A half century…

Me, in my tiny basement laboratory (not much bigger than this photo) in 1970. My yellow fever mosquitoes lived in the gauze cage behind my right shoulder. I still had hair in those days, but it was already thinning!

Fifty years ago today I graduated from Imperial College, London with a BSc degree in zoology. I also became an Associate of the Royal College of Science, which sounds rather grand, and provided the most impressive certificate! 

In the late 1960s the zoology department was located on the west side of the Beit Quadrangle, off Prince Consort Road. I spent two years perched on the same bench at the back of the second floor Forbes laboratory, sitting below a glassy-eyed stuffed fish collected in some C19th expedition, peering at, drawing and dissecting specimens of most groups of animals, under the strict mentorship of the lovely, endlessly patient Mrs Dowson. I also studied in a gloomy botany laboratory that had a view of the steps leading up to the Royal Albert Hall, and where we were often entertained my musicians warming up before rehearsals. Then followed a final year studying entomology. 

By my third year I’d already decided that counting greenflies wasn’t my future, and I had developed an aversion to killing things. So my degree was somewhat mediocre, although I claim, tongue-in-cheek, that a 2:2 from Imperial is worth a 2:1 anywhere else! However I loved both zoology and botany, and came away with an abiding love of both animal and plant kingdoms.  I was less enthusiastic about physiology and those areas that focused on bits of animals rather that the whole beast, be it a protozoan or a primate. I think my only disappointment was the cool reception of my brilliant (to me) third-year research project into Aedes aegypti (the yellow fever mosquito), which I’d proposed to eradicate by adding a harmless pollutant to the drinking water gourds in which it laid its eggs.

My course was a traditional one, with a focus on taxonomy and anatomy, but by my third year some of the old-fashioned-ness of the zoology department had gone: the cozy open-stacks zoology library had been subsumed into the grim closed-stacks main library and the departmental museum in the basement, crammed with taxidermy, skeletons and ghostly-pale specimens floating in glass jars, had also gone, I think to the Natural History Museum just down the road. Ho hum!

I’d also thoroughly enjoyed life in late 1960s London, but that’s another story! 

My cohort was small – a dozen of us. For a few years after graduation we met up at irregular intervals, but then we drifted away in different directions, and sadly several of my contemporaries have died before reaching this 50-year anniversary. And I’m afraid that I have forgotten many of the names of those who attempted to teach me. Yes, I remember the head of department Professor TRE Southwood, Professor Humphrey Hewer taking us birdwatching at Silwood Park, Dr Goto’s Collembola, the tragic Dr “Bill” Hamilton’s impenetrable statistics lectures, but that’s about it.  What was the name of the lecturer who named his daughters after sea-squirts? Who were the entomology lecturers? That lecturer who devised all sorts of Heath-Robinsonish devices that included an aphid wind-tunnel and a harness for testing for how long locusts could fly? All those staff at Silwood Park field station, where my main memories are of playing croquet and applying Day-Glo powder to cabbages (don’t ask)? The Internet so far hasn’t helped me remember… I do remember cycling back and forth to Silwood because I couldn’t afford the bus fare!

I decided during my third year that I’d move on to archaeology, and in the summer of 1970 I began my professional career supervising with the team at Dover, Kent. Sadly, and frighteningly, around the world, about half the animals we studied during those three years have now been wiped out, if not made extinct, and that process doesn’t seem to be slowing.  So although I might recognise a personal half century, the world in general has nothing to celebrate.