Monday, 30 December 2013

Women on the shore

The growing appeal of marine Natural History in the Nineteenth Century was shared by both men and women, sometimes jointly and sometimes in groups of one sex.

Philip Henry Gosse gives an account of an excursion by small boat:

Let us then scramble down to the beautiful Anstey’s Cove [above].. ..Yonder on the shingle lies a boat, newly painted in white and green, for the attraction of young ladies of maritime aspirations.. ..”Jump aboard , please, Sir [P.H.Gosse]! Jump in, ladies! jump in, little master [Edmund Gosse]!” And now, as we take our seats on the clean canvas cushions astern, the boat’s bottom scrapes along with a harsh grating noise over the white shingle-pebbles, and we are afloat.. 1

There follows a description of all the seaweeds and animals visible from the boat as it moves around the coast and also visits islands close by. I’m sure that the women enjoyed the expertise of such a knowledgeable enthusiast as Henry Gosse, just as other women had done on an amusing occasion on the shore in Torbay, described by Henry Gosse’s son Edmund:

..we came across a party of ladies, who were cackling so joyously over a rarity they had secured that our curiosity overcame our shyness, and we asked them what they had found. They named a very scarce species, and held it up to us to examine. My father, at once, civilly set them right; it was so-and-so, something much more commonplace. The ladies drew themselves up with dignity, and sarcastically remarked that they could only repeat that it was the rarity, and that “Gosse is our authority”.  2

In addition to observing, and identifying, living algae and animals, women also made collections for their “cabinets of curiosity”. Fossilised specimens were common in these cabinets and Gosse describes one site in South Devon, well-known to collectors:

The beach of white shingle at Oddicombe, whither ladies so often repair to search for pebbles containing fossil madrepores, washed up by the tide... 3

Henry Gosse was at the forefront of the Victorian interest in marine biology and in the development of aquaria. His first wife, Emily, accompanied him on some collecting trips and also on the field courses that he led in Devonshire and South Wales. Tragically, Emily died, and her support in the typical female role of the day - silent companionship while Henry worked, and help with translation from other languages - was lost. Henry re-married after meeting Eliza through a shared enthusiasm for both Natural History and Christian views that centred on belief in the literal truth of The Bible. 4 

In the chapter on “The Naturalist of the Boudoir” in her book The Heyday of Natural History 1820-1870, 5 Lynn Barber makes interesting observations on the ways women took part in the great enthusiasm for the natural world that developed during the Nineteenth Century:

Women read about natural history, wrote about it, drew it, collected it, and generally enthused about it as much as men did..

Victorian women rarely translated their genuine enthusiasm for natural history into any purposeful form of research.. ..Illustration was the only form of natural history in which women really excelled.. .. Women were trained to draw well: it was one of the few things they practised and studied consistently from infancy through to adulthood.. ..Women also tended to make punctilious collectors.

The most scientific woman collector of the age was not a fossilist but an algologist, Mrs A.W.Griffiths of Torquay.. .. One genus and several species of seaweed were named after her, and she is mentioned with respect - almost with awe - by every Victorian writer on seaweeds, but she published nothing in her own name, and now survives only as an acknowledgement in other people’s prefaces.

Amelia Griffiths (1768-1858) was one of several well-known seaweed collectors and experts and it is surprising that she is barely mentioned by Henry Gosse, especially as both lived for much of their lives in the same town, although Henry only became a permanent resident in 1857, one year before Amelia died at the grand age of 90. He must also have known of Mary Wyatt (1789-1871), who was also a collector and who kept a shop in Torquay that dealt in pressed plants and sea shells. Mary became Amelia’s servant and, although illiterate, 6 she joined Amelia in jointly publishing Algae Danmonienses, consisting of four volumes of dried seaweeds collected largely from Torbay. In contrast to Henry Gosse, William Pengelly FRS, the distinguished explorer of cave faunas, and another Torquay resident, does refer to Amelia, as he was responsible for making arrangements in 1862 that her “beautiful and valuable collection of sea-weeds” 7 was transferred to Kew and her collection of shells to the Natural History section of the British Museum. That the collections went to such internationally recognised centres is testament to their significance.

Although the contributions of Amelia Griffiths and Mary Wyatt were recognised widely, the doyenne of 19th century women algologists was Margaret Gatty (1809-1873 - see below). She was the daughter of a clergyman (Dr Alexander John Scott, famous for being the chaplain who cradled the dying Nelson in his arms at the Battle of Trafalgar) and her uncle held the living in Ecclesfield, near Sheffield  in Yorkshire. 8 Mrs Scott died when Margaret and her elder sister, Horatia, were small, with Margaret being the dominant of the pair, having a strong drive to advance herself. Unlike Amelia Griffiths, she always had a passion for writing and took it seriously, showing her poems to family friends connected to the world of literature. 8

In 1839, Margaret married the Reverend Alfred Gatty and, as fortune would have it, the living at Ecclesfield became vacant after the death of Margaret’s uncle, so Rev. Gatty was able to replace him in the post. Margaret thus settled to the life of a cleric’s wife, working in the parish and also being a dutiful companion and, of course, mother to numerous children. In 1848, the burdens of the parish, child rearing and pregnancies became too great even for her energy and drive and she left the family for a break in Hastings to convalesce and regain her strength. By chance, a doctor whom she was consulting, gave her a copy of Harvey’s Phycologica Britannica (a standard work on seaweeds and zoophytes - “plant-like animals”) and Sheffield writes: 8

Why should this catalogue of plants and life-forms suddenly have captured her interest and imagination? Perhaps it was a buoy in a sea of endless empty days and perhaps Gatty, exiled at the sea-side, became infected by the mid-century ‘craze’ for natural history, for gathering, collecting, naming and labelling specimens that many men, women and children of all social classes were taking up. Marine botany was no exception as the rise of interest in seaside recreation included the scouring of beaches and tide-pools and the dredging of the sea itself for the ultimate specimen. At this time Phillip [sic] Henry Gosse (1810-1888) had already published The Ocean (1845), and would go on to publish other popular scientific works in quick succession..

Interestingly, Margaret made little reference to seaweeds in her diary entries while she was in Hastings, but she now set out on serious study and her home in Yorkshire “became her laboratory.. ..[and] her family found themselves knee-deep in seaweeds, seaweed books and seaweed correspondence.” 8 She had always loved the sea and now had an added reason to make visits to the shore. Her work culminated in the publication in 1863 (as Mrs Alfred Gatty) of British Seaweeds, drawn from Professor Harvey’s “Phycologica Britannica”. These volumes (available today as free Google e-books) served to simplify the scientific descriptions used by Harvey and thus make his work more accessible to a general audience, Margaret being in communication with Harvey throughout the production of the book. It wasn’t her only publication, as she wrote many other popular books linking Natural History and religious themes. Probably the best known are her five volumes of Parables from Nature published from 1855-1871 and her writing was popular and profitable.

Margaret Gatty’s algal herbarium, with seaweeds prepared using the techniques of Miss Cutler of Sidmouth, another renowned woman algologist of the times, was donated to the University of St Andrews by her daughter Horatia. It is pleasing to know that it is still used in research, 9 just as Amelia Griffiths’ herbarium is likely to be at Kew. Their work made important contributions to science and demonstrates that women Natural Historians in the Nineteenth Century were not just collectors (although that was certainly the majority case), but much respected by the male-dominated scientific Establishment.


1 Philip Henry Gosse (1865) A Year at the Shore. London, Alexander Strahan.

2 Edmund Gosse (1890) The Naturalist of the Sea-Shore: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, William Heinemann.

3 Philip Henry Gosse (1853) A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast. London, John Van Voorst.

4 Roger S Wotton (2012) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. Southampton, Clio Publishing.

5 Lynn Barber (1980) The Heyday of Natural History 1820-1870. London, Jonathan Cape.

6 David Charles Raiment (2007) Mary Wyatt (1989-1871): The Princess of Seaweeds. The Phycologist 73: 4-5.

7 Hester Pengelly (ed.) (1897) A Memoir of William Pengelly, of Torquay, F.R.S., Geologist, with a selection from his correspondence. London, John Murray.

8 Suzanne Le-May Sheffield (2001) Revealing New Worlds: Three Victorian Women Naturalists. London, Routledge.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Charles Waterton and Medicine

The treatment of illness and infection in the first half of the nineteenth century was quite different to the highly technical and pharmacological interventions of today. Much knowledge of potions was still in the hands of herbalists and apothecaries, the latter preparing mixtures from large jars of various herbal extracts and chemicals, which they kept in their shops. There was very limited use of anaesthetics and a common method of treating infections was by bleeding using leeches or cupping. 1 Charles Waterton (1782-1865), the noted traveller and Natural Historian, consulted doctors, but treated fevers and most ailments himself - even when afflicted with malaria and other serious vector-borne diseases.

In addition to being expert at dissection, having acquired much practice through his work in taxidermy, Charles Waterton was also skilled in the use of a lancet (an example is shown above) and the first step in his self-treatment was to “open a vein” and allow at least a pint of blood, sometimes considerably more, to pour out. This was accompanied by taking calomel (mercurous chloride, Hg2Cl2) and jalap (a powder derived from the tuber of Ipomoea purga and originating in Mexico). Calomel and jalap have very similar properties in being purgatives and also cathartic, causing rapid emptying of the bowels. Waterton always seemed to feel better after bleeding and purging and this seems linked to his devout Catholic faith. Bleeding is an important symbol in Catholic mysticism, and this may also be said of flagellation, and Charles’ own treatments do have an echo of gaining both medical and spiritual relief. It’s as though he expects the illness to leave his body rapidly, in the manner of an exorcism.

Other treatments used were typical of the times. For example, it has been known that quinine is effective in reducing the effects of malaria (it causes death of the protozoan parasite) and that the best-known preparation of quinine comes from the bark of Cinchona trees in the tropical jungles of South America. The preparation is known colloquially as “Jesuit’s Bark” (Jesuit missionaries propagated its use) and this would have resonated with Charles; indeed, he may have heard of it from his time at Stonyhurst, the Jesuit school where was educated and which meant so much to him. Natural materials were also used to treat other medical problems. For example, Charles applied poultices to surface wounds as a means of providing heat 2 and what better compound than boiled cow dung?

When 68-years-old, Charles had two accidents that broke bones in his arm and, in the manner of the times, these were allowed to heal naturally. Unfortunately, this wasn’t effective and Charles was persuaded to contact the local bonesetter who made regular visits to his home, Walton Hall, to re-align the bones. There was no anaesthetic and Charles did not drink alcohol, so there was no recourse to that way of boosting courage. The treatment by the bonesetter must have hurt a great deal but it was endured with stoicism and it appears to have been successful.

Should Charles have been unfortunate enough to be bitten by a rabid animal, he was sure of the action that should be taken - the injection of wourali. One of the purposes of the first of his “Wanderings” in Guyana was to contact native Indians and find out more about wourali, which they used for hunting. The poison, also known as curare, is prepared from a number of liana vines (including those of the genus Strychnos, the likely source of Waterton’s wourali 3) and is a powerful muscle relaxant. It is effective when injected but the active molecules are not passed across the digestive tract, so the game killed by darts tipped with wourali is not toxic to those eating their flesh. Although wourali was known to the outside World, and an important presentation on the effects of the material was made to the Royal Society by Brodie in 1811, it was Charles Waterton who brought original wourali from Guyana to Europe and showed its effectiveness in demonstrations on large animals, having seen its action on his travels in South America.

To mark the bicentenary of Waterton’s birth, the Yorkshire Society of Anaesthetists held a Symposium at Walton Hall on 5th June 1982 and the Proceedings were written up in Volume 55 of the British Journal of Anaesthesia and published in 1983. In addition to the discussion of wourali, there are papers on Charles’ taxidermy and on his collections which are now held by the Wakefield Museum where a new display opened in 2012, including a case featuring poison darts collected by Charles on the “First Wandering”.

In his paper “Waterton and Wourali”, 4 W.D.A.Smith outlines Charles Waterton’s accounts of the effect of wourali on animals of a range of sizes and then the demonstration conducted at the Veterinary College in London:

“Waterton then described the famous experiments, performed with wourali upon asses in 1814, on his return to England. One ass survived injection of wourali into the leg below a tightened bandage, but died upon loosening it. A she-ass was apparently dead in 10 minutes but was revived by regularly inflating the lungs for four hours, using bellows inserted through an incision in her wind-pipe. She was re-named Wouralia and Earl Percy sent her up to Walton Hall to live in peace.”

Wouralia lived for many years and there is an element of whimsy in the story of her life, something that fits well with that side of Charles Waterton’s nature.

Smith continues:

“In his Second Series of Essays on Natural History (1844), Waterton described how he was called to a Nottingham police officer called Phelps who had hydrophobia, but arrived too late. However, using dogs and two asses, he demonstrated the effects of wourali and the effectiveness of artificial respiration to a large audience at the Medical School.. ..According to Waterton the audience was convinced that because the virulence of wourali was under the control of the operator, it could be used in cases of hydrophobia. He recommended that no other remedy be tried simultaneously.”

Charles Waterton thus brought wourali to a wider medical public, by his demonstrations and also through his connections with Earl Percy and others - like Sir Joseph Banks FRS, the famous Botanist, Natural Historian and traveller. 5 Charles did not lack friends in high places, but equally felt very at home with his travelling companions and those he met in and around the estate in Yorkshire. He was a most interesting man and far from being just an eccentric, as readers of Edith Sitwell's English Eccentrics might assume, given that Sitwell gives him a chapter all to himself.

1 J.L.Turk and E. Allen (1983) Bleeding and cupping. Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England 65:128-131.

2 Julia Blackburn (1989) Charles Waterton 1782-1865: Traveller and Conservationist. London, The Bodley Head.

3 J.Cooke, A.Cawood, A. Crossley and F.R.Ellis (1983). Wourali: Analysis and Bioassay. British Journal of Anaesthesia 55: 225-226.

4 W.D.A.Smith (1983) Waterton and Wourali. British Journal of Anaesthesia 55: 221-225.

5 A.T.Birmingham (1999) Waterton and Wouralia. British Journal of Pharmacology 126: 1685-1689.


Edith Sitwell (1933) English Eccentrics. London, Faber and Faber.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Charles Waterton, taxidermy and the “Nondescript”

Charles Waterton cared passionately for wildlife but he also killed animals for display in his collection. Each was prepared using his own method, an approach that earned him the title of the “Father of Modern Scientific and Artistic Taxidermy”. 1 The animals from his Wanderings in South America took a special place in the collection at his home, Walton Hall in Yorkshire, and each was prepared after highly skilful dissection. His method is described in a chapter entitled “On Preserving Birds for Cabinets of Natural History”. 2

We know that Charles was sometimes blunt and he begins by saying:

Were you to pay as much attention to birds, as the sculptor does to the human frame, you would immediately see, on entering a museum, that the specimens are not well done.

This remark will not be thought severe, when you reflect that,- that which once was a bird, has probably been stretched, stuffed, stiffened, and wired by the hand of a common clown. Consider, likewise, how the plumage must have been disordered, by too much stretching or drying, and perhaps sullied, or at least deranged, by the pressure of a coarse and heavy hand,- plumage which, ere life had fled from within it, was accustomed to be touched by nothing rougher than the dew of heaven, and the pure and gentle breath of air.

This is what Waterton said about beginning work on birds:

As you can seldom get a bird without shooting it, a line or two on this head will be necessary. If the bird be still alive, press it hard with your finger and thumb just behind the wings, and it will soon expire. Carry it by the legs, and then the body being reversed the blood cannot escape down the plumage through the shot holes. As blood will often have issued out before you have laid hold of the bird, find out the shot holes, by dividing the feathers with your fingers, and blowing on them, and then with your penknife, or the leaf of a tree, carefully remove the clotted blood, and put a little cotton on the hole. If, after all, the plumage has not escaped the marks of blood; or if it has imbibed slime from the ground, wash the part in water, without soap, and keep gently agitating the feathers, with your fingers, till they are quite dry. Were you to wash them and leave them to dry by themselves, they would have a very mean and shrivelled appearance.

In the act of skinning a bird you must either have it upon a table or upon your knee. Probably, you will prefer your knee; because, when you cross one knee over the other, and have the bird upon the uppermost, you can raise it to your eye, or lower it at pleasure, by means of the foot on the ground, and then your knee will always move in unison with your body, by which much stooping will be avoided and lassitude prevented. 2

After taking great care with any delicate, un-feathered parts, the skin is then treated with a solution of corrosive sublimate in alcohol. Corrosive sublimate is mercuric chloride (HgCl2) and the alcohol allows penetration of the mercury salt to all parts and thus ensures their preservation.

The next step in the preparation of a specimen is to carefully fill the body cavity and other parts with cotton and to stitch the body back to its natural form. As the legs will tend to dangle after the supporting skeleton has been removed, Waterton proposes a series of stitches which allow them to be in a natural position and that allow some flexibility in the finished preparation. Bees wax can be used to make sure that the beak is held closed. The whole must now be placed into a box filled at one end “three-fourths up to the top, with cotton, forming a sloping plane”, making a hollow to hold the bird. There follows some detailed information about supporting the head during the drying process and the advantage of Waterton’s method is that the whole skin can be manipulated during drying in a warm room, or something similar, to ensure a natural posture.

The finished product therefore contains no wires or internal support and is just a hollow skin. We know that some quadrupeds were prepared using the same procedure and it is clear that Waterton was a true craftsman and must have spent many hours on this careful work when he wasn’t on the adventurous part of his Wanderings, or walking around the Walton Hall estate and climbing trees to get a better view of birds. It is clear that birds were his main interest, although his collection had a much wider range.

The Fourth Journey includes the description of what appears to be a new species: 2

I also procured an animal which has caused not a little speculation and astonishment. In my opinion, his thick coat of hair, and great length of tail, put his species out of all question; but then, his face and head cause the inspector to pause for a moment before he ventures to pronounce his opinion of the classification. He was a large animal, and as I was pressed for daylight, and moreover, felt no inclination to have the whole weight of his body upon my back, I contented myself with his head and shoulders, which I cut off, and have brought them with me to Europe.. 

What was this creature?

We are immediately alerted to something odd, as Charles was careful to prepare whole specimens rather than parts. The “Nondescript” was a hoax, formed from the rear end of a monkey and it was Charles Waterton’s skill in manipulating skin treated with corrosive sublimate that allowed him to mould a human face from its hind quarters. This introduces us to a side of Charles Waterton that was rather eccentric - what has been termed Anthropomorphic Taxidermy. 3 In addition to the “Nondescript”, believed to be an attack on the seriousness of many naturalists, Waterton also produced montages of manipulated specimens. Henning 3 describes these as being “..political satires: critiquing government policy or taking a swipe at Protestantism, or both. A man of his class would usually have entered into politics, but as an English Catholic, Waterton refused to take the Oath of Allegiance. Taxidermy was his craft and his chosen means of expression”.

The titles of the satirical preparations show the intent: for example, we have “Martin Luther after his Fall” and “John Bull and the National Debt”, so the message is obvious. In the Conclusion of her philosophical paper on Charles Waterton’s taxidermy, Cristina Grasseni writes: “Waterton attained his identity of ‘eccentric’ through the negotiation of his role as an aristocratic Catholic with ‘curiosity’ about natural history; Waterton’s social and religious position informed his construction of a different relationship to the animal world: his persona was in part actively constructed, in part externally constrained.” 4 It is easy to see how some of Charles Waterton’s activities were considered eccentric, but this hides his seriousness and also real human warmth, despite the angry exchanges with those whose work he disliked. Henning provides us with a summary:

This Roman Catholic aristocrat, naturalist, and taxidermist became famous through the publication of his Wanderings in South America.. ..and gained a reputation for eccentricity. His reputation was partly based on his commitment to providing a safe haven for wildlife, his outspoken criticisms of his peers, as well as his refusal to conform to the conventions of his time.

It is difficult not to feel affection for Charles Waterton, but also to realise how frustrating he could be - especially for those with a scientific approach to the study of animals, or those that could not accept his religious and political “satire”. However, no one questions his outstanding skill as a taxidermist and he was certainly not dull.

1 B.M.Logan (1983) Charles Waterton’s method of taxidermy. British Journal of Anaesthesia 55: 229-230.

2 Charles Waterton (1973) Wanderings in South America, the North-West of the United States, and the Antilles, in the years 1812, 1816, 1820 and 1824 with original instructions for the perfect preservation of birds and for cabinets of natural history. London, Oxford University Press.

3 Michelle Henning (2007) Anthropomorphic taxidermy and the death of Nature: The curious art of Hermann Ploucquet, Walter Potter, and Charles Waterton. Victorian Literature and Culture 35: 663-678.

4 Cristina Grasseni  (1998) Taxidermy as rhetoric of self-making: Charles Waterton (1782-1865), wandering naturalist. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 29: 269-294.