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  • On the Origin of Our Specimens: The Lankester Years

    By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 20 February 2014

    ‘The Thirteen’

    The collection of specimens, known since 1997 as the Grant Museum of Zoology, was started in 1827 by Robert E. Grant. Grant was the first professor of zoology at UCL when it opened, then called the University of London, and he stayed in post until his death in 1874. The collections have seen a total of 13 academics in the lineage of collections care throughout the 187 year history of the Grant Museum, from Robert E. Grant himself, through to our current Curator Mark Carnall.

    Both Grant and many of his successors have expanded the collections according to their own interests, which makes for a fascinating historical account of the development of the Museums’ collections. This mini-series will look at each of The Thirteen in turn, starting with Grant himself, and giving examples where possible, of specimens that can be traced back to their time at UCL. Previous editions can be found here.

    Number Three: E. Ray Lankester (1875-1891)

    Lankester came from humble beginnings yet received an auspicious education. In 1832, he became the assistant to the surgeon Thomas Spurgin who he so impressed that Spurgin helped to fund Lankester through his medicine and science studies via a £300 loan. Lankester studied his degree at both Cambridge and then Oxford, transferring colleges mid-way at his parents bequest. Although his academic prowess was obvious from an early age, his career is thought to have have suffered in later years due to his knack of rubbing people up the wrong way with inadvertent rudeness. Perhaps as a result of this, when applying for the post of chair of zoology at UCL, Lankester met with some resistance from within The Committee of Management in charge of appointing the post. To aid his application, letters of support were written by other scientists in the field, including one by T. H. Huxley who Lankester had previously studied under at the University of Oxford. They were successful and Lankester finally became the second successor to Grant, taking over the role of chair of zoology from Sir Henry Allchin in 1875. D.M.S. Watson, after whom our science library at UCL is named, later wrote the following about Lankester:

    ‘During the tenure of the chair by Ray Lankester, University College London possessed by far the most active School of Zoology in Britain… Whilst at University College London Lankester trained a great series of zoologists who filled very many of the chairs in that subject, both at home and in the Dominions, and he thus influenced the whole course of zoology in the British Empire’

    For a man who came from humble beginnings and who’s beliefs and demeanor made many enemies throughout his career, this is a glowing report from an eminent palaeontologist. Whatever kind of man he was to know personally, it is unequivocal that Lankester was a great academic and made significant progress in the fields of morphology and evolution. Lankester’s achievements included the introduction of the study of animals in correlation with their environment, which he termed binomics, now known as ecology. After Lankester left UCL, he went on to be Linacre professor of comparative anatomy at Oxford University, founded the Marine Biological Association in 1884 and became the director of the Natural History Museum in 1898, where he stayed until 1907. In 1907 he received a knighthood, which was followed in later years by other awards and medals.

    Whilst at UCL, Lankester secured a £400 grant for the purchase of museum specimens and between 1875 and 1876, he reorganised the Museum to make more taxonomic sense and produced the very first catalogue of the collections. Beyond the taught practical sessions, Lankester set about labeling specimens and displays specifically to encourage students to use the collection for study. He continued throughout his career at UCL to acquire money to expand the collections, his particular interest focusing on rare species such as the thylacine, now extinct.

    Although perhaps more influential as a teacher than as a researcher, Lankester was the first to show the relationship of the aquatic horseshoe crab to the Arachnida, the group that includes spiders and scorpions. The dissected wet specimen of a horseshoe crab shown here, is the very specimen that Lankester studied and published on, and is on display at the Grant Museum.

     

    Another specimen that can be directly linked to Lankester is the mounted dugong skeleton currently on open display at the Museum. The paperwork refers to a manatee skeleton, the closest relative of the dugong, that was originally part of the collection. Lankester exchanged the manatee skeleton with a Mr Jim ?Thurson for the mounted dugong that we have today. The original paperwork for the dugong also stated that the specimen is of a male, and that it was ‘over the age of between 12 and 15 years at its time of death’. These snippets of history give a fascinating and exciting insight into the goings on within the collections over 100 years ago.

     Emma-Louise Nicholls is the Curatorial Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology

    [UPDATE: Whilst researching this blog series, it was discovered that there had been an extra curator for a few months, following Roy Mahoney. As such, The Twelve became The Thirteen. As the aim of this series is to serve as a permanent record of our history, this and all subsequent blogs have been updated to reflect this exciting discovery.]

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