This is a story that for me began in the early 1970s. At a meeting, as I recall of the Society for Endocrinology, I was approached by a little old lady. She had been sent to talk to me by Alfred Cowie, later to become a good friend, whom I learnt later she regularly badgered for information on the endocrine control of lactation. She said to me something along the lines of, ‘All these people are poisoning all the infants in Britain by making up milk too strong. You know something about milk osmolality and tonicity and things, don't you?’. She explained that some mothers and helpers crammed as much baby formula (already too rich in sodium) into the supplied measuring scoop as possible in the belief of the more food the better. When mixed with the correct volume of water, the milk would have a much higher osmotic concentration and possibly lead to dehydration as well as having a long-termdeleterious effect on a newborn’s kidneys. Thus began a short experiment in which I crammed as much baby formula into a measuring scoop as possible to see just how overconcentrated the milk could be made*.
|Mavis Gunther at a symposium at the
Ciba Foundation, London, 1965
The little old lady was Mavis Gunther and I use the term in the sense that in all sports and any card game it is wise to beware of the little old lady because at tennis you will soon be 6-0 down, at golf all her putts will drop and at cards or any board game you will be toast. Mavis asked pertinent questions, did not suffer fools, especially her fellow clinicians and other health professionals, gladly and had trenchant views on obstetric practice and the care of infants. She was frustrated by the attitude of of her fellow physicians and, realising that knowledge of lactation had very rarely come from that source, that is why at meetings she sought out those who were studying lactation funded in Britain, like most of mammalian reproductive biology, as part of agricultural research.
As a result of our contact and conversation I asked her to give a paper on human lactation and infant feeding at a symposium I organised for the Zoological Society of London in November 1976. She was then 73 and I think that was the last time we met.
Shortly before she sought me out, Mavis had written a book, Infant Feeding, published by Methuen in 1971. She then produced a revised edition for a paperback published by Penguin in 1973. It was highly influential and her views on mother-infant interactions are still referred to today. I remember reading it at the time but in the 1990s when I was extolling Mavis’s virtues and searching for a copy of the cover with which to illustrate a lecture, I could not find a second-hand copy. I had to borrow a copy from the National Lending Library. The difficulty of getting hold of the book was mentioned by participants when I talked about Mavis at a seminar organised by the Wellcome Foundation in 2007. Was it because so many copies had been sold and held onto or had the print-run been insufficient to meet demand? However, a couple of weeks ago I found a copy of the Penguin edition for sale and paid the £4.56 including postage. It has only taken 49 years.
By now those who know anything about reptiles will be asking the question that I asked 50 years ago. Was she related to the German-born Albert Charles Lewis Gotthilf Günther FRS (1830-1914) of the Natural History Museum in London? ‘Yes’, she replied, ‘He was my late husband’s grandfather’. Only recently have I discovered that her husband, Eustace Rolfe Gunther (known as Rolfe), to whose memory her book was dedicated, was a zoologist and that his death was an utterly tragic event amongst all the tragedies in wartime Britain.
Mavis Gunther (née Carr)
However, before turning to Rolfe, I must return to Mavis’s life. She was born Mavis Hilda Dorothea Carr on 17 June 1903 in Bromley, Kent. She was educated at Bedales School and then Cambridge for pre-clinical medicine, graduating in 1925. She qualified at the Royal Free Hospital, then in the centre of London in 1928. In 1929 she married Rolfe. In 1935 she was co-author of a paper on the genetics of epiloia (now known as tuberous sclerosis) a rare condition. She was in the Research Department of the Royal Eastern Counties Institution for the Mentally Defective in Colchester working with Lionel Penrose (1898-1972, elected FRS in 1953). She had young children, born in 1930, 1933 and 1937. Described as being in general practice in 1939 Register (an emergency census), the Medical Directory for 1940 indicates that Mavis did a number of medical jobs around London, covering activities from antenatal clinics to mental disease. She was a local councillor in the late 1930s but resigned immediately after the death of her husband.
Within weeks of Rolfe’s death in 1940, she and the children left Liverpool on board Canadian Pacific’s R.M.S. Duchess of Atholl which crossed the Atlantic unescorted after having arrived in convoy carrying Canadian troops. An article behind a ludicrously high paywall which I have only seen in part, indicates that a posthumous letter from her husband urged her to seek safety for the children in Canada. Friends apparently invited her to work in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Toronto; while there she was supported by the the Banting Research Foundation for research in human lactation. Some of her work she described in a paper in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
Mavis’s daughter reported that they were in Canada for four years. Sometime before 1946 she joined Robert Alexander McCance’s (1898-1953; FRS 1948) famous team in Cambridge and its equally famous mission to Wuppertal in Germany after the end of the war. McCance knew food had been and would be short in Germany and that various experts could study the effects of undernutrition and to help the local population. As one of the experts with previous experience, Mavis Gunther studied the volume and composition of breast milk.
At some time she was awarded the M.D. degree by Cambridge.
It appears that Mavis was a member of the Medical Research Council’s staff but I have not been able to find if this employment began with the Wuppertal mission or earlier. We do know though that in 1948 she was seconded the University College Hospital, London, where she was given accommodation and facilities. She expanded a clinic for women with problems breastfeeding and it was recalled: ‘Mavis Gunther used to go round the women each day talking to them about breastfeeding and breast problems. She was known, perhaps irreverently, to many of the students as "The Breast Queen", but her work in her gentle persuasive way was invaluable to the mothers in the days when formula feeding was not very reliable. She helped thousands of babies in the first weeks of their lives and is remembered with affection by women who had their babies during her reign’.
The journalist Katharine Whitehorn (1928-2021) in her Foreword to Mavis’s book wrote of her experiences in the maternity ward of University College Hospital:
Into this overheated atmosphere there came only one voice of utter kindness and sense: the Breast Lady, who came calmly round and sorted us all out, and got a great many of us happily established at breast feeding who could never otherwise have managed it.
At some stage she must have moved from obstetrics to paediatrics and to a lecturer’s position. I think she must have retired from University College around 1972. I only remember writing to her at her home address in Esher, Surrey.
Mavis Gunther collaborated widely in pursuit of improving infant feeding and understanding the problems faced by mothers and infants, while gathering the evidence on which advice should be based. She was no breast-feeding zealot, arguing that mother’s must be free to choose breast or bottle depending on their individual circumstances. She published research on a number of topics including allergies to milk, the possible causes of ‘cot death’, comparisons of breast and bottle feeding, colostrum and milk as a source of antibodies, mastitis, sore nipples, human milk composition, the use of mineral additives in milk formula from different manufacturers and breast pumps. In obstetrics she studied the transfer of blood between baby and placenta immediately after birth. She stressed the importance of considering the mother and child as a unit, and to be supported as such. She argued that the behavioural initiation of breast feeding is not an instinctive process and that the mother needs some degree of instruction either by observation during life and/or by the help of family, friends, doctors and midwives. She based part of that argument on following up early observations on Chimpanzees in captivity by contacting London Zoo and learning of their experiences in the 1930s and early 1940s which suggested that only those brought into captivity late succeeded in breast-feeding their young.
At the 1976 symposium at the Zoo I mentioned above, she described her contacts with Geoffrey Marr Vevers (1890-1970) who, with a human obstetrician, described the birth and rearing of the baby chimp ‘Jubilee’ (named for George V’s 25 years on the throne) in 1935. Vevers, was then Superintendent and like Mavis, medically qualified. Listening was Geoffrey Vevers’s son, Gwynne (1916-1988) who amongst his numerous responsibilities at the Zoo had overall charge, wonderfully delegated, of scientific meetings and publications.
Mavis Gunther died on 30 June 1997. She was buried alongside he husband, at Heacham, a town in Norfolk, not that far from where Rolfe was killed, where his parents had a house, and where he was born.
|Eustace Rolfe Gunther
In order to describe the tragic events which led to Eustace Rolfe Gunther’s death, I have drawn on an account given by his daughter, Rosalind, for the Dictionary of Falklands Biography. According to an article in a village magazine recording her death in 2021, aged 90, she did so because the records are closed until 2040 and she believed there had been an official cover up. Indeed, the reports of the inquest in the local press are perfunctory. I have also drawn on the obituary written by Alister (later Sir Alister) Hardy, who worked closely with Rolfe, and my own delvings into the happenings in a Norfolk village. This is what Rosalind wrote:
…As a member of the Territorial Army he was called up at the outbreak of war and commissioned 2nd Lt in the 72nd Anti-aircraft Regt RA. In May 1940 he was stationed near North Walsham in Norfolk. When approaching Barton Turf on foot to check that someone was not signalling to the enemy at sea he called at a cottage to read his map and obtain directions to the suspect house. The resident, a Special Constable, directed him on foot, cycled to the house by another route and borrowed a gun from the newly armed Home Guard. Gunther reached the house. The Constable returned with some further Home Guard members and after asking Gunther to hand over his gun, accidentally shot him in the upper leg.
Rolfe Gunther bled to death in Norwich hospital on 31 May 1940.
The local newspaper’s account of the inquest carried no detail of the examination of witness, just the conclusion of the local coroner: ‘died from a gunshot wound caused by a rifle Inadvertently discharged’.
It does not need much deductive power to envisage the reaction in the first year of the war of the Special Constable to the appearance of an armed officer with a German surname at his door purportedly looking for a potential German spy. It may not have crossed his mind that the last thing a German spy might do would be to use a German surname. A Special Constable, for those readers not in the U.K., is a part-time, unpaid voluntary police officer. I discovered to a degree of amazement that the tiny village of Barton Turf had three special constables in 1939 but it really does seem like the whole affair was covered up since, war or no war, whichever one of the three got things so wrong, should have been charged with manslaughter.
I can see why there were other unanswered questions. For example, why was Rolfe, an officer in a searchlight regiment (not anti-aircraft, as indicated above) investigating somebody suspected of signalling to the enemy of sea? And by his action might not the zealous constable have tipped off the suspect that he was under investigation?
To add to the tragedy, Mavis was called by the police and drove to the hospital; when she arrived Rolfe had just died.
Hardy for an obituary in Nature wrote: ‘In 1937, distressed by Great Britain's unpreparedness for war, Gunther joined the territorials as a sapper and was commissioned a year later. On inquiry about the best use a man of his training might be, he was advised to enter the searchlight service, and his keen powers of observation were of particular use in training spotters’. His territorial unit was the 30th (Surrey) anti-aircraft battalion of the Royal Engineers (later transferred to the Royal Artillery), the unit in which, by coincidence, my father served from 1941). Gunther was commissioned in the 72nd Searchlight Regiment, Royal Artillery, in February 1939.
Hardy in the obituary and in another I suspect he also wrote for The Times, praised his friend and colleague Gunther highly:
Educated at Winchester and Caius College, Cambridge, he was appointed as zoologist in 1924 to be one of the original members of the scientific staff of the Discovery Committee set up by the Colonial Office to investigate the resources of the antarctic seas, particularly in regard to the factors, biological and physical, governing the great whale fisheries of those waters.
It was my privilege to be closely associated with Gunther on the R.R.S. Discovery on her voyage of 1925-27, on the smaller ship R.R.S. William Scoresby, and afterwards in the joint authorship of an extensive report upon the ecology of the antarctic plankton. He was a man of sterling qualities. Working with him day and night, often under the difficult conditions presented by the Southern Ocean, one was continually impressed by his deep sense of duty, his devotion to his work, and his tireless energy. His enthusiasm was always combined with a scrupulous regard for accuracy: both in the field and the working-up of data. After working at the nets and water-bottles for thirty-six hours on end, except for odd moments snatched for hurried meals, it was only the fear of being inaccurate in the readings and recordings, not fatigue itself, which persuaded him to rest. He had a love of the sea and the open life; he was a real deep-water oceanographer, with the determination to bring back results.
In 1931 on the R.R.S. William Scoresby, Gunther led a highly successful expedition to investigate the Peru Coastal Current (sometimes called Humboldt's Current) and published in 1936 a comprehensive report on its physical, chemical and biological aspects. Later he again visited the Antarctic on a whale-marking expedition to study migrations, and made valuable observations on the swimming and breathing habits of whales (a paper now in the press). Much of his time before the War was spent in working on the material collected during a trawling survey, partly carried out under his direction, on the extensive banks lying between the Falkland Islands and South America. It is to be hoped that all the work he put into this will eventually be published.
In addition to his wide interests in zoology and oceanography, Gunther was always delighted to record any unusual natural phenomenon ; his recent letter in NATURE on the ice storm in Wiltshire is an example of this. Colour and scenery were a great joy to him, and he did splendid water-colour drawings, both sea and landscape, as well as accurate colour studies of marine animals. Many will treasure his privately printed "Notes and Sketches made during two years on the Discovery Expedition".
It was characteristic of Gunther's capacity for work that his long leave after the 1925-27 expedition medicine in the University of Pennsylvania, on should have been spent in the Department of Biochemistry at Cambridge, undertaking researches on the fatty and vitamin content of plankton (published in collaboration with G. Collin, J. C. Drummond [later Sir Jack who also died in tragic circumstances] and T. P. Hilditch). His published work, while extensive, is no real measure of his industry. He was always being attracted by side branches which he felt it his duty to explore, and only when he had carried them a long way did he realize he was being taken too far from the main issue; reluctantly they were put on one side for some later available time--alas, now no more.
…He has been a worthy upholder of the tradition set by his father, his grandfather, Dr. A.G.L.G. Gunther, F.R.S., and his great-uncle, Prof. W.C. Mcintosh, F.R.S.
In 1941 Eustace Rolfe Gunther was posthumously awarded the Polar Medal in Bronze for ‘good services between the years 1925-1939 in the Royal Research Ships “Discovery II” and “William Scoresby”'
Amongst the many people I have met Mavis Gunther was one of the most memorable—and one of the most worth remembering.
*About thirty years later I met a paediatrician at a meeting who knew of this work and I asked him if overconcentration had proved to be a problem. He said no, the infant could cope. However, I now find that there have been cases of dehydration linked to overconcentrated baby formula and I see all sorts of warning about making up the powders properly.