Thursday 28 July 2022

Walking amongst monkeys and Theodore Roosevelt’s policy: ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’

With foreign affairs dominating the news for the first half of the year, now interrupted by incessant coverage of the self-inflicted local difficulties facing the UK government, the doctrine of ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’ had many an airing. That has always been my motto when walking past groups of habituated or feral monkeys which have the reputation of sometimes attacking passers by or stealing food from their bags or hands. I have wondered in the past if the dictum arose in a part of the world that had to deal with monkeys as well as with evil individuals of another primate species.

When I looked it up, I found that its noted adopter and promoter, Theodore Roosevelt, President of the USA from 1901 until 1909 as well a keen and very well-read amateur zoologist and natural historian, had indeed identified the proverb as having originated in West Africa: 

I have always been fond of the West African proverb: "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far."

The last time I had the opportunity of Roosevelt’s dictum was walking in the New Territories of Hong Kong where large bands of macaques (the origins of which I have discussed previously here) gather to await picnickers, walkers and joggers. At the start and end of a popular walk along a water catchment where monkeys tend to gather close to and on the path, there are piles of sticks gathered from the trees and shrubs, picked up and then discarded by walkers and joggers.

The following short video is of a large troupe of monkeys—around 50 individuals—on a popular path along a water catchment near the Jubilee Reservoir in the New Territories of Hong Kong in December 2017. When we first saw them they were descending a steep hill, covered in concrete at lower levels, to reach the path. They had to paddle through the trickle of water in the catchment and quite clearly did not like getting their feet wet. Later, they lined the path for about 100 yards. I had the ideal implement for the day—a walking pole was my big stick.

Friday 22 July 2022

Enthusiasm is not enough. Who said that about research?

I never met Sir John Gaddum. He died in 1965, shortly after ill-health forced his retirement, three years before my arrival at the Institute of Animal Physiology at Babraham; Richard Keynes had succeeded him as Director. Many if the pharmacologists Gaddum had appointed were still around and stories of his seven years at the Institute, as well as earlier in Edinburgh, abounded. Most of them concerned his indecisiveness, especially in approving minor expenditure during a time of relative plenty. I read more about Gaddum a couple of years ago while writing a biographical memoir on Len Goodwin. Gaddum was a customer (‘the untidy Dr Gaddum’) at the shoe shop Len’s father managed and there were interactions of the two pharmacologists later in life. William Feldberg (1900-1993) wrote Gaddum’s biographical memoir for the Royal Society; he included 26 notable quotations from Gaddum’s works. Many are concerned with pharmacology and its ramifications but three are of particular note and I wish I had seen them sooner when I was in a position to deploy them with effect.

On research: Enthusiasm is not enough.

It is usually a waste of time to acquire a new research tool and then look around for problems to which it might be applied. 

It will probably always be more important to try a thing out than to argue about it.

Impossible as it is to offer advice to anybody setting out in science in the 21st century by those who operated and survived in the 20th, these three Gaddum quotations are tenets that are timeless.

from Report for 1964-1965, Institute of
Animal Physiology, Babraham, Cambridge
London: Agricultural Research Council

Feldberg W.S. 1967. John Henry Gaddum 1900-1965. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 13, 57-77.

Tuesday 19 July 2022

Who was the photographer of British Amphibians and Reptiles, Walter S. Pitt?…continued

Walter S. Pitt’s photographs were used to illustrate Malcolm Smith’s seminal book, The British Amphibians and Reptiles published by Collins in the New Naturalist series in 1951. Pitt’s photographs also appeared in magazines on aquaria and there is mention that he was the recipient of one of first four Amazon sword plants to be imported into Britain. He was a member of the Zoological Photographic Club which led me to suspect he might have been a gifted amateur photographer. But I could found nothing further. I asked if anybody had information in a post on here on 22 February 2018. A couple of days ago the President of Bath Photographic Society contacted me to say our W.S. Pitt was unlikely to be the W.S. Pitt—the only possibility I could find—who was a member of that Society in 1888. Today, by chance while looking for somebody else, I found that Walter S. Pitt was a member of the Avicultural Society and that his address was listed. A search in soon showed who he was.

Walter Sydney Pitt was born on 19 November 1900 at 15 Portland Place London. His father was a physician, a consultant at Guy’s Hospital. Walter Pitt became a solicitor in the city (Pontifex, Pitt and Langham of Holborn Circus). He lived in Surrey at ‘Wildwood’, Silverdale Avenue, Walton-on-Thames. He died on 21 February 1983. It appears that he and his wife, Muriel Evelyn Gillard, had no children.

Confirmation that this was the Walter Pitt I was looking for has also appeared since I did the searches in 2018. On eBay at present is a clipping from a 1946 issue Rural Affairs Magazine. The caption to the photograph shows that Pitt won second prize (and £2) in a photographic competition for a photograph of a Greater Black-backed Gull alighting on a rock. From the caption the details of the camera he was using are given. It is described as an Exacta 2¼ x 2¼ fitted with a 8¼ inch Cooke Aviar lens. The film was Ilford HP3  and the exposure 1/1000th second at f/4.5*.

Having identified Walter Sydney Pitt as a gifted amateur photographer, aquarist and aviculturist, the question now is, do his original photographs which illustrated so famous a book, survive anywhere?

Finally, some of the colour plates by Pitt from Malcolm Smith’s book. The newts were photographed in an aquarium, another photographic skill acquired by Walter Pitt.

*The camera is interesting. The negative size shows that is must have been an Exakta 6x6, a camera that only became available in Germany a week or so before the outbreak of war. My guess is it came to U.K. with a serviceman some time in 1945 and that Pitt was trying it out. The lens was a famous Cooke Aviar 210 mm lens made for large format cameras by Taylor, Taylor & Hobson in Leicester. The Exakta’s roll film would have captured just the centre of the image projected by the lens, thereby increasing its apparent focal length. Some special fitting must have been made to adapt the lens to the lens mount of the Exakta. At the time of Pitt’s photograph, the rating of Ilford HP3 film was the equivalent of approximately 250 ASA. In order to use the shutter speed he did (to capture the bird in flight) it must have been a bright if not fully sunlit day when he encountered the gull.


Wednesday 6 July 2022

Herbert M. Evans. The story of a biographical memoir and the art of implication

Herbert McLean Evans (1882-1971) was a big man, literally and metaphorically, in American biological research. His biographers wrote of him:

He was interested in everything which was going on in biology, in embryology, endocrinology, physiology of reproduction, nutrition, genetics, the history of science and medicine and the collection of books. Nothing was too large for him, nothing too trivial, if it threw light upon the central question--the pursuit of truth and the biology of man.

H.M Evans
from Amoroso and Corner

Evans was a pioneer in the study of the anterior pituitary gland and its hormones. However, he is now best remembered eponymously for a relatively minor biological discovery he made in 1914. The effects of dyes made largely by the German chemical industry on biological tissues and processes was a major activity in searches for ‘magic bullets’ against disease. One dye studied by Evans as a tissue stain was found to bind strongly to proteins in the plasma and could therefore be used to measure human blood volume in health and disease. As a result it was sold by Eastman Kodak as ‘Evans Blue’. Evans Blue is still widely used to study such topics as the permeability of blood vessels and for locating lymph nodes.

Evans after spending time at Johns Hopkins medical school (where he graduated in medicine without, it was said, stepping foot into a hospital) and in Germany, in 1915 he was appointed to the chair of anatomy at the University of California, Berkeley where he remained, with periods elsewhere, until he retired in 1952. As was typical of the time—and for most of the rest of the 20th century—there were visits and close links between biomedical scientists in the USA and those in Britain. Evans was therefore well known to early British endocrinologists and he elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society in 1951. After he died his closest friend on this side of the Atlantic, Geoffrey Wingfield Harris (1913–1971) volunteered to write his biographical memoir and made a few preliminary notes. However, Harris died a short time later. The job of writing the memoir then fell to George Washington Corner (1889-1981) from the USA, also a Foreign Fellow elected in 1955, and ‘Amo’ (Emmanuel Ciprian Amoroso, 1901-1982) who knew Evans and his reputation. Corner was in many ways ideally placed. He had been appointed by Evans to a position in at Berkeley in 1915 and had spent separate years working in London and Oxford.

The job of co-author gave Amo some anguish and a lot of hard work. Corner’s contribution was largely that he published as a biographical memoir for the National Academy of Sciences leaving Amo to add more. The narrow office Amo occupied as a visitor at Babraham (mine previously and one I had been delighted to ‘lend’ him) was full of cigar smoke for weeks on end as he wrote about Evans using his usual thick-nibbed blue felt-tip pen and managing only to get a few lines onto each page. One of the problems faced by Amo was that Evans was hated by a large number of his contemporaries in the USA and a form of words was needed to mark but not dwell on that aspect of his career.

The history of the scientific advances in the many topics Evans worked on also proved difficult to write. One day though, when he must have been nearing the end, Amo emerged on the lookout for somebody to tell of a eureka moment. He caught the late Jim Linzell and I in the corridor as we headed for the coffee room. ‘I’ve got it—it just came to me—the words that all those who knew Evans and his reputation will understand, without the rest of the world knowing and us saying outright that he was a devil for the women’. The rest of the world reading the very long memoir might though have been given some inkling that something else was to follow after the mention of his first, second and third wives and the ‘domestic infelicities’ that required him to sell his first antiquarian book collection in order to reimburse the family trust funds of the first.

I had no idea whether the words Amo read out from his draft that afternoon nearly 50 years ago had made it into the final version of the biographical memoir. When I thought of it a few weeks ago I found that they had. This is what he had written:

…but his influence always, extraordinary, is still active. Only those who have known him and worked with him or under him can realize the extent to which this is true.

Amoroso EC, Corner GW. 1972. Herbert McLean Evans 1882-1971. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 18: 82–186. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1972.0005

Corner GW. 1974. Herbert McLean Evans 1882-1971. Biographical Memoir, National Academy of Sciences 153-192.

Yao L, Xing X, Yu P, Ni Y, Chen F. 2018. Evans Blue dye: a revisit of Its applications in biomedicine. Contrast Media & Molecular Imaging Volume 2018 Article ID 7628037 https://doi.org10.1155/2018/7628037