Friday, 28 November 2014

Naughty curators and palaeontology laws that defy logic.....

From ‘The History of Palaeontology at Doncaster Museum’ in a recent GCG publication

“The infamous Elfie Gilmour, real name Elphistone Forrest Gilmour (honest) is one of the most colourful and influential characters in the history of Doncaster Museum (1953-62). People who knew him paint the picture of a dynamic charismatic leader and during his time at Doncaster he certainly transformed the museum service. However, there was a darker and morally dubious side to his character. He was an internationally renowned export on cerambycid (long-horn) beetles and even before his arrival at Doncaster his inability to define the boundary between his personal collection and the collection of a museum had landed him in trouble. In 1949 he was convicted and sentenced to 3 months in jail for stealing 160 beetles from the Natural History Museum.

.....In early 1967 he was suspended and pleaded guilty of publishing an obscene article, a film, sending 6 indecent colour transparencies through the post, stealing entomological cabinets and obtaining £224 by false pretences. His pleas of not guilty of two charges of publishing obscene articles and of stealing 20,749 beetles valued at £850 were accepted by the prosecution.”

Elphistone Gilmour was seduced from the path of righteousness by his obsession with coleopterology (study of beetles)!!

In a previous blog I mentioned a curator from Harvard who murdered and butchered his patron for the sake of a particularly fine mammoth skeleton. (The Parkman–Webster murder case)
Are there more dark deeds, heinous secrets and forbidden passions concealed in the annals of geological and natural history curatorship?

The States of New York and New Jersey demonstrated a degree of paleontological ignorance usually associated with Bible belt bigotry by banning the sale of mammoth teeth and tusks earlier this year in a move that was intended to bolster the ban on selling elephant ivory.

Elephants are an endangered species.

Mammoths are extinct.

Perhaps soon they will ban the use of antibiotics to help stem the trade in illegal drugs, tomatoes because they are the same family as cannabis and keeping domestic cats as pets (.....they are little tigers really, a protected species!).

Monday, 13 October 2014

A Yorkshireman and his minerals

There is a saying “You can tell a Yorkshireman, but you can’t tell him very much.” Here is proof.

It has been lying at the bottom of my desk for the last 30+ years.
Clearly a pioneer in many fields (as he would tell you himself), his mineral collection (and walking sticks) must have been talked about in many parts of the great tourist city of Bradford.

The flyer is in two pictures because it is literally bursting with Bradford pride and our computer simply isn't powerful enough to handle it in one! (click on the pictures to enlarge)

Friday, 5 September 2014

The final highlights from’The Rarest of the Rare.Stories behind the Treasures at the Harvard Natural History Museum’

The Dodo became extinct on the island of Mauritius by 1700. Genuine Dodo remains are very rare and the museum possesses one of the few genuine skeletons, albeit a composite with genuine bones and plaster reconstructions. The only pieces of genuine flesh and feathers are held by the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. They have a head and right foot. They did have the entire body but it was infested with worms and worse which would have spread to other exhibits , so it was ordered that the carcass be buried. A curious caretaker decided to cut off the head and foot as a keepsake before burning the rest. This is the ‘Alice in Wonderland dodo’ that inspired Lewis Carroll (full time Oxford don of Mathematics as well as part-time children’s author).

The museum also has a dodo model based on a drawing by an artist who never saw a real dodo. It is a fake, obviously, made from chicken and egret feathers and duck wings, by the prestigious London taxidermy firm of Rowland Ward Ltd. Many of these were produced around 1900 and sold to Natural History museums around the world. London’s Natural History Museum has one, which was featured in David Attenborough’s recent programme about the museum – and so does my local museum in Bristol.

Aepyornis – the ’giant elephant bird’, also became extinct by 1700. These lived in Madagascar, concurrent with human beings, but they declined as plantations and settlements took up their grassland habitats. Based on its skeletal remains, they were 11 feet tall and weighed half a ton. A large ostrich is 8 feet tall and weighs 150 kilos. Aepyornis birds may have been the inspiration for the mythical bird in the Thousand and One Nights where Sinbad the Sailor meets a giant bird whose young were fed on elephants!

Aepyornis laid the largest egg of any living creature. Intact eggs are extremely rare – the HMNH has one.

The Great Auk was another large flightless bird that was driven to extinction by men. t lived in big colonies in the North Atlantic and was hunted for its meat and feathers and its oily body fuelled sailor’s bonfires that burnt for weeks. The last recorded sighting was of a mating pair on an island off Iceland which fishermen clubbed to death in 1844. About 80 stuffed specimens were known to exist. The one in the museum collection once belonged to Rowland Hill, the English Viscount who invented postage stamps. When it was remounted , the taxidermist removed a few of the original bones and sold them for £4 to Lord Walter Rothschild, son of the banking dynasty ,whose natural history collection is still on display in Tring, Hertfordshire. Hill’s collection was sold by Roland Ward Ltd and the Auk was finally donated to the museum in 1931.

In 1941 a Chinese forester noticed an unusual tree in a remote part of East Sichuan. Five years later a Biology student trekked 72 miles to check the forester’s report. He identified it as a dawn redwood tree, until then thought to have been extinct for about 2 million years. It had changed little over 100 million years. The student reported his find to his Professor Hsen Hsu Hu, the first Chinese botanist to have received a doctorate from Harvard. He got in touch with Harvard who financed a seed collecting expedition. These seeds were distributed to botanical gardens and arboreta across North America and Europe and Metasequoia Glyptostroboides, a living fossil, now flourishes ,despite being critically endangered in its original habitat.

Mention should be made of Evan Scholtes, Harvard Ethnobotanist whose doctoral thesis, in 1938, on plants used by indigenous Mexicans, included identifying the hallucinogenic mushroom the Aztecs called, ‘the flesh of the Gods’. He paved the way for the psychedelic revolution. His ‘Psychedelic Plants – A Golden Guide’, was a sell-out with 3 reprints in 1976, before being withdrawn. Not to be confused with, ‘The Dictionary of Sacred and Magical Plants’, 1992, by Dr Christian Ratsch, Cultural Anthropologist, and one time right hand man at Hamburg’s Fossil and Mineral Gallery … who is not to be confused with Dr Strabismus (whom God preserve) of Utrecht, who was a fictional character with an equally silly foreign name created by J.B. Mortan aka, ‘Beachcomber’, in his humorous column in the Daily Express in the 1960s. The ‘magic’ mushrooms Scholtes described were on display for many years.

Also in the museum collection is the Stalin Ant: Amateur entomologist and Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley(you couldn’t invent a name like that) attended a dinner in the Kremlin in the presence of Joseph Stalin and said ant – a member of the species Lasis Niger – which he preserved by dropping into his Vodka.

There is also a collection of inflated caterpillars. Caterpillar inflation is apparently a lost art these days but it was a much-practised technique in the 19th Century, to study caterpillar markings by removing their insides and pumping them with air before mounting them.

There is a collection of preserved tapeworms taken from the intestines of the high society of Boston and donated to the museum by their doctor in the 1880s.

The Blaschka Collection of glass flowers made by Leopold and his son Rudolph in Dresden, Germany from 1887 – 1930, especially for the museum, are world famous and unique. They are well worth looking at pictures of if you can't manage a trip to Harvard easily.

And finally, mention has to be made of Nabokov’s ‘Genitalia Cabinet’! Russian born writer Vladimir Nabokov was a research fellow at Harvard in the 1940s, specialising in blue butterflies. He found that male butterfly genitalia differed from one species to another more than just their wing markings and he permanently impaired his eyesight staring at butterfly genitalia under the microscope 6 hours a day, 7 days a week. Bear this in mind next time you read his novels. His collection of butterfly sexual organs, each in its own glass vial, can be examined on request.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Even more highlights from’The Rarest of the Rare.Stories behind the Treasures at the Harvard Natural History Museum’

Curator of fossil insects, Frank Morton Carpenter collected 5000 well-preserved Permian fossil insects in Oklahoma in 1939. His finds were not published until 1947, partly due to the pressures of World War II and partly due to the amount of study required! The trophy piece of the collection is the largest complete insect wing ever found - over 35cms in length!

At the age of 90, in 1992, he made his greatest contribution to palaeontology by publishing a 2 volume treatise of fossil insects worldwide, part of the series, ‘Treatise in Invertebrate Palaeontology’.

Another trophy piece is the shell of the largest species of turtle, fossil or living, ever found. Two carapaces of the 6 million year old Stupendemys (meaning ‘astonishing turtle’)geographicus, were found in Venezuela in 1972, measuring over 7 foot across. The largest shell measuring 7 feet 7 inches across, became the property of the Science Museum in Caracas, Venezuela. Harvard’s shell is 7 feet 2 inches across.

Richard Johnson, a gentleman scholar of molluscs, affiliated to the museum named an extraordinary looking shell, Hyundella fannyae, to honour his then girlfriend, Fanny Farwall.
The shell was remarkable for the development of its posterior ridge and consequent swelling in the post-basal region.(…fanny like…)

Some years later he named a mussel Anodenta peggyae after his wife, Peggy. A few years on he named a shell Margarititufera marrinanae after his second wife Marrian.

Of course there are plenty of humorous or curious zoological names. A beetle named Agra vation, a wasp Heerz lukenatcha, a couple of trilobites after the Rolling Stones: Aegrotocatellus jagger and Peririrehaedulus richardsi. Montypythonoides is a fossil snake.

A wasp has been named Polemistus chewbacca, after the Star Wars character. A fly, Dicrotendpes thanatogratus is named after the Grateful Dead and a tree frog Hyla stingi named after the rock musician Sting. Linnaeus, the biologist who established the way we name species, actually named a weed Siegesbeckia after John Siegesbeck who he did not like.

Any more examples from readers?!

Thursday, 17 July 2014

More Highlights from ‘The Rarest of the Rare.Stories behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.’

The museum was transformed from an academic backwater to a world class player by the appointment of Louis Agassiz, the famous and inspirational Swiss expert on fossil fish in 1848. He established the Museum of Comparative Zoology with a hard won grant of $100,000 from the Massachusetts Government on the understanding that the museum would be open to the public.

Ironically, one of his purposes was to discredit Darwin’s recent theories of evolution.
His son, Alexander, became the museums’s director after his father’s death in 1873 and stayed in the post for 40 years. He had previously made a fortune from copper mining in Michigan and donated over 1 million dollars to the museum during his life … that’s the sort of Director a museum needs.

Alexander did accept Darwin’s evolutionary theories but disagreed with his views on atoll formation. Darwin believed they were the result of sinking volcanoes. Agassiz disagreed and visited most of the coral reef regions of the world at great expense. He was wrong. Darwin ‘s theories are now accepted as correct.

Alfred Wallace, the English naturalist, who came up with a theory of natural selection independently at the same time as Darwin, visited the museum in 1886 and found it, ‘far in advance’, of the British Museum which he said displayed, ‘countless masses of unorganised specimens in gloomy halls’.

Harvard purchased a major meteorite collection in 1883. Current thinking at the time was that meteorites came from volcanic eruptions on the moon.

In 1927, Thomas Barbor took over as Director, an ambition he had nurtured from the age of 13. He installed electricity, revamped the exhibits and placed specimens he considered worthless on the museum lawn for anyone to take away. He was a big fellow and his autobiography, ‘Naturalist at Large’, was a pun on his size.

He is most famous for the ‘frog toss’. He argued with a fellow naturalist about the origin of life in the West Indies, insisting that the islands were once connected. His colleague insisted that animals spread from one island to the next by sea (on rafts) or by air (carried by hurricanes). To prove the point, his colleague climbed the 5 storeys of the museum with several live frogs which he tossed out of a window, one by one. Barbor and an assembled audience watched the carnage from ground level and noted that each frog was killed by the impact. A few minutes later the stunned frogs recovered and hopped away. In fact, both scientists were correct.

Zoologist Harold J Coolidge collected specimens for the museum by shooting them – including whole families of gibbons and a giant gorilla that is still on display. He saw the error of his ways in later life and was a founding member of the World Wildlife Fund.

James Watson ,who discovered the structure of DNA with Francis Crick ,was an Assistant Professor at Harvard in 1916. A traditional biologist, later to become a good friend, described him at the time as, ‘the most unpleasant person I have ever met. He had a conviction that biology must be transformed into a science directed at molecules and cells and rewritten in the language of physics and chemistry. What had gone before, ‘traditional’ biology ,my biology ,was infested with stamp collectors who lacked the art to transform their subject into a modern science. He treated the other 24 members of the Department of Biology with a revolutionary’s fervent disrespect.’

Charles Doolittle Walcott made his name by discovering and working on the Burgess Shale in Canada while at the Smithsonian Institute. He became a world-class palaeontologist and Secretary of the Smithsonian despite never finishing school. Aged 20, he gave up his job in a hardware store and moved to Trenton Falls, New York State, where he built up an impressive collection of fossils, including 325 complete trilobites, 190 crinoids and 6 starfish. Louis Agassiz bought the collection for the museum for the princely sum (in those days) of $3,500.

‘Darwin’s Sand Dollar’, is a prize historical fossil, which Charles Darwin collected in Patagonia while on the Beagle, and sent to Louis Agassiz for identification.

Twelve fossil butterfly species have been identified from 35 million year old rocks from Florissant, Colorado. Examples of eight of these are in the museum collection and were first described by the museum.

Harvard sent an expedition to Australia in the 1930s to collect extant marsupials. They also returned with 6 ton blocks of stone that had been dynamited from the ground in North Queensland ,containing a massive Pliosaur specimen. The 9 foot long skull, with teeth as big as bananas, took several years to prepare and the blocks containing the rest of the animal were untouched for more than a decade. The skeleton was about 60% complete and reconstructed under the guidance of the famous Harvard Palaeontologist Alfred Romer. It was set in plaster and is still on display. However current research suggests Romer added 8 too many plaster vertebrae to compete the skeleton and it should be 30 feet long, not the present 42 feet.

Alfred Romer was the author of Vertebrate Palaeontology’, the standard textbook on the subject for over 50 years. He was also an active field collector, especially in the Permian Red Beds of Central Texas. The museum owns the type specimen of Dimetrodon, an almost complete skeleton that Romer found. The purpose of Dimetrodon’s sail-like membrane that runs along its body, is still under debate. Main theories are that it had a function to heat and cool the body or that it had a sexual display function.
When Romer was in Argentina, police illegally seized all the fossils he collected. They were later returned. International fossil politics are not a new phenomenon!

More highlights to come!!

Friday, 6 June 2014

Highlights from ‘The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures of The Harvard Museum of Natural History’

(Harvard Museum of Natural History: ‘HMNH’ (not to be confused with ‘NMNH’, London’s Museum of Natural History)

…21 million specimens …the Egg Room contains 30,000 glass topped boxes of bird’s eggs and nests… no one has ever counted the mollusc collection… the world’s largest ant collection…

The man who collected a rare butterfly in Papua New Guinea, was later eaten by cannibals.

The oldest correspondence dated 1777, is from a Boston dentist requesting two sea horse teeth (walrus ivory), to make dentures, though it was later stated that such dentures caused bad breath and made food taste disagreeable.

There are two stuffed pheasants in the collection, said to have been given to George Washington by Louis XVl.

The Mineral Collection was started by a Quaker doctor named Lottson, famous for bleeding his patients – and for the following rhyme:

‘When any sick to me apply I physics, bleeds and sweats em If, after that they choose to die Why, verily I Lettson.’

In 1846 John White Webster presided over the museum’s collections. He lived beyond his means and entertained lavishly. He was forced to borrow $2000 from a group of benefactors, including a wealthy physician named George Parkman, to purchase a complete mastodon skeleton.
He was already in debt to Mr Pakham so he put up his personal possessions, including his own mineral collection, as collateral. Webster then tried to sell the mineral collection to Parkman’s own brother-in-law. An outraged George Parkman visited John Webster to remonstrate and promptly disappeared. A week later, his false teeth and some skull and arm bones were found in Webster’s furnace, pelvis and leg bones in the cellar below the laboratory and more bones in Webster’s tea chest. The only positive identification that sent Webster to the gallows was from the dentures. The mastodon is still on display.

The moral of this tale is:
1.Mastodons are to kill for
2.Never lend a curator money.
3.Never,never ask for it back.

To be continued.....

Thursday, 24 April 2014

London Fossil Dealer to go to Bangkok for Mammoth Erection.

Dale Rogers from upmarket Ammonite Gallery of Pimlico, London is planning
a trip to Bangkok to perform a Mammoth Erection.

He confided to me that he intends to seek local help but expects to “do
the business in private”.

Once the erection is successful, the results will be open to public scrutiny.

”I have only done this once before, as a sort of practice run, but its all
just basic anatomy, just on a bigger scale” he quipped.

The replica Siberian Mammoth is to go on display in an elephant museum in the
outskirts of Thailand’s capital.

Dale, who is 50 years old, is from Essex.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Where can I find an exciting read?

Nobody had heard of Chelyabinsk, a provincial Russian town in the Urals until a meteorite fell there last winter...... Unless your holiday reading happens to be ‘The Diamond Chariot’ by bestselling Russian author Boris Akunin, in which his hero Erast Fandorin foils fiendish Japanese ninja infiltrators attempting to disrupt Russian communications and thwart their military efforts in the Siberian Pacific. Among their dastardly machinations was a plan to blow up the Alexander Bridge in Syzra, the largest bridge in Europe at the time’ by planting a bomb on a goods train to Chelyabinsk!!

And did you know that in ‘A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich ‘, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s  harrowing account of life in a 1950s labour camp the term ‘Ichthyosaur’ is used as friendly banter to denote stupid old fool. Thereby showing what an educated lot the political prisoners in the Gulag were.

Aepyornis, the ‘Giant Elephant Bird’ has been extinct for at least 300 years. It was 3 metres tall, weighed up to 400Kgs and laid one of the largest eggs known in the natural world.  Recently the eggs have caused much excitement and frenzy at auction.  H.G. Wells’ collection of short stories ‘Tales of Wonder’ contains a ripping yarn entitled Aepyornis Island in which a castaway hatches an Aepyornis egg and cohabits a desert island with the bird as it grows to massive adulthood, shades of recent film The Life of Pi. Of course the story ends badly!

Friday, 28 March 2014

What is kept in Museum Cellars?

  • A dog-sized dinosaur with a 5 foot tail from the Middle Triassic Period, in other words, one of the world’s earliest dinosaurs has just been described.  The specimen was found in Tanzania 80 years ago and has been in the Natural History Museum, London,  ever since.

  • A fossil turtle that has been lost for 150 years has been found in the National Museum of Wales, where it has been in secret residence since 1933.  It was found in the Purbeck area of Dorset and described by Richard Owen, founder of the Natural History Museum, in 1841.  It was donated to Bristolmuseum in 1915 from a private collection, but lent to the Cardiff museum in 1933 and forgotten.  Much of Bristol’s fossil collection was destroyed during a German bombing raid in 1940 and nobody remembered that the turtle had not been in Bristol during the fatal raid.

  • A partial skeleton found in the Oxford Clay in Peterborough in the early 1900s has finally been named and described at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow.  Tyrannoneustes Lythrodectikos means blood-biting tyrant swimmer.  It is a new genus, part crocodile, part shark, part dolphin – and all charm!  Up to 9 meters long with four paddles for speed and big jaws with serrated teeth, suggesting it could take on and devour animals as big as itself!