Wednesday 17 May 2023

Ceylon or Sri Lankan Junglefowl: a colour plate from 1959

In the days when colour printing was extremely expensive, the Avicultural Society had special appeals for funds to support the appearance in Avicultural Magazine of the occasional colour plate. A well-known bird artist was then commissioned. Although the whole run of the Society’s magazines can be found online, the plates rarely see the light of day. Therefore I decided to show one, now and again, on this site. This is the 7th in the series.

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This plate illustrates an article by the artist, George Morrison Reid Henry (1891-1983). He published and signed his work ‘G.M. Henry’. One of eleven children, his father was manager of tea estates in what was then Ceylon. He was educated at home by his older sisters. After working as a laboratory assistant he was taken on as a draughtsman by the Colombo Museum. He worked his way up and in 1913 was appointed to a new post of Assistant in Systematic Entomology. He stayed in in that post until he retired in 1946. His son, David Morrison Reid Henry (1919-1977) was also a bird painter.

The bird, Gallus lafayettii, is endemic to Sri Lanka where it is common. Henry, in the article, descrbed his observations on the birds in the wild.

Avicultural Magazine 65, 1959

Herbert Womersley: from industrial chemistry in Lancashire through amateur entomology to world-class expertise on mites in South Australia

In my recent article on species of mite discovered on rats in Hong Kong by John Romer in the early 1950s I noted that they had been named by Herbert Womersley (1889-1962) at the South Australian Museum in Adelaide.

Herbert Womersley achieved a professional post in descriptive zoology by a route that would be almost impossible today. He trained in England as a works chemist and by dint of his amateur activities in entomology was offered a post in Australia to investigate with some degree of urgency the mite infestations that were devastating crops.

Womersley was born in Warrington, Lancashire. His father, a wire drawer by trade, was a keen amateur lepidopterist. He had always been interested in insects, flies in particular, and while working in industry he attended ‘night school’ under Abraham Flatters at the Manchester Technical School (eventually to become part, after a long series of mergers, part of the University of Manchester).

The First World War changed everything. Womersley’s employment as an industrial chemist was put to use. First he was in the Royal Army Medical Corps but was transferred to the Special Companies of the Royal Engineers to carry out gas attacks on German lines in retaliation for the first use of poison gas (chlorine) by Germany in April 1915. All the men involved appear to have been chemists in civilian life and were given the rank of ‘Chemist Corporal’. In 1917 Womersley was sent to H.M. Factory, Gretna, the huge factory built in 1915-1916 for producing cordite. The site of 9000 acres (3650 hectares) extended for 9 miles to straddle the English-Scottish border near Gretna. At peak production 1,400 tonnes of cordite was being sent to the shell-filling factories each week by a workforce of nearly 17,000 (two-thirds women). Womersley is commemorated on the website of the museum commemorating the factory, The Devil’s Porridge Museum.

From 1920 until 1930 Womersley and his family lived near Bristol. He was Manager of the Fuel and Steamraising Department of Christopher Thomas & Bros Ltd, soap manufacturers. It was during this period that Womersley became well known in entomological circles, becoming a fellow of the Royal Entomological Society in 1926. In Bristol he served as president of Bristol Naturalists’ Society and was one of the promoters and secretary of the South Western Naturalists’ Union. During this time he became the leading authority in Britain on wingless insects, then lumped into a single subclass, the Apterygota. Foreign collections as well as British specimens were sent to him in Bristol for further work.

He started to seek work as a professional entomologist and in 1930 was offered a post in the Division of Economic Entomology of CSIRO in Australia. The head of the division knew of Womersley’s work, was impressed and had him appointed for the study and control of two species of which were important agricultural pests. Before moving to Australia, CSIRO had him work at the Natural History Museum in London in order to learn about collembolans (springtails) and mites (Acarina). It was stressed to him that he must learn as much as possible there and during a visit to South Africa in order that he could hit the ground running when he reached Australia. His boss wrote to him: ‘However you must on no account come out without a full equipment of knowledge of the groups on which you are to work. I would rather you spent a further month or two in England than that you came out without all the information you can possibly gather. Please remember we have no expert on mites or Collembola here (except S. Hirst in Adelaide, whom nobody ever sees)... ". 

After 5 months in London and 7 weeks in South Africa Womersley arrived in Perth on 25 September 1930. He is said to have worked extremely hard at CSIRO both in field studies and on taxonomy. However, he did not stay long because CSIRO was under severe financial constraints as the Australian government tightened its belt. There were no new appointments and rumours began to circulate that the whole division in which Womersley worked was going to be closed down. Not surprisingly, in 1932, he jumped ship. He was appointed as entomologist at the South Australia Museum. He stayed in that post until his retirement in 1954. He was then re-appointed to the museum as acarologist until he retired again in 1959 but still continued work in an honorary capacity.

The mites that were the vectors of scrub-typhus were an important cause of disease in the Western Pacific theatre during the Seconds World War. The U.S.A.’s Typhus Commission sought help from Womersley in the identification of mites. Such work continued in south-east Asia after the war, in collaboration with the U.K.’s Colonial Office and the U.S. Amy medical research unit in Malaya.

Womersley was an active member of the Royal Society of South Australia, serving as secretary, editor, treasurer, vice-president and president. Through that activity he became involved in conservation. He represented the Royal Society of South Australia on the Board of Commissioners of the National Park and Wild Life Reserves of South Australia ex officio as President, He was subsequently appointed a Commissioner in his own right. His obituarist noted that he identified himself closely with the purposes of fauna and flora preservation in South Australia. 

Ronald Vernon Southcott (1918–1998) started to study mites with Womersley at the age of 16. He then qualified in medicine but continued that interest in his medical research in acarology. He wrote Womersley’s obituary for the journal Acarologia. It ends:

His achievements in his chosen fields were considerable. He was undoubtedly at his best in descriptive taxonomy, and it is fortunate that he was able to achieve his ambition and do the work which he loved best… His judgement was sound in coming to Australia, and he was able to do much for acarology. At his death the collection of Acarina at the South Australian Museum must be one of the largest in the world, with many types and much reference material sent in exchange. He gave a good deal of assistance to earnest students of the Acarina… A bond of affection developed naturally with him in the course of work, although at times the air could be a little clouded while a point was in dispute.

Herbert Womersley at his death in 1962 had come some way from the streets of Warrington and a life as an industrial chemist - and he produced two biologists; one son, an algologist, became Professor of Botany in the University of Adelade, the other, an expert on the flora of New Guinea became Director of the National Botanic Garden at Lae.

Southcott RV. 1963. Herbert Womersley (1889 -1962), Acarologia, 5  323-334.

AMENDED 4 June 2023