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Charles Goodhart: A Twentieth Century Life

Adrian Friday (Corpus Christi 1967) writes

When the (New) Museum of Zoology, part of the Arup Building (now the ‘David Attenborough Building’), was reinhabited in 1970, Charles Goodhart, as Curator of Invertebrates, occupied the first room in the staff corridor, next to the foyer. Charles’s room was rather austere, sparsely furnished and with a minimal complement of books and box-files; but conspicuous on the shelves were many snail shells, threaded on strings. These were just part of a very large collection, made by Charles himself over the years in connection with his work in ecological genetics. He occupied this room until he retired in 1986, and there will doubtless be many alumni who will recall being supervised there by Charles; it was a memorable experience.


There are other distinguished Goodharts, mostly not related, including the well-known economist with the same first name, but it is arguable that, in any case, our own Charles was close to being several people in one. This was made quite obvious in the unsigned obituary of Charles that appeared in The Daily Telegraph on 20th December 2000. There was Charles the establishment figure, Charles the anti-establishment figure, and, of course, Charles the zoologist. For many of the details about Charles’s life, I have drawn on this obituary, and also on a substantial account written by one of Charles’s three sons, Michael, in a document describing ‘Interesting people buried in Grantchester Churchyard’. I have also drawn on other documentary material mentioned in the text below, on published articles and scientific papers by Charles, and on my own recollections of conversations with Charles and of field courses taught alongside him.


Charles Burford Goodhart was born on 7th January 1919. The name Goodhart is anglicised from that of a German ancestor, named Guthardt, who arrived in England in 1755. His parents were Burford Goodhart, who was a Captain in the army, and the recipient of a Military Cross in the First World War (rather foreshadowing his son’s courageous record in the Second World War, about which more below) and Nell Goodhart. His parents were cousins (an interesting Darwinian touch): his mother was brought up in Tooting Manor and his father in Langley Park, a large Georgian house in South London.


Charles began his childhood in Keyhaven Lodge, overlooking the Solent, and was educated initially by a governess and then at a boarding school in the Alps. Charles’s father was an enthusiastic yachtsman and Charles’s son, Michael, records that Charles acquired an early fascination for natural history among the local marshes, sailing a dinghy and walking the dog. The family spent much time on the Continent, including France, Italy and Germany, although eventually Charles entered Harrow School. The fact that his formative years were spent partly abroad contributed to what was obviously a gift for languages. He arrived at Harrow able to speak French and Italian fluently. Later he learned to speak German well enough to pass as a native of Germany, an ability that was of considerable value for his intelligence work in Gottingen for a year at the end of the Second World War. His earlier experiences in both Italian and German prison-of-war camps had provided him with ample opportunity to learn Russian which he both wrote and spoke. In later years Charles would receive a variety of foreign visitors to the Museum of Zoology with both colloquial and scientific conversation in their own language, and he often translated scientific papers for colleagues. Given his studiedly conservative political stance, on one hand, and this familiarity with languages, on the other, it would have been particularly interesting to know how Charles would have voted in the Referendum on Britain’s future in Europe.


Charles arrived on a scholarship at Gonville and Caius College in 1937 to study Natural Sciences; and he got Firsts in both Part I (as it then was) and Part II. He graduated in 1940 with the Frank Smart Prize, and, not surprisingly given the timing and his background, he entered the army and became a Captain in the Royal Tank Regiment. He was captured near Tobruk in 1942. There are many stories of Charles’s wartime exploits; most of them share a core of outrageously profligate courage, both physical and moral. Although Charles himself could be persuaded to recount some of them, occasionally with gusto, actually he was generally quite reticent about many aspects of his military service; and in this area and more generally, although he held opinions strongly, he tended to the self-deprecating. Suffice it to say that he escaped his prison camps several times: these escapes included a leap from a moving train, and what Charles referred to as a small ‘armed robbery’. On one occasion he was put against a wall in front of a firing squad, already assembled: it was only because he finally managed to persuade his Croat captors that he was British rather than Italian that he was reprieved.


After his intelligence service he returned to Cambridge to study for a PhD. He was elected to a research fellowship at Caius in late 1946 and obtained his PhD in 1950. He married Diana in the same year, and they went on to have the three sons and one daughter. In 1951 Charles was appointed as Assistant Curator in the Museum of Zoology, and as a Demonstrator. He became Assistant Curator of Invertebrates in 1955, and then in 1961 he became a full Curator of Invertebrates, held with the post of University Lecturer. This was the position he kept until his retirement. Charles also had a very active role in his college: in 1960 he became a Supernumerary Fellow and Director of Studies in biological sciences, and a Tutor. Eventually, he became Senior Tutor in 1975, and had also been Admissions Tutor. He became a Life Fellow of Caius in 1988. In the wider University, he became Junior Proctor in 1968, and joined the Council of the Senate in 1975. As a Proctor he was injured during the infamous Garden House affray: he was hit by half a brick (he emphasised that it was not a whole brick) and required hospital treatment. Characteristically, he lectured as usual next morning with a heavily bandaged head.


Outside his immediate work in biology, Charles applied his sharp intelligence and biological perspective broadly to a number of moral and social issues. He became known for his letters to newspapers and magazines, including particularly The Daily Telegraph, The Spectator and, for the somewhat more technical contributions, such as those on aspects of human evolution, New Scientist. His perspective could be – and was -  characterised as ‘right wing’, but this would be rather a facile description (even though it was one he did nothing to discourage, indeed quite the reverse – or even perverse). In fact, he had a total respect for the power of reason, and was not inclined to tolerate woolly-minded, reflex liberalism; but he could be persuaded by a good argument. This respect for reason was combined with deeply held High Church Anglicanism, a combination also found in one of the founding fathers of modern statistics, the mathematical geneticist R.A. Fisher, whom Charles Goodhart knew and conversed with. Charles joined the Eugenics Society in 1955 and remained a member until his death in 2000. In case this piques your interest, all correspondence between Charles and the Society, which became the Galton Institute in 1989, is available online via the Wellcome Archive. Do not be put off by the history of the word ‘eugenics’, because the Society in its later years considered very general issues of genetics and human welfare. Charles was also a member of the founding committee of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children from its inception in 1967, and he did valuable research on the statistics of abortion. Overall, this complex mixture of character traits and affiliations rather helped to conceal, as one suspected it was meant to do, a man who was deeply humane and personally notably kind and generous. But he did love an argument, and paid any opponent the compliment of assuming they were as intellectually robust as he was.


Charles was a very fine field biologist and naturalist. On field trips, when he was close to retirement but had been pressed into service for a few more years, yet another Charles emerged: he really came alive outdoors, with the enthusiasm of someone forty years younger. He could talk happily about animals, plants, and fungi (although by this stage, some of the names he used had dated a bit, a fate that comes to us all) and took his preliminary work in scouting for rich habitats very seriously. In this way, he provided the material for interested students to take off and flourish. In his own youth he had discovered a new species of enteropneust from the Solent near Lymington in the summer of 1940. This was published as Saccoglossus horsti in a paper of 1941 with F.W. Rogers Brambell. On one field trip we smuggled out some champagne and 25 plastic beakers to the Salstone in the middle of the Salcombe Estuary, to toast the fact that it was the 50th anniversary of Charles’s first visit to that classic locality. He took to champagne in a plastic beaker surprisingly well.


Charles’s work on the ecological genetics of snails, mostly Cepaea, is what he is best known for scientifically. Briefly, it had early been supposed that the enormous variety of colour and banding in C. nemoralis was ‘non-adaptive’ (in the language of the times). Later work, in the 1950s, seemed to have established that actually the colouring and patterning of this snail were exquisitely determined by natural selection, with the snails matching the colourings of their habitats. In the 1960s, however, yet further work revealed the existence of large areas in which the snails had unvarying morph frequencies seemingly unrelated to the nature of the environment, and differing sharply from those in neighbouring areas, which were similarly unvarying in turn: this was named the ‘area effect’. Selective rationale for such area effects was, nevertheless, resurrected. This rationale was challenged by Charles Goodhart, particularly in a classic paper of 1963 in which he argued for the importance of founder effects and random drift in setting the region of ‘morphospace’ within which selection would act to move the population to an adequate adaptive solution, the differences between these different adaptive solutions being itself ‘non-adaptive’ (his characteristically controversial revival of the vexed word). It is not possible in a short space to develop in any detail the important field work and arguments that grew out of the study of area effects in Cepaea, but the interested can find ample discussion in a review paper by Stephen Jay Gould & David S. Woodruff in 1990, and in a reassessment by Laurence M. Cook in 2007, and, of course a series of Goodhart papers readily findable on the web. Laurence Cook was able to draw on the many specimens collected by Charles Goodhart from near Earith, Cambridgeshire, and the Goodhart version does come out of it rather well.


Laurence Cook’s account is ‘dedicated to C.B. Goodhart, whose sharp remarks enlivened many meetings’.