright morning for a drive in the Masai Mara in September 1991 produced this group of Giraffes. They are of the Masai colour pattern (or subspecies, if you must, Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi). There has, apparently, been a major decline in numbers in the past 30 years

Wednesday 9 March 2022

‘The Secretion of the Urine’. How Professor Cushny’s patience was sorely tried

In a book best taken in small doses, Walter John O’Connor* described British physiologists who were active between 1885 and 1914. Amongst the seemingly endless clinicians filling in by lecturing in physiology to medical students before getting a ‘proper’ hospital job, there are the ones who were truly brilliant and not afraid to express their opinions of others working in the their field.

I came across this gem, taken from a preface to a book on the kidney entitled, The Secretion of the Urine, published in 1917:

No other organ of the body has suffered so much from poor work as the kidney, and in no other region of physiology does so much base coin pass as legal tender. It was therefore necessary to sift thoroughly this mass of printed matter of over 6,000 pages, and I have read it carefully and, as far as might be, sympathetically, though I must confess that my patience has been sorely tried by some papers in which the depth bore no proportion to the length. 

I have fellow feeling for his suffering, in my case, substituting ‘mammary gland’ for ‘kidney’. Sadly, scientific dross is an increasing problem a hundred years later.

The writer extracting the urine was Arthur Robertson Cushny FRS (1866-1926) who was described by his obituarist for the Royal Society, Sir Henry Dale as, ‘by common consent the leading Pharmacologist of this country. The course of his career, moreover, had taken him into other countries, where he was known and honoured as in his own, so that his reputation and authority in his own subject, and in a wider field of experimental medicine, were truly international'.

Arthur Robertson Cushny

The last point is driven home by the fact that having been born the son of a Scottish clergyman who graduated from the University of Aberdeen, he first went to Switzerland and then to Strasbourg. While there was was persuaded to become Professor of Pharmacology (pharmacology and physiology were then virtually the same field) at Ann Arbor in Michigan. He stayed there for 12 years before returning to Britain in 1905, first in University College London and then from 1918 to Edinburgh—a chair he had always coveted. There he lived in Peffermill House, a stone-built fortified tower built in 1636.

In his book on the kidney, Cushny emphasised the ‘modern theory’ of urine formation, i.e. a filtrate of the blood formed by the glomerulus, modified by reabsorption in the tubule downstream. However, Cushny himself got into a bit of a mess trying to sort out the opposing ideas of how the kidney worked. Seven years later, 1n 1924, definitive evidence was published which showed that the ‘modern theory’, first proposed by Carl Ludwig (1816-1895) in the mid-1800s, was correct.

Cushny's diagram from his book

*Walter John O’Connor (1911-1994) was well qualified to write on Cushny. He worked in physiology at the University of Leeds from 1950 until he retired in 1976; he was known as ‘Willy Oc’ or ‘John’ there and as ‘Jack’ to his family. South Australian by birth, O’Connor was medically qualified. He worked in Cambridge with one on my list of all-time greats, Ernest Basil Verney FRS (1894-1967), on the kidney and antidiuretic hormone; at one stage there he was Beit Memorial Research Fellow. I remember seeing O’Connor at meetings of the Physiological Society in the early 1970s.

Cushny AR. 1917. The Secretion of the Urine. London: Longmans Green.

Dale, HH (as ‘HHD’). Arthur Robertson Cushny—1866-1926. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 100 xix-xxvii.

Jamison RL. 2014. Resolving an 80-yr-old controversy: the beginning of the modern era of renal physiology. Advances in Physiology Education 38, 286-295. doi:10.1152/advan.00105.2014 

O’Connor WJ. 1991. British Physiologists 1885—1914. Manchester University Press.

Tuesday 1 March 2022

Grizzled Giant Squirrel: out and about before sunrise

This Grizzled Giant Squirrel (Ratufa macroura) was out and about at first light at Sigiriya in Sri Lanka in 2013. It occurs in small pockets in southern India where its falling population has put it into the ‘Near Threatened’ category.

There are three colour morphs in Sri Lanka which have been described as subspecies. This one is the dry-zone form (R.m. dandolena).

The ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya above us in the early morning mist