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The Bidders: a Cambridge zoological family.

In August 2015 there was a small flurry of excitement by broadcasters and the newspapers over a message in a bottle found by a retired postal worker in Germany. Marianne Winkler was on holiday, visiting the German island of Amrun, when she found the bottle on the beach in April that year. Clearly visible in the bottle was a postcard addressed to the Marine Biological Association (MBA) in Plymouth and offering a reward of one shilling (equivalent to the current five pence) for its return. The name in the address was G.P. Bidder. It turned out that Bidder had released over 1,000 such bottles between around 1904 and 1906, as part of a project to examine the currents in the North Sea. As Marianne Winkler discovered when she dutifully returned the card to the MBA, the interval between the launch of the bottle and its retrieval was more than 108 years, a new world record for such a find. Incidentally, the MBA paid up, by sending one old shilling as promised.


George Parker Bidder (1863-1954) indeed had a distinguished record as a marine biologist (he was President of the MBA from 1939-45) but his life was much more various. Both his father and his grandfather were called George Parker Bidder, so he is sometimes identified as G.P. Bidder III. The first G.P. Bidder (1806-78) was well known to an admiring public as the 'Calculating Boy' because of his ability rapidly to do challenging arithmetic calculations in his head. He went on to become a pioneering (and prosperous) railway and civil engineer, working with the railway dynasty, the Stephensons. G.P. Bidder II (1836-96) also had exceptional ability at calculation and, in addition to his work as a barrister, became an expert in cryptography. G.P. Bidder III in his turn had strong abilities with both numbers and memory.


The mother of G.P. Bidder III was Anna McLean Bidder (1839-1910) whose middle name maintained the memory of her father, J.R. McClean, F.R.S., another engineer. George Bidder III and his wife Marion Greenwood Bidder (1862-1932), whom he married in 1899, had two daughters; the elder was named Caroline, and the younger was named Anna McClean Bidder (1903-2001), of whom more below. George Bidder III had a period of university education in zoology under Ray Lancaster at University College London, at the suggestion of F.M. Balfour. He went on to study Natural Sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge until 1886. Much of his teaching in zoology came from S.F. Harmer, who served as a distinguished Superintendent of the Museum of Zoology, and took him into the field on marine collecting trips. During his early career Bidder studied marine biology at the famous Naples Stazione Zoologica and the MBA in Plymouth, where he and his wife lived for a while before moving to Cambridge in 1902. It was in Naples that he did perhaps some of his most enduring work, and also where he famously bought the bankrupt hotel in which he had the habit of staying, renaming it 'Parker’s', and running it with great success until 1922.


George Bidder's scientific work centred mainly on sponge feeding biology, and coastal and ocean physical geography, with forays into, for example, the biology of aging, as the fancy took him. Bidder's main ideas on aging were subsequently tested, and found unconvincing, by the same Alex Comfort who wrote the bestselling The Joy of Sex. Those determined enough to read on will discover that this apparently gratuitous aside is not irrelevant. Cambridge zoologists may know that Bidder founded the Company of Biologists, largely to keep afloat The British Journal of Experimental Biology, as the JEB was then called. He performed the same role of saviour for the Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science, by purchasing it at a time of the journal's vulnerability. In keeping with his Renaissance personality, he wrote poetry throughout his life


The Journal of the Marine Biological Association for 1955 has a particularly thorough obituary (with a portrait photograph) for George Bidder, written by that doyen of British marine biology, F.S. Russell. Russell comments on a number of Bidder's other capabilities; unsurprisingly, given his interest in marine biology, he was a notable extreme swimmer and sailor, for example, and in later years owned several yachts. From comments above, it will be obvious that Bidder was wealthy. Russell recounts that 'in 1896 his father died and a great deal of business fell on his shoulders. Amongst other things he inherited interests in a dock, a dry dock, a colliery, a Danish gas company, a derelict Cornish lead mine, and a farm in Mitcham.' In 1902, in keeping with his heavy involvement with the Marine Biological Association, Bidder bought a steam trawler that the MBA could use 'on favourable terms' for survey and research work, at a time when the government was reluctant to provide funding for work that it had itself agreed to carry out. The 115ft trawler was renamed Huxley, and there is a fine drawing of it lying off Billingsgate in Russell's obituary of Bidder. In 1945, when Sir James Gray (Professor of Zoology and Head of Department in Cambridge) took over from Bidder as President of the MBA, he paid fulsome tribute to his predecessor's 'foresight, courage and determination' that kept the Association afloat. Bidder was also largely instrumental in the survival of the Naples Zoological Station towards the end of the Second World War.


Bidder did not have a life of effortless wealth and privilege, however, because in 1905 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and at one point was not expected to survive. His recovery finally took 12 years, but it was complete, and indeed he was awarded a Cambridge Sc.D. in 1916 towards the end of this period. From 1920-27, Bidder gave lectures on sponge biology in Part II Zoology. According to F.S. Russell, the lectures were stimulating and well received, and Bidder placed strong emphasis on microscopy at a high level. It is ironic that during the years of active tuberculosis, Bidder's doctors had forbidden him to use a microscope. Those wanting more details of Bidder's pioneering work on sponge structure and physiology will find them in Russell's obituary, and, of course, in Bidder's own papers. His various obituarists agree on his practical wisdom, kindness, courtesy, and an acute sense of humour.


Nobody currently in the Department of Zoology will have had direct contact with George Bidder, but there will still be some who remember his younger daughter, Anna Bidder, from personal experience. Anna' s mother, Marion Greenwood Bidder studied Natural Sciences at Girton College, and so both parents had a scientific background. The historian Catherine Haines has recorded details of Marion Bidder's life in International Women in Science (2001). Marion Bidder was one of the earliest independent women researchers in Cambridge, working in various areas of physiology. She was in charge of the Balfour Laboratory for close to a decade, and a College Lecturer, Director of Studies and Tutor at Newnham College. Unlike her husband, who had been educated at Harrow, Marion Bidder was educated at a grammar school (Bradford Girls'). Like her husband, however, she came from a prosperous family (of textile manufacturers in the West Riding of Yorkshire). In later life she became involved in political and public life. In 1932 she died of tuberculosis.


Anna Bidder was born on 4 May 1903, after her parents had moved to the family home in Cambridge, Cavendish Corner, 221 Hills Road. Her life, from 1903-2001, took in most of the last century. There are good accounts of Anna Bidder's personal and professional life in an unsigned obituary from The Daily Telegraph (probably by Martin Wells) and from the web page announcing her memorial service in 2001. The latter source contains a detailed tribute to Anna by Lindsey Traub, Vice-president of Lucy Cavendish College at the time. Like her father, Anna initially studied for a year at University College, London, before she transferred to Newnham College in 1922. Anna's experience as a woman scientist in Cambridge was not entirely happy, and this was part of her motivation for getting together, in 1951, with female friends and colleagues with the aim of founding an additional educational establishment for women within the University. George Bidder provided £2,000 for the deposit on a house, but recognition was slow in coming, and it was not until 1955 that approval was given for Lucy Cavendish College, and not until 1997 that it was given full collegiate status. Anna Bidder became the first, initially unpaid, President of Lucy Cavendish, from 1965-70.


After graduating in Part II Zoology, Anna began research work in Basel from 1926-28, and subsequently continued in Cambridge working on a Ph.D. (completed in 1934) concerning the morphology and physiology of cephalopods. She also began demonstrating in Zoology and supervising at Newnham. Despite family responsibilities after the death of her mother, and involvement in the continuing commercial interests of her parents, she managed to maintain her scientific work. Eventually, she did have a formal University appointment, as a curator of the mollusc collections in the University Museum of Zoology from 1963-70. Most of her research centred around various cephalopod groups, and she was a co-author of the Cephalopod section of the Grassé Traité de Zoologie. Together with Ken Joysey (Director of the Museum from 1970-95) for a period she ran memorable zoological field courses at the Field Studies Council Centre, Flatford Mill.


Anna was a Quaker throughout her life, and, somewhat to her own wry amusement, was involved in the writing of Towards a Quaker View of Sex (1963). Her Telegraph obituary records that this sold 500,000 copies over 30 years. Anna was, for at least a great part of her long life (she died in 2001, at the age of 98), a dedicated smoker. In her later years, her hearing became quite poor, but she used various somewhat outdated hearing aids to great theatrical effect, and speakers at Departmental Tea Talks were sometimes surprised to be encouraged by Anna to 'Speak up, dearie'! In 1989, at a Departmental party to celebrate the 90th birthday of Professor Sir Vincent Wigglesworth (who was still working, although he did stop in that year) Anna, then a mere 86 herself, spontaneously sprang up onto a Tea Room table to deliver a tribute: she remained, as her Telegraph obituary notes, 'bright and alert well into her nineties'. She also, quietly, but firmly as always, maintained the family tradition of great kindness and generosity towards younger workers. She believed, with complete conviction, in all that she was doing: a happy state.