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Hans Gadow [1855-1928]: Prussian Morphology meets Cambridge Zoology

Hans Friedrich Gadow was born on 8th March 1855 in what was then Pomerania. Gadow's father was an Inspector of the Prussian Royal Forests, and Gadow’s childhood provided ready access to wild nature. Gadow received a very thorough German education in the natural sciences at the Universities of Frankfurt, Jena, Heidelberg and Berlin. At Jena he studied with Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) and at Heidelberg with Karl Gegenbauer (1826-1903) both of whom were still relatively young and vigorous although already established at that time as distinguished academics in the German scientific community. Most zoologists will have at least a passing familiarity with the figure of Ernst Haeckel: if they remember anything about Haeckel it will be a version of 'ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny', as an illustration of just how distinguished you can be, and wrong. Haeckel was a towering figure in continental zoology (although he originally studied and qualified in medicine) who is also remembered for being an early enthusiast for Darwin's ideas. Karl Gegenbauer is now perhaps less familiar to zoologists in general, although those familiar with classical vertebrate morphology will certainly know his name in association with theories of the evolution of mammalian ear ossicles, and he was another early and strong supporter of Darwin's ideas. Gegenbauer had also been at Jena (from 1855-1873) before he moved to Heidelberg, and in Jena he worked and taught together with Haeckel, who had been his student.


These brief accounts of Gadow's teachers are important because they give some idea of what Gadow brought to Cambridge. Shortly after he graduated, however, Gadow was first invited to visit at the British Museum (Natural History), now the Natural History Museum, by Albert Günther who was involved in the creation of the Catalogue of Birds. Gadow was at the Museum from 1880-1882. His contributions were, naturally, particularly informed by his continental background in the then cutting-edge ideas of comparative morphology and phylogeny, and his efforts were regarded as bringing new energy to the task. It was primarily as an ornithologist that Gadow became known to the scientific world. He joined the British Ornithologists Union (the BOU) in 1881, and in 1882 took over from Osbert Salvin (1835-1898)as Strickland Curator in Cambridge. The Strickland Collection of birds, a major British collection, was presented first to Oxford and then to Cambridge by the widow of the influential naturalist H.E. Strickland (1811-1853) who had died young in a railway accident shortly before Gadow was born. Salvin himself was an ornithologist and traveller, who had been a founder member of the BOU and eventually its Secretary. As Strickland Curator, he published the Catalogue of the Strickland Collection, and he participated in the Biologia Centrali-Americana, a monumental work on the natural history of Central America that reached 52 volumes. He had taken up the editorship of the well-known bird journal, The Ibis, in 1871. So, Gadow was joining a well-established Cambridge ornithological tradition. This tradition continued also through Alfred Newton (1829-1907), the subject of an earlier biography in this series, and Gadow contributed to Newton's Dictionary of Birds. The ornithological tradition continues, if anything even more strongly, to this day in current members of the Department of Zoology: there is still a Strickland Curator in the University Museum of Zoology. Salvin also published on reptiles of the Americas, something for which Gadow himself subsequently became well-known.


As might be expected from his German university education, Gadow was a highly competent comparative morphologist, and this was recognised in his Cambridge appointment as Lecturer in Morphology of Vertebrates in 1884, and subsequently Reader in 1920, a role that he apparently took very seriously, as he did all his teaching duties. He was quite clearly a man who took much pride in passing on his knowledge, because in later years, after his Readership, he actively chose to participate in introductory teaching when he was sufficiently eminent to have avoided it, had he wished. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1892 (Salvin and Newton had both been Fellows) at the age of 36, eight years after his appointment in Cambridge.


To give a further feel for the chronology of Gadow's academic life: Gadow would have commenced his time in Cambridge only two years after the death, in 1882, of his near contemporary Frank Balfour (another luminary in this series of biographical sketches) whose pioneering work in morphology and embryology would have been familiar to him. Gadow's life in Cambridge spanned the tenure of three Professors of Zoology, Alfred Newton (again, sketched earlier in this series) from 1866, Adam Sedwick (briefly) from 1907, and J. Stanley Gardiner (in a more extended tenure) from 1909 through to beyond Gadow's death. Gadow would have experienced five presiding heads of the Museum of Zoology, most notably John Willis Clark (Superintendent from 1866 to 1892), Sidney (later Sir Sidney) Harmer (Superintendent from 1892 through to 1908), and Clive (later Sir Clive) Forster-Cooper (Director from 1914 until 1938, beyond Gadow’s death).


Gadow travelled extensively, notably in Spain and Mexico, often accompanied by his English wife, Clara Maud Paget, whom he married in 1889, and who was the daughter of the eminent physician, Sir George Paget. Gadow wrote several lively books describing both the zoological and anthropological details of the journeys. The best known of these semi-popular books is probably In Northern Spain (1897). The Museum of Zoology benefited greatly from specimens brought back by Gadow from his travels.


Considering his many interests and activities, rather few of Gadow’s letters and other papers appear to have survived, but there are two obituaries that give a valuable picture of his professional life. The first, published in Nature for June 2 1928, was written by J. Stanley Gardiner, Professor of Zoology at the time of his death. The second is the ‘official’ obituary for the Royal Society, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B for March 7 1931, which was written by D.M.S. Watson (1886-1973), the pre-eminent British palaeontologist of the first half of the 20th Century,


It is quite obvious from Gardiner’s account that Gadow was an original zoological thinker and teacher, not one simply to recycle currently received ideas. However, even at the time that Gardiner was writing, immediately after Gadow’s death at the age of 73, it is also evident that some of Gadow’s ideas had survived the test of time whereas others had conspicuously not. Gardiner speaks particularly highly of Gadow’s volume on amphibians and reptiles in the Cambridge Natural History. Though he records that Gadow early on became a naturalised British citizen (in 1884), nevertheless Gardiner notes that ‘His ideas of research were Teutonic – a professor and an obedient school, a system unsuited to England – and consequently he had few direct pupils‘. Watson concludes that ‘Dr. Gadow filled a special place in British Zoology; he brought to us a conception of vertebrate morphology different to that which Balfour had so brilliantly developed in Cambridge’.


Gadow emerges as a somewhat combative personality, one who enjoyed an argument: he took his science very seriously, but was not one to bear grudges, and as D.M.S. Watson remarks, ‘Gadow's personal qualities endeared him to all with whom he came into contact’.


Here is a revealing anecdote from Watson’s obituary:


‘The present writer first met him under characteristic circumstances. In 1912, the late Mr. R. W. Palmer had made a model of the lower jaw and auditory ossicles of an embryo Perameles, which so closely resembled the jaw of the fossil reptile Diademodon, as to make it obvious that the mammalian tympanic bone was the reptilian angular. This heterodox opinion brought Gadow to his feet in support of his own beloved theory. He stated it in the form of a series of theses which he nailed to the door of the Zoological department in Cambridge, with a challenge to all the world to debate them on a certain day. A public debate on these theses was duly held, in which I filled the part of villain. Ultimately, the new evidence became overwhelming, and Dr. Gadow withdrew his own hypothesis, soon forgiving my opposition’.


Finally, since this short biography has emphasised the connections between scientific personalities, here is a rather galvanizing illustration of the dynastic structure of scientific teaching and research: F.R. (Rex) Parrington (1905-1981), who will have taught many of those over retirement age who are reading this, was himself taught by Gadow (to whom he always referred as ‘Old Gadow’) and used a slide of Perameles and Diademodon in his lectures. Parrington also undertook a period of study at the American Museum of Natural History, in the company of D.M.S. Watson and under the auspices of Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857-1935), President of the American Museum. Osborn, in turn, had studied with Frank Balfour in Cambridge and for two years in London in the laboratory of Thomas Henry Huxley (‘Darwin’s Bulldog’). In other words, Parrington was only one intervening person, in each case, from two of the greatest names of 19th Century zoology, Haeckel and Huxley. Sometimes our scientific forebears are hovering reassuringly or uncomfortably close, depending on your point of view.


Adrian Friday, October 31st 2016