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Department of Zoology


On learning to be a zoologist

Speak, Memory’ commands Vladimir Nabokov at the start of his wonderful autobiography, and William Foster has now invited me to conjure up some of my memories, specifically of the Zoology Department of my youth.

I came up to Cambridge in the autumn of 1956, a green, callow youngster who had just escaped from a totally different world, the world of National Service; I had duly served Her Majesty for the prescribed two years in the Royal Artillery. Escape seems the appropriate word because in the summer of ’56, in my last month as a soldier, the Suez crisis began to develop and rumours were circulating that our service time might be prolonged. In the end the gods were kind to me, and I was discharged on September 2nd, a month before coming up.

I had decided to read Zoology, Botany and Physiology in Part I, mainly because that’s what a school friend who came up before me had done. The backbone of the first-year Zoology course at that time was a series of lectures on animals without backbones: two lectures a week, dealt with phylum by phylum, starting with the coelenterates. They were given by Carl Pantin (then Reader, later Professor and Head Department) and were outstanding: they excited, they stimulated, and somehow made each group even more interesting than the last. Only later did I realise that this was because he related form and physiology to function, and always brought one back to the living animal in its natural environment. A similar approach had been adopted a few years earlier by J.Z.Young in his influential book The Life of Vertebrates (1950) and I have always regretted that Pantin never wrote a comparable book based on those superlative undergraduate lectures.

Another reason I found the lectures very stimulating was that they covered animals I had barely heard of at school, where, in those days, we hopped from ‘type’ to ‘type’: hydra – earthworm – cockroach – dogfish – frog - rabbit. To learn, for example, about jellyfish and corals, with their huge environmental influence despite their simple organisation, was a revelation. By happy coincidence Alister Hardy’s The Open Sea, in the New Naturalist series, was published about this time, with its beautiful illustrations of many of these marine creatures. This book, together with Pantin’s lectures, engendered in me a fascination with the diversity of invertebrate life, and explains why 50 years later, after I had returned to the Department, I much enjoyed Michael Akam’s undergraduate lectures updating me on phylogenetic relationships in the light of exciting new molecular data.

I think that by the end of the Michaelmas term I was definitely becoming a zoologist. I have to report, however, that the Botany Department of those days helped too! In my last year at school I had become very interested in plants, especially their ecology. However, the botanists across the road had decided to start their Part I course with some elementary biochemistry and the only plants mentioned in those first eight weeks were the apple and the potato.

Physiology, however, turned out to be an excellent choice, because the lectures complemented zoology beautifully. In those days, too, the talent on display there was extraordinary: Hodgkin, Huxley, Keynes, Rushton and a rising young star called Horace Barlow. In my first term I even had supervisions from Andrew Huxley, although this remarkable scientist was rather a dull supervisor.

I was luckier with my first zoology supervisor, however. He was Hans Lissmann, a refugee from Nazi Germany and a wonderfully warm and civilised gentle man, as well as being a really distinguished zoologist. (Amongst other things he discovered “weakly electric” fish - fresh-water teleosts from South America and Central Africa that navigate and communicate by sensing disturbances in the electric field they generate around their body.) Ignorant fellow that I was I have to admit being rather disappointed on the first occasion I looked for his room in Trinity College. There was his name, painted in white on the usual list at the foot of the staircase, but he was only a “Mr”; all the others were doctors. I didn’t know that at that time the University of Cambridge only recognised a doctorate gained in the universities of Cambridge, Oxford or Dublin. Lissmann had earned his in Hamburg!

To end my first term on a political note, in early November came the Soviet Russian invasion of Hungary. A deeply depressing event but one that reached into the heart of the University; quite a few well-heeled undergraduates who had their own transport took off for Austria in mid-term and drove to the Austrian border to help ferry out refugees escaping to the West.

In the second term my zoology supervisor was Martin Wells, then a bright young Research Fellow at Trinity College. He was an excellent, stimulating supervisor, and I vividly remember the occasion when, in the middle of a lively discussion, he said ‘Look, why don’t we continue this in The Eagle?’  We went to the pub and did indeed continue it – but in a more relaxed atmosphere. At that time this sort of friendly behaviour to a youngster was amazing; as was being addressed by one’s first name after years of school and army. However, the main point I wish to make is that a good tavern or inn has done a great deal for scientific (and other) education. Years later in Naples there was a tradition of going to the wine-shop in the evening after a hard day in the lab to discuss specific results and also a whole range of issues in science. In Britain in the ‘70s and ‘80s the Brain Research Association capitalised on this approach and ran meetings in pubs up and down the country where, in an informal atmosphere, guest speakers, often very distinguished, would give talks. Such informality was very helpful for young students anxious to ask a question but wary of being thought foolish.

Memories of the short summer term are blurred. Lectures by George Salt, followed by excursions to Coe Fen…what for exactly? Sunshine, The Mill, the river – and beginning to learn to punt…evidently there was a life beyond Downing Street! By now I had many friends in college but none of them zoologists. I talked late into the night with linguists, mathematicians, historians and English scholars and although we patently failed to put the world completely to rights it was undoubtedly the beginning of an education, and, it still seems to me, easily the best feature of the college system.

So to the long vacation. A memorable one for me, and one that changed my life in many ways. Martin Wells was at this time doing some very exciting experiments on learning in octopuses in Naples and his work fascinated me. One day I rather cheekily asked him if he could use an assistant during his summer visit there and characteristically he said “Yes of course; if you can get yourself to Naples I can support you for a bit.” I hitch-hiked from Ostend through Belgium, Germany and Austria to Italy - to arrive hot and tired one summer evening at the famous Naples Zoological Station, where I was welcomed by Martin and his wife Joyce, who looked after me for six unforgettable weeks. I can never thank them enough. I soon saw my first cephalopods, and became ‘hooked’ on them for the rest of my life, but I discovered another world too. Naples and its surroundings are extremely beautiful and historically rich: moreover its people are so warm and larger than life that it was my great good fortune to be introduced to them as a young man. And the food and the operas were a revelation.

I returned to autumnal Cambridge but my second-year course, essentially on the vertebrates, was not nearly as stimulating as the first and I am sure that this was because the lecturers took the “systems” approach: circulation - in fish, reptiles, birds and mammals - ditto respiration, ditto excretion. In terms of the textbooks of that time this was the approach of A.S.Romer rather than that of J.Z.Young. Yet somehow the animals got forgotten and, alas, the understanding I gained of the adaptive radiation of the major vertebrate groups was rather sketchy; to this day I remain especially ignorant of the mammals. However, the practicals were rewarding and we dissected a wide variety of animals. I realise that many consider it unethical to dissect animals, but I was always fascinated to see what was actually inside them: I particularly remember the beautiful interior of a snake.

The second-year introduced me to some of the ‘characters’ of the Department. I had supervisions from Sydney Smith, who had a harpsichord in his college room and played us Scarlatti sonatas occasionally. He was also knowledgeable about wine and very generous with it. His lectures, however, were precious in the extreme and left one dizzy. A somewhat military Hugh Cott barked out some lectures on camouflage, and it was only many years later that I realised the importance of his book on animal colouration.

In Part II, I was at last to hear lectures on animal behaviour, now my main interest, by Bill Thorpe. His were not brilliant performances, but they were very stimulating and, of course, he was an outstanding authority as well as being modest and unassuming. At this time Robert Hinde was not giving undergraduate lectures although he was emerging as a strong intellectual force at Madingley, one that continued and developed over the next forty years or more. He was very supportive later in my career and I wish I had known him better in those early days.

Other lectures I remember were on invertebrates, again:  Donald Parry and Laurence Picken were especially stimulating. I had excellent supervisions from Laurence, too, and will be for ever grateful to him for being the first and only supervisor I ever had who helped me with my writing: it could be called  “constructive destruction” I suppose, but it stood me in good stead a few years later when I was writing a PhD thesis for the very demanding J.Z.Young, who, like Picken, wrote beautifully himself.     

Another challenging lecturer was the great Vincent Wigglesworth, but much of the insect course was given by Mark Pryor who had a light touch and who, when struggling to finish a sentence, would say “Oh, I don’t know, it’s in The Book somewhere!”  A reference, of course, to the latest edition of Wigglesworth’s monumental Principles of Insect Physiology. Pryor was a charming, very kind man who, in a brilliant essay, dared to question the body of zoological knowledge that is deemed essential to feed an undergraduate. He wrote “On the last day, when we come before the Great External Examiner, how will they fare who cannot bear testimony on the segmentation of the head?  A corpus of doctrine revealed by Darwin and augmented by the traditions of the fathers is not lightly to be set aside – who are we to be bored by what interested Balfour?”

Looking back at the traditions of my ‘fathers’, from 1956 to 1959 it seems extraordinary that there was very little ecology then and not very much evolution. In those days Darwin had only just become respectable, although Sexual Selection was still considered suspect. Naturally there was nothing on conservation. Another strange feature was that electron microscopy was still in its infancy then, and when Picken gave his brilliant lectures on cell structure in 1959 he could ask a question like ‘Is the Golgi apparatus an artefact of fixation?’ By 1961 Scientific American had published an entire issue of electron micrographs so that even first year medical students knew about Robertson’s unit membrane, knew the difference between a mitochondrion and rough ER; and they could certainly say, “No, the Golgi apparatus is not an artefact”.

What then did I make of those three years? Luckily I was never bored by what interested Balfour; most of the time I was stimulated and excited…fascinated…and determined to try to stay in zoology and find out more about animals. Fortunately, I was able to do this and also experience the pleasure and the privilege of teaching undergraduates. But I’m sure that the best feature of my student days in Zoology at Cambridge was the egalitarian, welcoming atmosphere in the Department. Not only were the lecturers, for the most part, good to outstanding research scientists, but they all took teaching seriously and were very supportive to us young folk. In short they said, “Welcome!”

Postscript. I retired from my position in Sheffield University in 2000, and, because my wife was by then working in Cambridge, I retired here. I was still active in research however, and I approached the then Head of Department, Malcolm Burrows, to ask if I could use the facilities of the Balfour Library. His typically generous response was to offer me a room in the Department and it is a pleasure to record that the years I subsequently spent in the Department, supervising and running projects, were very happy ones indeed. Once again people had said, “Welcome!”