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Department of Zoology


Laurence Picken: two lives in parallel

It is a familiar part of a museum curator's working life to get the telephone calls: 'My neighbour's got bats!' (is this one going to be a boast or a complaint?); 'What is the average gestation period of a Japanese Hooded Rat?' (tractable, if a touch niche). And, 'What is the external diameter of the quill of a primary feather from a Martial Eagle?' Well, the aptly named Polemaetus bellicosus is a big bird of sub-Saharan Africa, and, rather predictably, said to be uncompromising if it takes a dislike to you. The telephone call did turn out to come from a zoologist, but the query was actually in the interests of ethnomusicology. The caller identified himself as Laurence Picken, and this was clearly a case for the vernier calipers.

Laurence Ernest Rowland Picken (1909-2007) was one of that legendary breed, the 'bachelor don'. In the breadth and depth of his scholarship he resembled the late Sydney Smith, doyen of the Department of Zoology, and one of the two founding editors of the Darwin Correspondence Project. Certainly, in one way, Laurence Picken outdid Sydney Smith, in that Picken held formal positions (but serially) in Zoology, as an Assistant Director of Research (ADR) from 1946-1966, and then in Oriental Studies, also as an ADR, from 1966-1976. For the sheer variety of his achievements at high level, his life story is quite extraordinary. Incidentally, several of his obituarists recall that Laurence Picken was also an accomplished chef, who could singlehandedly produce cordon bleu meals.

In writing about Picken's life, three sources have been particularly helpful. The first is the unsigned obituary of Picken in The Times in 2007, the year of Picken's death. The second is the 2007 obituary of Picken in The Guardian, by Stuart Barr, the business advisor and writer on music. The third is the extensive and detailed obituary of Picken in the Proceedings of the British Academy (2010) by Richard Widdess of the School of Oriental and African Studies. Richard Widdess's obituary makes reference to a plethora of other sources of information about Picken's life. Picken became an Sc.D. in 1952, and although he abandoned science before the Royal Society could claim him, he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1973. Among other honours Picken was elected Docteur Honoris Causa of the Université de Paris X. You can hear Laurence Picken, himself, talking about his life to the ethnomusicologist Carole Clegg (Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit) on a video from 1983, a recording expedited by Alan Macfarlane (Department of Social Anthropology):

Laurence Picken was born in 1909 in Nottingham. Neither of his parents was overtly academic, although his mother, Rosa, was a teacher. Music was an early enthusiasm, and Laurence began to learn the piano from the age of four. His interest in science, and especially in biology, came later, when he attended Waverley Road School in Birmingham.

Picken arrived at Trinity College on a scholarship in 1928 to study Natural Sciences. After graduating, with a First, he embarked on a Ph.D. in the Zoological Laboratory (as it then was), completing his dissertation on excretion in invertebrates in 1935. He then took up a two-year Rockefeller Studentship in the University of Geneva (École de Chimie) and a Balfour Studentship in the Department of Zoology. The work funded from these two sources had elements in common in that both involved the study of biological aspects of long-chain molecules.

In Geneva, Picken had used the techniques of X-ray crystallography, and his use of these techniques is historically remarkable in itself. After Max von Laue's pioneering work (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1914) the Braggs (father and son) put the techniques to analytical use. The crystal structure of sodium chloride was determined in 1914 and developments continued at pace during the 1920s. In the late 1920s and through the 1930s there were many advances in the use of X-ray crystallography for the study of long-chain fatty acids, especially in the context of biological membranes. Picken's work in Geneva was thus a relatively early application of the methodology. X-ray crystallography had proved to be useful in elucidating the elastic and non-elastic properties of biological polymers, and Picken was interested in examining the thermoelastc properties of muscle.

Picken used his Balfour Studentship to fund yearly travel (from 1935 to 1939) to Yugoslavia to study mechanisms of body-shape change in freshwater ciliates, again through the agency of long-chain membrane polymers. Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War he was in Yugoslavia, but when the War began he made a rather peremptory return, via Geneva, to war service in Cambridge. As an officer in command of a regional blood transfusion unit, he characteristically made innovations in the methods for processing plasma. Before the end of the War, in 1944, Picken had been elected a Fellow of Jesus College. He was able to take up the Fellowship at the end of hostilities in 1945, and it was in Jesus that he remained - with some crucial excursions - until he moved out of the College in 1976. He became an Honorary Fellow of both Jesus and his undergraduate college, Trinity.

As an undergraduate Picken had begun to teach himself Chinese, and his existing musical talent inevitably led to a fascination with Chinese music. This fascination remained with him for the rest of his life, and there were many who came to know him principally as an authority on oriental music. Despite the restrictions of the war years, there were pivotal developments for Picken in both his scientific and musical areas of interest. In Geneva, he had worked with Prof. Kurt Meyer, a pioneering expert on biological polymers. Picken undertook the translation from the German of Meyer's influential (700-page) book on the subject. This translation was published, against the odds, in 1942. In 1944 came the first of Picken's publications on J.S. Bach. He retained an abiding love of Bach's music, and played something from Bach's keyboard music daily. Also in 1944, Picken was chosen to accompany the biochemist and sinologist Joseph Needham on a British Council mission to China. The mission had its fraught moments, but it did result in Picken's first acquaintance with the Chinese zither, the qin. While in China, he procured an instrument and an instruction manual, and in subsequent years also took lessons. He became an adept on the instrument, and an authority on its music. Indeed, the British Academy account of his life by Richard Widdess has, as a frontispiece, a photograph of Picken giving a recital on the qin.

Richard Widdess provides very full details of Laurence Picken's life in musicology, including his friendships with the composer Roberto Gerhard and the musician Thurston Dart (who took up the Chair of Music in Cambridge). Picken later added detailed studies of Turkish and then Japanese music to his work on the music of China. The catalogue of Picken's involvement and achievements in musicology is astonishing, and many of them came from the years when he was also active in Zoology. For those who have an interest in Picken's musicology, Widdess's full and fascinating account is the place to read about them. Incidentally, Laurence Picken is reported to have hated the word 'ethnomusicology'.

1966 was a watershed year for Picken because the then Professor of Zoology, Carl Pantin, expedited Picken's transition from ADR in Zoology to ADR in Oriental Studies. Since this biographical sketch is for zoologists, it is to the earlier Picken, the zoologist, that we return.

Laurence Picken ended his tenure in Zoology by making a major contribution to the development of a new course, Biology of Cells. To many later generations of undergraduates who will have taken this course it may come as a surprise that it ever had been new. It was, however, the result of much discussion and hard work, not the least part of which concerned the innovatory practicals. Picken was particularly involved with the development of the initial practical work on the techniques of microscopy. At the time, letting undergraduates loose on new Zeiss GFL microscopes, and introducing them to the intricacies of Kohler illumination, darkfield illumination and phase contrast, was a courageous step. For those used to battered Watson Service microscopes at school, the Zeiss thoroughbreds were, quite literally, a revelation.

There are two things for which Laurence Picken the zoologist is probably best known. The first is his work, with his former student, Richard Skaer, on the nematocysts of cnidarians (work carried on by Skaer after Picken had transferred to Oriental Studies). The second is the book The Organization of Cells and Other Organisms (O.U.P., 1960).

A seminal paper by Picken is his 1953 account of nematocysts in the anemone Corynactis viridis, originally in The Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science 94:. 203-27; now available online under the auspices of Journal of Cell Science with the address:


This beautiful paper seems to have come out of nowhere. The only previous paper of his own cited by Picken in his Corynactis paper is his 1949 paper on the microstructure of the scales of Trepsichrois mulciber  (now Euploea mulciber), the Striped Blue Crow butterfly of Asia. To give a feel for some of Picken's interactions with other scientists at the time, here are his Acknowledgements from that paper in full:

'I am particularly indebted to Dr. F. H. C. Crick, Dr. J. M. Mitchison, and Dr. D. R. Taunt for advice and assistance in analysing the transformation of the barb-pattern; to Miss E. A. Robson who has lent me her eyes on occasion and sharpened my own; and to Dr. C. F. A. Pantin, F.R.S., but for whose interest these observations would have remained unpublished.'

Who else would you go to for a bit of help with your geometric transformations but Francis Crick (who just might, around that time, have been busy with other things)?

Several papers by Skaer and Picken as single authors or coauthors have become acknowledged as classics in their field. Here are two joint papers that have been widely cited over the years:

Skaer, R. J. & Picken, L. E. R. (1965). The structure of the nematocyst thread and the geometry of discharge in Corynactis viridis Allman. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Ser. B 250: 131-164.

Skaer, R. J. & Picken, L. E. R. (1966). The pleated surface of the undischarged thread of a nematocyst and its simulation by models. J. exp. Biol. 45: 173-176.

A review of studies on nematocysts, published by Picken & Skaer in 1966 in a symposium volume, summed up the state of the field at that time, but is still regularly cited. Richard Skaer was still publishing on nematocysts of the siphonophore of Rosacea in 1991.

The Organization of Cells and Other Organisms  is a large book. Indeed, it was too large for its publishers as originally submitted. A copy of the 2nd edition (reprinted with corrections in 1962, very quickly after the 1st edition of 1960) runs to 630 pages. Characteristically, it is a combination of an exhaustive compendium of the literature with insightful, synthetic comments. Nothing quite like it comes to mind. It is a physically handsome production, and one gets the impression that Laurence Picken may have been the sort of author to have taken an unusually close role in its design. It has, for example, some references in Chinese pictogram characters. For most authors who are not themselves Chinese this would probably seem like affectation, but for Picken, of course, it really was quite natural.

Page 510 of the 2nd edition (the last page before the Bibliography) has a striking full-page inscription from the fourth century B.C. work Guanzi. It is in Chinese calligraphy, and the calligrapher is credited as Ts'ao T'ien-ch'in, with a red name stamp. This stamp is the only item of colour printing in the entire book, but O.U.P. clearly rose to the challenge. Richard Widdess chooses the translation of this text to end his obituary of Laurence Picken. It reads:

Reality is the embodiment of structure;

Structures are the embodiment of properties;

Properties are the embodiment of harmony;

Harmony is the embodiment of congruity.

The dedication for the book reads 'SPOMINU FRANCA FORTUNATA ČLOVEKA IN PRIJATELJA'. The language is Slovenian, and Picken must surely, therefore, have fully intended the text to be enigmatic for an anglophone reader. An online translation program suggests the phrase, 'To the memory of Franco Fortunato, the man and the friend'. If any reader of this biographical sketch knows the secret of Picken's dedication, it would be good to hear from them.

And then there is that title. The spine of the book carries the shorter version, simply Organization of Cells. It is the and Other Organisms in the full title that catches the attention. Laurence Picken was notorious for making predictions about future developments in cell biology - and apparently getting them largely right. Chapter X of the book, the final chapter, is titled, 'Becoming multicellular as seen in the light of cell properties'. It contains an extended analysis of cell movements during gastrulation, mostly taken from Holtfreter's work on amphibian embryos. With current explorations of single-celled lineages that are close outgroups to Metazoa, and experimental work on the origin(s) of multicellularity, Picken's implication that cells might profitably be considered as organisms does come to seem rather modern, perhaps. Whatever one might think of the idea that cancer cells may have partially reverted to gene-regulatory programmes found in single-celled ancestry (and opposition to the idea is strong and strident) at least we seem somehow to be close to Picken territory. 'Cell Biology' is once again scientifically fashionable, partly as a result of advances in developmental biology: is there hope that Laurence Picken's idiosyncratic book might be worth reassessment?

As societies reorganize themselves around us to take account of diversity and difference, there is another way in which Laurence Picken can be seen to have been forward-looking. An examination of his life suggests that he was concerned to enter other cultures from inside and with not only the ambition to learn, but to learn in a spirit of humility. Although he was acknowledged as an ‘authority’ in many areas, his attitude seems never to have been one of condescension: whatever he undertook he seems to have approached in a spirit of engagement and participation. Triviality was never a possibility.