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Department of Zoology


Hans Lissmann: a zoologist’s zoologist

There will probably be few undergraduate zoologists, or even A-level students, who have not seen classic diagrams of crawling in earthworms. The diagrams come from a golden age of collaborative work done by James Gray (later Sir James Gray, Professor of Zoology and Head of Department, and the subject of a previous one of these biographical sketches) and Hans Lissmann. Hans combined legendary talent in experimental zoology with a direct connection, through his early training, to a more conceptual continental tradition. Anyone who attended lectures by Hans Lissmann will recall his mellifluous and gently accented voice. That his lectures drew on an exceptional depth of zoological knowledge was obvious, but his emphasis was firmly on the rigorous experimental investigation of the ideas as he unfolded them. If you were interested in zoology, Hans would talk to you about it. He treated everyone equally, and with kindness and patience. A photograph of Hans, taken in 1993 by Nicholas Sinclair and used at the front of his Royal Society Biographical Memoir, captures him perfectly (Biogr. Mems Fell. R. Soc. 1996 42, 235-245).

First, an outline of Hans Lissmann’s scientific career. From 1936 to 1939, Lissmann and Gray investigated the mechanics and control of locomotion in a variety of animals, both invertebrate and vertebrate: leeches, earthworms, nematodes, snails, toads, dogfish, snakes. Some of this work was carried out in marine stations, at Plymouth, Millport and (with a grant from the Bidder Fund) Naples; and some of the work was not published until after the Second World War. From the early 1950s Hans Lissmann began the work for which he is probably best known, his studies of electric fish, principally Gymnarchus, Gymnotus, and various mormyrids. Hans was elected to the Royal Society in 1954, but it was not until the following year that he had a position in the Department, as University Lecturer. He became a Fellow of Trinity College in the same year. The work on electric fish involved other members of the Department, including Ken Machin and Ann Mullinger, and Hans made several trips to study the fish in the wild. He became Reader in Experimental Zoology in1966, and in 1969 he took on the Directorship of the Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour at Madingley, holding this post until 1977, when he officially retired. After retirement he continued work at the Department’s old Field Station in Storey’s Way. After a period of increasingly ill health, Hans Lissmann died in 1995 at the age of 85.

In this short biographical sketch, I have taken information from the Royal Society Biographical Memoir for Hans, written by R. McNeill Alexander, and I have sacrificed a more detailed consideration of Hans Lissmann’s achievements in zoological research (available in McNeill Alexander’s biography) in order to give a fuller account of the other events in his extraordinary life. Lissmann’s life history was directly influenced by many of the large political events of the twentieth century. The following paragraphs concentrate on that story.

Hans was born in 1909, as Hans Werner Lissmann, in the southern sea port of Mykolaiv (Nikolayev), into the minority German population of the Ukraine. Russian and French were spoken within the family, which was rather wealthy as a result of his father’s role as a grain trader. Ukraine was then part of the Russian Empire and, with the outbreak of the First World War, the family was sent to Kargala on the edge of the Urals, more than 1,000 miles away from Nikolayev. While in Kargala, Hans added German and some Tartar to his complement of languages. In 1919 the family used some assets to buy a horse, cart and food, and set off in a generally westward direction. This simple statement does no justice to the details of their extraordinary, Brechtian journey. Further details are available from McNeill Alexander’s Royal Society Biographical Memoir, where he draws on typewritten manuscripts that Hans wrote during his internment during the 1940s. I can do the story no better justice, at this point, than to quote the relevant section verbatim.

‘The parents walked in front, Robert [Hans’s father] keeping the lazy horse moving by remonstrating with it in a kindly voice. The boys walked behind in the stifling summer heat, watching the hurricane lamp, the kettle and the pot of axle grease swinging from the rear of the cart. Eventually, with winter approaching and food short, they reached Syzran on the Volga, 300 miles from Kargala as the crow flies. They sold the horse and cart to buy flour and pigs, which were killed and frozen under the ice as winter food. They were accommodated in barracks with 800 other Germans, Austrians and Hungarians, all returning homewards. Robert was put in charge of the camp but had frequent bouts of malaria during which Hans (aged 11) took over the jobs of inspecting the camp and registering new arrivals. The winter was intensely cold and there were many deaths from typhoid. Hans was sent to steal wool from an army depot (and got caught) and stripped canvas from a grounded plane to make shoes.

After a year in Syzran, a train was supplied to evacuate the Germans. They were taken to Moscow where the Lissmanns stayed with an aunt, then to Narva in Estonia. A six-day crossing of the Baltic in a gale, in an old freighter with engine trouble, brought them and 1200 others to Stettin (north of Berlin) where they were welcomed by a brass band. A photograph taken on arrival in Berlin shows the boys poorly but decently dressed, in jackets crudely made of coarse stuff.’

The family finally resettled in Hamburg, after Robert had initially found employment in Bremen. It was in Hamburg, after completing his schooling, that Hans began undergraduate studies in zoology at the University in 1928. Yet again their was turmoil during this period and in the years preceding his university studies. His father’s finances collapsed when a business partner disappeared with the firm’s capital. The family was destitute. Hans and his brother helped out with various sorts of manual work, and during Hans’s university studies he earned some money collecting and preparing specimens, and, for a period, looking after the Hamburg Aquarium.

When the time came for Hans to choose a topic for his doctoral studies he chose to work under the supervision of Jakob Johann von Uexküll (1864-1944), Director of the Institut fiir Umweltforschung. Even in his later years of lecturing in Cambridge, Hans would refer to von Uexküll and his work, and it was clear that von Uexküll was a formative and enduring influence. Von Uexküll’s concept of the ‘Umwelt’  (an animal’s characteristic surrounding sensory world) became important in continental philosophy, and anticipated some central ideas in cybernetics. He also pioneered semiotics (the study of signals and their interpretation). During this period, Hans, unsurprisingly in view of his supervisor’s interests) did some work on the behaviour of Siamese Fighting Fish that was destined to be classic. He used mirrors and models to influence fish behaviour in experiments that generations of undergraduates in zoological laboratories across the world would, usually unwittingly, repeat.

Hans received his Ph.D. in 1932. Germany had, of course, already been in a political ferment for some years, and Hitler finally emerged into power in 1933. Hans had obtained funding for postdoctoral research in Hungary at an institute on Lake Balaton. He carried out a diversity of projects, largely united by simple experimental manipulations of animals leading to clear insights into their morphology, development and behaviour. Some of these experiments threw light on aspects of locomotor behaviour, one of the areas that Hans pursued later in his career. It became very clear, however, that Hans was expected to subscribe to, and promulgate, Nazi ideology while he was in Hungary. He refused, and when called to Berlin he chose instead to abscond to Budapest and make a living initially through journalism and translating. While working on a project involving sawflies, Hans was temporarily arrested. An opportunity to leave Hungary arose when some applied work that Hans had done on barnacles and anti-fouling paint got him a posting on a German ship heading for India. The nationality of the ship made the trip intrinsically hazardous (Hans refused to give a Nazi salute, for example) but he was able to join the ship in Genoa without returning to Germany. Hans did manage some experiments in Colombo and then Madras, but all the time he was looking for employment.

Through contact with Barbara Holmes, who came from Cambridge and who had visited Hans’s colleague in Hungary, Hans was eventually offered a place, for one year, in the Department of Zoology with James Gray. The news reached Hans in Calcutta, and he arrived in Cambridge in November 1934. It is regrettable, but perhaps inevitable given the fervid nature of European politics, that Hans was initially regarded as somewhat suspect. He applied for various jobs without success, but his funding was renewed for a second year in Cambridge. I have not been able to establish how and when Hans added English to his complement of languages. What is clear is that he and Gray began working together, although Hans made at least one extended trip back to Hungary during this period, working on locomotion in snakes. Gray managed to raise money to employ Hans as a research assistant and they embarked together on the work on animal locomotion that expanded the reputation of both.

In 1938, Hans Lissmann, still subject to some prejudice in Cambridge considered a trip to Sri Lanka (then ‘Ceylon’). He ended up travelling in Libya and Tunisia via a period in Naples. Back in Cambridge, he received an invitation to a chair in Venezuela. Gray persuaded him against it. In 1939, however, life took a different turn. Hans was interned first in Britain and then in Canada. He returned to Cambridge only in 1943; since, as an alien, he could not serve in the armed forces, he continued research and taught. In 1949 Hans married Corinne Foster-Barham who was then Librarian in the Department’s Balfour Library.

A final anecdote in accord with Hans Lissmann’s gentle sense of humour. When he was working on the electric fish, Hans travelled to Georgetown in Guyana, where his host was the fish biologist Rosemary Lowe-McConnell (who wrote the obituary for Hans in the Independent) and her husband. As McNeill Alexander recounts: ‘He dipped the electrodes into a ditch and instead of the expected buzzing sound his loudspeaker delivered the message ‘Eat more Marmite’; he was receiving a commercial from the local radio station.’


Permission to use the above photograph kindly granted by the Royal Society.  
R. McN. Alexander. (1996). Hans Werner Lissmann. 30 April 1909-21 April 1995. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 42, 235-245.