From the Archives: A letter from Robert Grant
By Mark Carnall, on 11 February 2015
Off of the back of this blog post about the mysterious missing specimens that were donated to the University I was contacted by UCL’s Records Manager, Colin Penman, about an exciting discovery in UCL’s archives. Colin recalled seeing a letter in the archives from the Museum’s founder and first curator, Robert Grant, so I arranged to go and see it. This was exciting because aside from published lectures and public letters, very few of Grant’s papers and correspondence are known to exist. This is doubly frustrating and surprising because as Sarah Parker notes in her biography of Grant, according to an anonymous biographical sketch of Grant from 1850, Grant had the odd habit of meticulously taking and keeping journals and notes of observations, thoughts, references and manuscripts of private letters (Parker 2006). What happened to Grant’s papers have been subject to speculation but the fact remains that to date, we have precious little of his original correspondence preserved.
This is an 1858 letter from Robert Grant to William Dougal Christie, the minister plenipotentiary to Argentina at the time, sent via the college secretary Charles C.Atkinson, giving an account of a collection of specimens from Uruguay donated to Grant’s collection. Fair warning, the letter itself is quite long and fairly officious but has been transcribed here in full to get this rare letter out there that will hopefully be of interest to Grant scholars and people curious about our founders history alike.
Collections from Monte Video by the Kindness of the Argentinian Minister Mr. Christie
2 Euston Grove, Euston Square
25th August 1858
My Dear Sir,
I was glad to reason this afternoon, that a few observations from one of the largest zoological collections lately sent to the College Museum from Monte Video by the kindness of the Argentinian Minister, Mr Christie, would be acceptable to you. The more so as the letter which you showed me from that gentleman to Professor Key, requested me to send my observations after examining the specimens through the channel of Mr Scott of the Foreign Office here and Mr Fagan secretary of Legation at Parana to M. Gibert at Monte Video who collected them.
There are 13 mammalia, 28 saurians, 40 ophidians, 45 amphibians, 33 fishes, 80 molluscan shells, 5 crustaceans, 6 arachnidians, 600 insects, 12 myriapods and 14 larvae of insects – making a total of 879 specimens (not species) of animals from that most interesting region of South America bordering on the great savannah, the Province of Buenos Ayres and all collected from one locality, the immediate neighbourhood of Monte Video.
All the vertebrata, amounting to 159 specimens have arrived carefully preserved in spirit, and in excellent condition for scientific purposes; and the frogs, toads and tree-frogs, 45 in number, from the flat muddy banks of the turbid Plata will prove a useful addition to our amphibians.
The mammalian fauna of this collection being limited mostly to the mice of that district, and the reptilian to the smallest serpents and lizards swarming in the grassy plains, implies that M. Gibert considered our museum already finished, with all the marsupial, edentate, rodents, carnivorans, quadrumanous and other genera of quadrupeds indigenous to that part of S.America, and with all its chelonians and aquatic saurians, which however it is very far from, and they would prove most acceptable through embryos smaller than mice.
The soft banks of the muddy Plata in that part of the Banda Oriental, appear to afford convenient domicile and food for littoral and fresh-water mollusks from the collection containing 80 shells chiefly of sea and fresh-water snails; but for our academic purposes, the removal of all the interesting inhabitants of these shells was unfortunate.
The crustaceans, arachnidans, myriapods and larvae are all well preserved in spirit and the large tarantulae and larvae, and the small crabs, will add to our instructive specimens. The insects are dried, carefully pinned in wooden cases, slightly moulded by damp in their transport, and consist of nearly six hundred small coleoptera and fifteen specimens of lepidopterans sphinges. Among the beetles are no doubt many of the species so often met with by navigators (Cook, King, Darwin my old fellow labourer in the Frith of Forth) floating alive some twenty miles from these shores and carried out to sea by the slow smooth waters of the Plata or by the winds.
Age usual in such occasions, no note of information accompanies any specimen, their local history being reserved for the collector, amid the multitude and variety of the specimens collected around his residence show great industry on his part: it would require some time to enable a zealous student to collect a similar local fauna from the muddy banks of the Thames around Tilbury Fort, without poaching on the imported cattle or the passing birds, or the richer Southern, Gravesend, or pampa side of the rio.
Although College property I chiefly am benefitted by this collection and I hail with gratitude this liberal donation, from the very limited extent of our Museum and from my sad experience of the perishable character of these objects when used constantly for eight months annually among students.
The specimens will be duly assorted to grace our shelves when my assistant returns next month, and when I may have a nearer inspection of the numerous frogs which are likely to prove more genuine Monte Video aborigines, than the mice swarming in every visiting ship. These two Homeric genera so conspicuous in this collection, came appropriately from the early alumnus of the faculty of Arts to his alma mater and especially to his old classical preceptor, Professor Key.
Difference of internal structure is more important than the variety of external form in our academic view of the animal kingdom, recent and extinct; and if, in the expected future importation from Panama, M.Gilbert would kindly keep in view the former character, as he has the latter in the present collection, he would greatly benefit our means of scientific zoological instruction.
And with this hint, I need not specialise to so zealous a naturalist. All kinds of soft marine animals (acalopha embryo-echinoderms, pteropods, gastropods etc.) floated by the Plata or Panama or soft bivalved or helminthois or holothuroid forms, burrowing in the banks (and seen there by Darwin devoured by flights of birds); or skulls, or labelled viscera, or embryos of all kinds of indigenous mammalian genera (armadillos, ant-eaters, sloths, opposums, capybaras, jaguars, pumas, etc); or fragments of crania of extinct genera with which that region is known to abound; and every thing capable of new typical structures from that remote Province- would be most acceptable additions to our means of academic teaching in zoology. The two zealous Danes, Lund and Clausen discovered and described the remains of more than a hundred extinct species of quadrupeds in the neighbouring Kingdom of Brazil, which are now preserved in the Royal Zoological Museum of Copenhagen.
My Dear Sir,
Yours most truly
Robert E. Grant.
As for the collection of 879 specimens detailed above, none of the the specimens on our database are recorded from Monte Video or Uruguay. There are two specimens of psychid cocoons from “N.Argentina” which could be the lepidopteran specimens mentioned above. As Grant mentions in his letter the specimens did go through a rough time under the intense scrutiny of students so it’s a fair assumption that some of this material at least no longer exists here, however, it seems unlikely that none of the frogs, fish, reptiles and mammals survived. Now we know that this consignment was sent to the museum I will be keeping my eye out for evidence relating to this collection.
I’d like to thank UCL records manager Colin Penman again for bringing this letter to our attention and for helping with the transcription. This letter and a related one to Professor Key from William Christie are items HISTDOCS/3/11 in the UCL Records Office whichs looks after UCL’s institutional archive.
UPDATE: You can see an image of the letter TO SEE GRANT’s handwriting yourself on the UCL LIBNET blog.
Parker, SE; (2006) Robert Edmond Grant (1793-1874) and his Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy. Grant Museum Special Publication Series, UCL. London.. UCL Grant Museum of Zoology: London.
Mark Carnall is the Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology