Sunday 29 January 2023

Winter Thrushes in Hong Kong

The appearance of true thrushes (Turdidae) in Hong Kong is a sign that winter has arrived. AJP sent us these photographs taken a few days ago in Sai Kung Country Park.

White's Thrush (Zoothera aurea)

White's Thrush breeds in north-eastern China. Still marked in the guides as an uncommon winter visitor, our experience from the 1960s and visits since is that it is actually not that uncommon. Named for Gilbert White the famous country parson of Selbourne in Hampshire.

Chinese Blackbird (Turdus mandarinus)

Previously regarded as a subspecies of the Common Blackbird, it has recently been given full species status by some authors. Peak Gardens is where we have regularly seen this bird. They skulk more than the blackbirds in gardens in UK.

Grey-backed Thrush (Turdus hortulorum)

A common winter visitor that breeds in north-east Asia.

Sunday 22 January 2023

Kentish Plover in Hong Kong


AJP took this photograph on a beach in Hong Kong.  The Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) is a common winter visitor. Occurring from Europe to east Asia, they no longer occur in the south-east of England and their common name, indicating they were to be found in the county of Kent, shows how much the distributions of birds have changed over the decades and centuries.

Saturday 21 January 2023

The Moluccas In the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace. The site of ‘the sudden flash of insight’ on natural selection

It is not everyday one has the opportunity to travel to the site of an event of such importance in the history of biological thought that the living world could never be looked at in the same way again.

The bicentenary of Alfred Russel Wallace’s birth was on 8 January. We were ahead of that anniversary in November in sailing through the Moluccas.

It was from the small volcanic island of Ternate in the Moluccas that Wallace wrote to Charles Darwin describing his ‘sudden flash of insight’ on the origin of species by natural selection. That letter, triggered Darwin to finally write up his own insights in evolution and resulted in a joint publication that gave equal prominence to both Wallace and Darwin. The idea had come to Wallace while he was in a feverish state during what is generally reckoned to be a bout of malaria. His letter to Darwin in 1858 was headed and posted from Ternate, an important hub in the spice trade, off the coast of a much larger island then known as Gilolo, now Halmahera. That address has led to the general supposition that it was on Ternate that Wallace had his ‘sudden flash of insight’. Recently, however, that view has been challenged by George Beccaloni of the Alfred Russel Wallace Correspondence Project and the Alfred Russel Wallace Memorial Fund. He argues that it is much more likely, given the evidence, that Wallace’s insight came while he was on Halmahera staying in the small village of Dodinga or Dojinga, suffering from fever and trying to collect specimens. 

Wallace and his small team arrived on Halmahera after three hours sailing and rowing at Sedingole (now Sidangoli) but:

…I saw at once that it was no place for me. For many miles extends a plain covered with coarse high grass, thickly dotted here and there with trees, the forest country only commencing at the hills a good way in the interior. Such a place would produce few birds and no insects, and we therefore arranged to stay only two days, and then go on to Dodinga, at the narrow central isthmus of Gilolo…Luckily I succeeded in hiring a small boat, which took me there the same night, with my two men and my baggage.

Wallace must have landed in virtually the same spot as we did only now there is a jetty which seems to be a stopping place for commuter boat traffic. The jetty is connected to the village itself by a track, now tarmacadamed. It was along that road we had a gentle evening birding stroll, past a few houses and farms. The next morning we drove along the track to reach the main road and then turned north towards Sidangoli.

Although the hut where Wallace stayed in 1858 has long gone its approximate location has been deduced and a video of George Beccaloni in the village in 2018 can be found here.

After a successful morning with the local bird guide we were taken by speedboat the ten miles to rejoin our vessel lying off Ternate. Again, the house where Wallace stayed is long gone but George Beccaloni described its location in this video.

Our two unfeverish nights lying off Dodinga and Ternate in a comfortable bed and after an excellent dinner, produced no startling insights. However, Ternate turned up trumps with a remarkable opportunity for people watching. Before dawn as we climbed into our taxis at the dock to head for the airport, huge bands of youths clutching large flags were forming motor cycle convoys in the streets. As we drove, crowds were gathering to watch them and even more convoys were seen coming in from the surrounding villages. Some major national event? No, they were out celebrating a win by Argentina in some early round of the football (soccer to those reading this in the USA) World Cup. The puzzled looks on our faces at this extraordinary display of human behaviour had to be seen to be believed, as we reminded ourselves that we were in Indonesia who were not even taking part. What happened on the streets of Ternate when Argentine actually won can only be imagined.

That happening diverted our attention from the pre-dawn town but at least we had seen the places that he described which made Wallace’s name and in which he would have moved with some excitement in his eagerness to get a letter off to Darwin. We had also seen some of the birds he and/or his assistants saw and collected.

Wallace wrote of Dodinga:

The distance across the isthmus at this place is only two miles, and there is a good path, along which rice and sago are brought from the eastern villages. The whole isthmus is very rugged, though not high, being a succession of little abrupt hills and valleys, with angular masses of limestone rock everywhere projecting, and often almost blocking up the pathway. Most of it is virgin forest, very luxuriant and picturesque, and at this time having abundance of large scarlet Ixoras in flower, which made it exceptionally gay. I got some very nice insects here, though, owing to illness most of the time, my collection was a small one; and my boy Ali shot me a pair of one of the most beautiful birds of the East, Pitta gigas, a large ground-thrush, whose plumage of velvety black above is relieved by a breast of pure white, shoulders of azure blue, and belly of vivid crimson. It has very long and strong legs, and hops about with such activity in the dense tangled forest, bristling with rocks, as to make it very difficult to shoot.

Our encounter with the pitta, see here, now known as the Ivory-breasted Pitta, was considerably less traumatic for the birds.

Sunset from the jetty at Dodinga (Dojinga) with Ternate in the background and our boat hying at anchor

View from the track linking the village of Dodinga to the jetty

The track from Dodinga to the jetty

Red-cheeked Parrot (Geoffroyus geoffroyi) in the trees above the track


The volcano, Jailolo, from the road from Dodinga to Sidangoli

The a plain covered with coarse high grass which caused Wallace to quickly move on can still be seen around Sidangoli

Beccaloni, G. 2019. Dodinga: birthplace of Alfred Russel Wallace's theory of evolution by natural selection. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.16649.29289/1 

Wallace AR. 1869. The Malay Archipelago. London: Macmillan.

Monday 16 January 2023

Now That’s a Caterpillar. Wallace’s Golden Birdwing butterfly

At a butterfly farm on Bacan in the Moluccas, Wallace’s Golden Birdwing butterflies (Ornithoptera croesus) were being bred. A very large cage mesh cage was planted with food plants and contained the birdwing at all stages of development. Adults were flying in the top of the cage but there were also males outside trying to get in.

The caterpillar is particularly spectacular giving every warning to potential predators: do not eat me; I will poison you*; I have nasty spikes; do not even think about it.


A bereft of life with colours fading adult male--dorsal view

Ventral view

The caterpillar is spectacular but it was the adult butterfly that Alfred Russel Wallace became so excited about when he first found them. His letter from Bacan, dated 28 January 1859 was read at a meeting of the Entomological Society of London on 6 June 1859:

…You may perhaps imagine my excitement when, after seeing it only two or three times in three months, I at length took a male Ornithoptera. When I took it out of my net, and opened its gorgeous wings, I was nearer fainting with delight and excitement than I have ever been in my life; my heart beat violently, and the blood rushed to my head, leaving a headache for the rest of the day. The insect surpassed my expectations, being, though allied to Priamus, perfectly new, distinct, and of a most gorgeous and unique colour; it is a fiery golden orange, changing, when viewed obliquely, to opaline-yellow and green…

…It is, I think, the finest of the Ornithoptera, and consequently the finest butterfly in the world?

…For the Ornithoptera I propose Croesus as a good name.

Croesus is a highly fitting specific name for the species; the old gold made it as rich as Croesus and to Wallace it was pure gold twice over, ‘the finest butterfly in the world’ and the collectors of butterflies back in Britain would be willing to pay a great of money to add a specimen to their collections. That is, after all, how Wallace made his living.

The species is sexually dimorphic, the female looks entirely different as this plate from a book by Robert Henry Fernando Rippon (ca 1836-1917):

Wallace's Golden Birdwing is found only in the northern Moluccas to the east of Wallace's line. There are differences in coloration on the different islands and they are regarded as subspecies. That on Bacan is Ornithoptera croesus sananaensis.

Distribution of Wallace's Golden Birdwing

This video on YouTube of Wallace’s Golden Birdwing in the wild is worth watching:

We remarked while in the Moluccas how uncommon butterflies appeared to be. We had seen lots on just a short walk on New Guinea itself a few days earlier. But it wasn’t just us. The great man himself in his letter from Bacan to the entomologists in London wrote:

Butterflies are scarce…

At the butterfly farm. The large cage can be seen in the right of the photograph.

*That’s assuming the caterpillar is poisonous. It could though be a Batesian mimic—‘I do not need to make expensive toxins if I just copy the colours of the other caterpillar over there who does’.

Sunday 15 January 2023

Is the first alleged record of Crested Macaques on the island of Bacan in the Moluccas in 1828 correct? Probably not

When I was writing the previous article on the Crested Macaques (Macaca nigra) of the island of Bacan in the Moluccas, I came across an anomaly in the records. A paper* mentions the early records of the presence of monkeys on Bacan by referring to a publication written in 1969 by Jack Fooden of the Field Museum in Chicago on the taxonomy and evolution of the monkeys of the Celebes (Sulawesi). There the earliest report of the monkeys on Bacan is attributed to the book by Quoy and Gaimard which was published in Paris in 1830. Jean René Constant Quoy (1790-1869)  and Joseph Paul Gaimard (1793-1858) were the surgeon/naturalists on the expedition of 1826-29 led by Jules Sébastien César Dumont d'Urville (1790–1842) on board the French corvette, Astrolabe. Accounts of the expedition were published in a series of volumes between 1830 and 1834.

I found the anomaly while looking at the original volume by Quoy and Gaimard which is available online. The male Crested Macaque they described was not shown as having been collected on the island of Bacan, then known as Batchian, but of Matchian, now Makian, a small volcanic island 90 km or 60 miles to the north of Bacan.

Makian, the island where Quoy & Gaimard stated they had obtained their monkey
Photographed from the  south-east from the deck of the yacht—a converted phinisi—Katharina
29 November 2022

This is what Quoy and Gaimard wrote:

Il habite quelques-unes des iles Moluques. Celui-ci provenait de Matchian. Son âge pouvait être de trois à quatre ans. Il était très-doux, intelligent, et jouait avec le premier venu….

[It inhabits some of the Moluccan Islands. This one was from Matchian. His age could be three to four years old. He was very gentle, intelligent, and played with the first comer…]

Errors and misunderstandings in labelling, writing and printing are not uncommon as I know to my embarrassment. This identification of Matchian as the site of collection could be interpreted in several ways:

  1. It is accurate and the monkey was from Matchian (Makian). I have found no other reports of monkeys there but it is an island dominated by its volcano, Kie Besi. Eruptions are not frequent but violent. Confirmed eruptions after 1830 in 1861, 1864, 1864, 1890 and 1988 have led to much destruction, many deaths, evacuations and migration from the island. Therefore it is possible that any monkeys that were living there in 1828 perished. In favour of this argument is that fact that both Quoy and Gaimard were on board the ship when the animal was obtained. They must have known and remembered where it came from, especially since the animal was alive. Indeed, the description of its tameness suggests it had it been kept as a pet.
  2. ‘Matchian’ is a misprint for Batchian (Bacan). That must be the interpretation of the reference to the publication by Fooden (which I have not seen).
  3. The location, ‘Matchian’ is completely wrong and the monkey was collected on Sulawesi (Celebes)—also visited by the Astrolabe expedition. Since Quoy and Gaimard were on board, it seems unlikely they would have made that mistake.

L'Astrolabe on an antarctic expedition
in 1838

In questioning whether this is a reliable record for the occurrence of the monkeys on Bacan, I am further puzzled by their absence, if Alfred Russel Wallace’s suggestion ‘that this species has been accidentally introduced by the roaming Malays, who often carry about with them tame monkeys and other animals’, from other islands in the Moluccas. Reading something of the history of these spice islands since the 1500s, there has been a great deal of human movement between the islands of both sides of Wallace’s line. Was it only on Bacan that sufficient were introduced for a population to become established?

I connect help but take the record of Quoy and Gaimard at face value. There is no reason to suppose that record from the Astrolabe Expedition for Matchian (Makian) in 1828 is not correct. The monkey might have been a pet bought from the locals there. In that case this record has nothing whatever to do with the history of the macaques of Bacan.

Wallace's account of his time on Bacan in 1858-59 appears to be the first published record of Crested Macaques on that island.

A view of BACAN from the east
28 November 2022

D’Urville JSCD. 1833. Voyage de la corvette L’Astrolabe exécuté par ordre du roi, pendant les années 1826-1827-1828 sous le commandement de J. Dumont D’Urville. Atlas Hydrographique. Paris: Tastu

Fooden J. 1969. Taxonomy and evolution of the monkeys of Celebes (Primates: Cercopithecidae). Bibliotheca Primatologica, No. 10. Basel: Karger.

*Hamada Y, Oi T, Watanabe T. 1994. Macaca nigra on Bacan Island, Indonesia: its morphology, distribution, and present habitat. International Journal of Primatology 15, 487-493.

Quoy, J. R. C, and Gaimard, J. P. (1830). Voyage de découvertes de l'Astrolabe, Zoologie, Vol 1, Paris: Tastu.

Saturday 14 January 2023

The Crested Macaques of Pulau Bacan: sightings, video and questions

Crested Macaque, Macaca nigra
Labuha, Bacan, 28 November 2022

We were very pleased to see the monkeys on the island of Bacan (pronounced as the old names for the island, Batchian and Bachian) in the Moluccas of Indonesia last November. After a bit of chasing round the town of Labuha in the vehicles, they were found in the first place we had looked—a regular site by the side of a road next to houses and wayside litter. I say monkeys because they have gone by so many different common names that it is difficult to keep up. In The Handbook of the Mammals of the World they are known as Crested Macaques, Macaca nigra, but that, with a combination of their place of origin (Celebes, now Sulawesi) and their jet-black fur has led, over the years to Celebes Crested Macaque, Black Crested Macaque, Celebes Black Macaque, Celebes Macaque, Crested Black Macaque, Sulawesi Black Macaque amongst even more when they were called ‘apes’ instead of ‘monkeys’. Black Ape and Celebes Black Ape were the common names used by zoos in UK for decades.

Below is a short video I took of the troop.

Bacan is east of Wallace’s Line and every description of the monkeys of Bacan describes them as ‘introduced’. Unlike on Sulawesi, west of the Line and to which they are native, the monkeys are thriving on Bacan. Research and conservation measures on Sulawesi the Macaca Nigra Project) as well as captive breeding populations in zoos throughout the world are aimed at preventing their decline for which hunting for human food is mainly held responsible.

Two questions struck me as we watched and photographed the monkeys.The first was: when were they introduced? Initially I drew a blank. Then I thought of looking in Wallace’s book, The Malay Archipelago.  He was on Bacan in 1858-59.

Batchian is remarkable as being the most eastern point on the globe inhabited by any of the Quadrumana. A large black baboon-monkey…is abundant in some parts of the forest. This animal has bare red callosities, and a rudimentary tail about an inch long—a mere fleshy tubercle, which may be very easily overlooked. It is the same species that is found all over the forests of Celebes, and as none of the other Mammalia of that island extend into Batchian I am inclined to suppose that this species has been accidentally introduced by the roaming Malays, who often carry about with them tame monkeys and other animals. This is rendered more probable by the fact that the animal is not found in Gilolo [Halmahera], which is only separated from Batchian by a very narrow strait. The introduction may have been very recent, as in a fertile and unoccupied island such an animal would multiply rapidly.

There has been the assumption which I will explore in a further article that the monkeys were present on Bacan in the late 1820s, the first known recorded date. Are there any earlier references to the presence of monkeys on Bacan in the Portuguese or Dutch literature from centuries earlier which have not yet seen the light of day?

So we still do not know the date or the manner of their presumed introduction to Bacan. And that leads me to my second series of questions: Has anybody looked at the genetic structure of the population on Bacan? Is there evidence of a past genetic bottleneck as a result of the introduction of very small numbers? If the population did start from very small numbers they have clearly avoided inbreeding depression on Bacan. The answer to these questions appears to be ‘no’. It is research waiting on a plate to be done and would extend the study already done on Sulawesi. Indeed, should, in the future, conservation efforts on the species come to rely on the population on Bacan, it is vital information on which to base reintroduction or genetic diversity programmes.

The part of Sulawesi in which these monkeys live is 300 km (180 miles) from Bacan. Was Wallace right in supposing ‘that this species has been accidentally introduced by the roaming Malays, who often carry about with them tame monkeys and other animals’? Or is there another explanation as to how the macaques crossed Wallace’s Line?

Thursday 12 January 2023

Janet Elizabeth Lane-Claypon (1877-1967). The overlooked pioneer in breast cancer and infant nutrition research—and early mammary physiologist

It is only in recent years that Janet Elizabeth Lane-Claypon (1877-1967) has been recognised as a pioneer in epidemiology. Her findings on breast cancer and infant nutrition have stood the test of time. Furthermore, she introduced new concepts into how epidemiology should be done, notably what are now known as case-control studies and the recognition and treatment of confounding factors. She introduced newly established statistical techniques into her analyses of the data. Recognition has been late coming but there is now a Janet Lane-Claypon Building at the University of Lincoln in her county of birth.

Janet Lane-Claypon in 1907
Extracted from a group photograph
taken at the Lister Institute

Of her important epidemiological findings I will only deal with one: breast cancer. Lane-Claypon compared data on the lifestyle of 500 individuals recently treated or being treated for breast cancer (the ‘cases’) with 500 patients with no past history of breast cancer (the ‘controls’). These data were obtained from six hospitals in London and three in Glasgow. She used age at marriage as a proxy for age at first pregnancy. In the 1920s that was a reliable proxy; today it would not. That information produced one of her key findings: the higher the age at first pregnancy, the higher the risk of breast cancer later in life. These findings were confirmed by independent studies in the U.S.A. Her data were reanalysed in 2010. The conclusion was clear: 

Findings from the quantitative reanalysis were consistent with contemporary epidemiologic evidence for age at menopause, parity, age at first birth, and duration of lactation.

Those of us not in the cancer field—or even those who were but who were not familiar with epidemiological studies—but who were working on the normal mammary gland in the latter quarter of the 20th century were not aware that research earlier than that led by Brian MacMahon (1923-2007) at Harvard had been done, let alone been re-confirmed. Although MacMahon did refer to Lane-Claypon in his papers, the impression gained from a talk he gave at a Gordon Conference I attended was that the finding of an association between age at first pregnancy and the incidence of breast cancer was not just an important finding but a novel one. 

The impression that MacMahon had demonstrated something new clearly persists. For example, Wikipedia’s entry on MacMahon:

His best-known research relates to breast cancer. An international study, published in 1970, on which MacMahon was the lead author showed for the first time that the age at which a woman first gives birth significantly affects her risk of later developing breast cancer; giving birth at a young age was found to be protective. Subsequent work by MacMahon's group showed that every year a woman delays giving birth after the age of eighteen increases her risk of developing breast cancer by 3.5%. The 1970 study stimulated later research into hormonal causes of breast cancer.

In addition to the ‘for the first time’ I have underlined those who studied the hormonal control of breast cancer in the 1940s, 50s and 60s will either be rotating at high speed in their graves, rattling their ashes in their urn or guffawing from their wheelchairs if reading that last sentence. Sir George Beatson (1848-1933) may also have had something to say for he discovered the link between the development of breast cancers and the ovaries before hormones and oestrogens from the ovary had even been thought about.

What MacMahon’s results did stimulate was an interest in trying to find the mechanism by which early first pregnancy is protective. They came at a time of a major increase in funding for cancer research in the U.S.A.—President Nixon’s ‘war on cancer’ was launched by the National Cancer Act of 1971. Fifty years later that search continues but as in many aspects of breast cancer research there has been activity but, I would argue, relatively little progress given the resources made available by governments and charities.

Lane-Claypon also detected from her data that breast cancer sometimes runs in families. In 1994 and 1995, nearly seventy years after her report was published, two of the genes responsible for the inherited propensity, BRCA1 (for BReast CAncer gene) and BRCA2, were discovered.

But Janet Lane-Claypon had not started out as an epidemiologist. Her first research was in physiology at University College London. And her foray into breast cancer in the 1920s was not her first research on the mammary gland. She worked on the hormonal control of the mammary gland with Ernest Starling, co-discoverer of the first hormone, and one of the great, even, arguably, the greatest, physiologist of his day. The paper they wrote in 1906* from work done in 1904-05 has rarely been cited probably because it was, with hindsight, overambitious and ended in uncertainty. However, a key finding was not explained until over 50 years later. Like in her work in epidemiology, Lane-Clayton developed a new technique to examine and stain the mammary glands of rodents and lagomorphs for histological examination. It has been used ever since, although its originator has rarely been cited†.

Lane-Claypon and Starling were looking for a hormone that controlled lactation. They did not know—and could not have known at the time—that a number of different hormones are now known to be involved in controlling mammary growth and milk secretion. However, their basic hypothesis, that a hormone is first responsible for the growth and development of the mammary gland and then, as it disappears at birth of the offspring, triggers the onset of milk secretion is basically correct if hormones in the plural are substituted for hormone. It is the dramatic fall in the concentration of one, progesterone, which is, along with other hormones involved in mammary development, and is at high concentrations in the blood during pregnancy, that triggers the onset of copious milk secretion around the time of birth of the young.

In their search for the source of hormones that could cause mammary development they injected various tissue extracts into rabbits. The results of individual experiments were reported but the results were difficult to interpret, as they wrote, because the amount of material they had was inadequate. The length of treatment, site of injection, method of preparation and amount of extract varied, while the group sizes were very small. Having found no effect with aqueous extracts of ovary, uterus or placenta, they did a series of experiments involving longer treatments using fetal, placental and uterine endometrium. Some of these extracts, notably those of fetus and placenta clearly caused mammary development.

They then suggested that their active substance produced possibly by the fetus and transferred to the mother’s circulation through the placenta could not in fact be the only hormone involved since previous workers had show that the presence of the ovary was also necessary. They also plumped for the fetus as the site of production of their active substance since in their experiments extracts of placenta alone had no effect in three rabbits. In that they differed from a previous report on the effects of placental extracts. That conclusion was later proved to be wrong; the placenta is the source. However, the results which showed the presence of something interesting was largely ignored as the rôles of the hormones of the pituitary emerged and received most of the attention. Only after the discovery of placental lactogens in the 1960s could Lane-Claypon and Starling’s admittedly incomplete results be explained. Their paper, as hormones were discovered and the sequence of events leading to mammary development and the onset of milk secretion worked out, fell by the wayside. But as an early illustration of the presence of placental lactogens it appears along with other early work in Lothar Hennighausen’s and Gertraud Robinson’s review of mammary development which relates research done in the early 1900s to advances made since in the 1960s.

The paper with Lane-Claypon was Starling’s only foray into the physiology of the mammary gland.

Janet Elizabeth Lane-Claypon was born on 3 February 1877 in Boston, Lincolnshire. She was not born with that surname because later that month her father, a banker, first-class cricketer for Cambridge University and Surrey, and local magistrate, changed his name from William Ward Claypon Lane to William Ward Lane-Claypon. She was educated at home, University College, London (first-class honours in physiology in 1902 and DSc in 1905 (these were the days before the PhD) and at the London School of Medicine for Women (now the Royal Free); she became medically qualified (MB, BS) in 1907. She was awarded the MD degree in 1910, thus becoming one of those very rare beasts to have research degrees in both science and medicine.

She had various jobs and roles in London over a period of 30 years, including medical practice at hospitals in London and Essex. She travelled around Europe in 1908 on a Jenner Research Scholarship of the Lister Institute. There she studied services for mothers and infants. She was lecturer in physiology and hygiene at Battersea Polytechnic in 1910-12 and then, from 1912 to 1916, Assistant Medical Inspector at the London Government Board. It was there that she compared the  nutritive value to infants of breast milk and boiled cow's milk. She obtained data in Berlin and introduced new methods and statistical procedures to epidemiology. The report was published in 1912. Her work was being noticed and one of the first decisions taken by the newly established Medical Research Committee (which later became the Medical Research Council) was to commission a report by Lane-Claypon on the hygiene of milk; that was published in 1916.

Until asked to report on breast cancer, Lane-Claypon worked on and wrote about health and welfare policies for women and children including advocacy of the German system of poor-law for Britain. She also proposed major changes in the training and status of midwives as well the greater provision of antenatal services to reduce infant and maternal mortality.

From an article in The Sphere
of 9 December 1922 on the Household
and Social Science Department

In 1916 she was appointed Dean of the Household and Social Science Department at King's College for Women. This department was the sole occupier of a new site in Kensington. A few years after Lane-Claypon’s departure it became an independent college and was renamed as Queen Elizabeth College in 1953. Her time there was not a happy one. Throughout, she had poor relations with the committee responsible for the place. The chairman was described as a ‘despot’ and ‘master of biting sarcasm' much of it 'directed quite openly at the Dean. By 1923, Lane-Claypon had had enough. She resigned during a period of financial difficulties and threats of a reorganisation that would have reduced the College’s autonomy. She wrote: 'I should have been able to continue, had it not been for the difficulties which have been created by the attitudes of certain members of the Executive Committee’. She returned to the Ministry of Health, and that is when her seminal contributions to breast cancer began.

Janet Lane-Claypon was active in the Medical Women's Federation and, in 1920, was one of the first female magistrates to be appointed; she was on the bench for the London borough of Kensington in 1922. She was a member of the Women's Subcommittee of the Advisory Council to the Ministry of [Postwar] Reconstruction in 1918, and vice-president and president of the Women Sanitary Inspectors And Health Visitors Association between 1918 and 1920.

In  August 1929 came what the newspapers described as a surprise to their colleagues. At the age of 52, Janet Lane-Claypon married the Deputy-Secretary at the Department of Health, Edward Rodolph Forber. The same newspapers reported that after the ceremony on a Friday the couple were both back working at their desks in the Ministry of Health after the weekend. Forber was 53; his first wife had died in June 1928. The newspapers may have deemed it a surprise but colleagues knew that the liaison had developed during Forber’s wife’s long and terminal illness.

The new Dr Forber was obliged to resign from the civil service on her marriage and thereafter seems to have disappeared from the medical and scientific scene. We do not know if she was pleased to retire in her early fifties or if she was not.

After their marriage Forber was promoted in the civil service and became chairman of the Board of Customs and Excise and then of the Inland Revenue.  He was knighted (KCB) in 1932 and Dr Janet Forber became Lady Forber. The Forbers lived in London and for a time (certainly 1939-1942) at a house, Ragged Lands, in Glynde, East Sussex. They later moved 9 miles to Bishopstone Manor, near Seaford. By 1959 they were living in a flat at Seaford. Edward Rodolph Forber died in 1960. Janet died at Seaford on 17 July 1967.

I end with a question: have we done enough to recognise Janet Elizabeth Lane-Claypon’s seminal work in the early decades of the 20th century? 

*Lane-Claypon JE, Starling EH. 1906. An experimental enquiry into the factors which determine the growth and activity of the mammary glands. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 77, 505-522.

†Catherine Hebb and Jim Linzell did refer to and use Lane-Claypon’s method in their paper, Innervation of the mammary gland. A histochemical study in the rabbit, published in Histochemical Journal in 1970.

Sunday 8 January 2023

Ivory-breasted Pitta on Halmahera. Our birdwatching highlight of the year

After a superb voyage but less than successful birding trip through the Raja Ampat and north Moluccan islands of Indonesia in November, there was a reward for three of us on the island of Halmahera on the last day. A local bird guide collected some worms from home and then took us to a hide he had built himself in the forest. Shortly after he set up a bluetooth speaker to play the call, an Ivory-breasted Pitta appeared, displayed and consumed the utterly irresistible worms.

During this time I was perched on a very low plastic stool of the type used in nursery schools. My camcorder had died a few days earlier and had to use my back-up Canon bridge camera, the video output of which is of lower quality in the gloom of the forest floor. A second pitta then appeared during the performance but the rival was soon seen off. Unfortunately I could not swivel on my stool to get both birds in frame especially since my left gluteus maximus was indicating a strong desire not to be compressed for any longer on a stool resembling a medium-sized yoghurt pot.

The Ivory-breasted Pitta is endemic to some of the islands of the north Moluccas. Its scientific name, Pitta maxima, reflects its large size, the largest in the genus but not, by 1 cm, the largest pitta of all. In some publications it was also known as the Halmahera Pitta or Moluccan Pitta. It is a bird of lowland forest including secondary growth and overgrown coconut plantations. It is said to be fairly common throughout its range but, like most pittas, difficult to observe.

The video can be seen below. Particularly impressive are the bristles that appear in the centre line during his puffed up display. I have not seen them described before.

After that display, three very happy birdwatchers and two equally delighted guides emerged from the hide.