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Department of Zoology


Clive Forster-Cooper (1880-1947)

by Dr Adrian Friday

Imagine a tallish, slightly-stooped man, of a rather ascetic appearance, wearing spectacles with the round frames so typical of the 1930s. He is standing in front of a blackboard, with his back to his audience, and he is drawing the heart and blood vessels of a dogfish with his left hand, and those of a frog with his right, simultaneously. The late Sydney Smith (who taught in the Department of Zoology for decades) recalled this phenomenon. It was Clive Forster-Cooper's party trick, and it drew some anguished comments from the undergraduates who were trying to take down the drawings. The remaining documentary evidence in the archives of the Museum of Zoology suggest that Forster-Cooper was a gifted artist, no matter which hand he chose to use, and his surviving notebooks on the cranial structures of mammals contain fine working drawings, made as he struggled to understand the arrangement of foramina for nerves and blood vessels.

Clive Forster-Cooper (the hyphen came and went even in his own publications, but seems to have been the norm in the family) was born into a lineage of solid country gentlemen on his father's side, and a Huguenot family on his mother's. His father was a solicitor, and the family had for generations been associated with Wiltshire, and especially Salisbury. Forster-Cooper, however, was born in Hampstead, on April 3rd 1880. The young Forster-Cooper was encouraged in his interest in natural history by his maternal grandfather, who was himself an enthusiastic amateur. In keeping with his family's social situation, Forster-Cooper was educated away from home, first at Summerfields School in Oxford and the from 1894-97 at Rugby School. From Rugby he came, precociously, to Trinity College, Cambridge at the age of seventeen, where he was supervised by Adam Sedgwick (1854-1909), the second Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy (from 1907 to 1909) and the subject of a previous biographical sketch in this series.

Forster-Cooper studied zoology, physiology and geology in the first part of his Tripos, but his studies were interrupted, in what eventually turned out to be a positive way, by his selection, at the beginning of his second year, as an assistant to J. Stanley Gardiner (1872-1946, the third Professor of Zoology, from 1909 to 1937) on an expedition to the Maldive Islands. The positive results of this interruption were not immediately obvious, however, because Forster-Cooper's period of instruction and preparation for the examinations was truncated and he got a third class in his Part I (as it then was) albeit at the still early age of nineteen.

In his Royal Society Memoir of Forster-Cooper, the palaeontologist D.M.S. Watson describes how, shortly after the Maldives Expedition had put to sea, Gardiner got malaria and had to leave the ship. As a result, Forster-Cooper was in command of the ship, and took on the collecting and documenting of specimens. He proved to be effective, resilient and thorough in these activities. And still at the age of twenty.

Forster-Cooper's rather non-standard route through his undergraduate years was continued on his return to Cambridge. He took a single-subject Part II in zoology, when the norm was to take two subjects. As a consequence, a first class result was ruled out, and he finished with a second class degree. His expedition experience was put to good use from 1902 through to 1906. Over this period he spent much of his time at sea in several roles, most notably again with Stanley Gardiner on the Percy Sladen Expedition to the Indian Ocean. I have drawn on Forster-Cooper's own account of his voyages with Gardiner in the biographical sketch of Gardiner previously in this series.

In 1906 Forster-Cooper returned to Cambridge, and a chance meeting in London with the American palaeontologist C.W. Andrews was to set the scientific course for the rest of his career. He travelled to the Fayum with Andrews, and was introduced to working in the desert. As a result of his new-found interest, Forster-Cooper spent a year in America at the American Museum of Natural History with the famous names of American palaeontology, principally Henry Fairfield Osborn.

Working from Cambridge, Forster-Cooper organized two expeditions to Baluchistan in 1910 and 1911. Most students of mammalian evolution associate Forster-Cooper's name with the extinct gigantic rhinoceros, originally named Baluchitherium, the remains of which Forster-Cooper collected. Undergraduates in recent decades may remember the a cast of the skull of Baluchitherium (Paraceratherium) in the Museum of Zoology along with material from its living relatives. It remains the largest known land mammal. More than one commentator describes Forster-Cooper's talent for benign and inspiring leadership in all the expeditions and institutions with which he was involved. It must have endeared him to both the bureaucracy and the workers involved in his travels that he learnt Arabic, for example. According to his student, F.R. (Rex) Parrington, Forster-Cooper would sometimes, perhaps a little ostentatiously, write in his books in Arabic script.

In 1914, Forster-Cooper took over the post of Superintendent of the Museum of Zoology from the geneticist Leonard Doncaster. When the First World War broke out that same year, Forster-Cooper was transferred to work in Liverpool on various diseases afflicting the troops. After the War he resumed his post in Cambridge. He held the post until 1938, and it was during his tenure that the title of the post changed from Superintendent to Director.

Anyone who has worked in the vertebrate collections of the Museum of Zoology will have encountered signs of Forster-Cooper's activities. He was clearly an exceptional teacher and his students included C.F.A. Pantin (1899-1967) the fifth Professor of Zoology (from 1959 to 1966), and Rex Parrington (1905-1981) who took over the Directorship of the Museum (from 1939 to 1970) from Forster-Cooper. He is notable for his practical involvement with specimens, both in his preparation of fossils as research material and, particularly for his creation of teaching displays in comparative anatomy. His robust use of material would find less favour now:  he would frequently slice skulls in two, longitudinally, to facilitate mounting them on a board for demonstration purposes, and it is only relatively recently that the halves have been reunited in the collections. However, his displays clearly breathed new life into the teaching, and there is no better description of Forster-Cooper's achievement in this area than D.M.S. Watson's text in his Royal Society Memoir:

'He did much of the work with his own hands, preparing skulls and painting in the sutures between their bones, taking and labelling splendid photographs to illustrate special points of structure, and obtaining new specimens to fill the larger gaps in the collection. And, as neighbouring departments moved into new buildings, he took over the space so left  vacant and turned it to museum use, setting up, for example, an excellent systematic series of invertebrate animals in a series of rooms.

Thus, in some twenty years, with very small funds, he revolutionized the whole institution and made it a modern teaching museum, logical in its arrangement and excellent in its presentation.'

Concurrent with his Directorship of the Museum, Forster-Cooper held posts in the main Department; from an initial Lectureship he moved to a Readership in 1935. Outside the Department he held a Fellowship at Trinity Hall (for several years acting as Bursar) and was active in the Library Syndicate, Buildings Syndicate, the Fitzwilliam Museum Syndicate, the Pensions Committee, and the Faculty Board of Biology A.

In 1938, the Directorship of the British Museum (Natural History), now The Natural History Museum, London, became vacant, and Forster-Cooper was appointed. It was to prove a particularly demanding time, with the outbreak of the Second World War only a year away. Forster-Cooper was necessarily involved with the programme of transport and storage of large numbers of specimens outside the vulnerable London location. D.M.S. Watson's description of Forster-Cooper's life in the B.M.(N.H.) during the war years is graphic: for periods of time Forster-Cooper lived in the Museum, cooking his own meals. He was not in the best of health. When the War ended he was 65, and he died only two years later in 1947, five weeks short of his retirement, tragically not having been able to achieve even a fraction of the reforms, expeditions, and displays that he had planned for the Museum.

As a result of his war work in Liverpool, Forster-Cooper appeared as author on twenty-seven papers concerning malaria and its treatment. Apart from these collaborative works, Forster-Cooper's zoological publications were almost all from his Cambridge years. They are notable for their meticulous presentation and, particularly, their diversity. He published on corals, cephalopods, nemertines, early primates and horses, the giant rhinos and other associated mammals, Pleistocene elephants, the ear ossicles of golden moles, and a variety of fossil fish (collected by him and his family and friends on a series of holiday trips to Scotland). He was elected FRS in 1936, shortly before his move to London, and was knighted in 1946, as his time at the B.M. (N.H.) drew to a close.

Clive Forster-Cooper was interested in animals of all sorts and followed his current fascinations wherever they happened to lead him. In other aspects of academic life, it is probably most accurate to view him as a quiet, but determined, reformer. For those who know how to look he left his mark on the Museum of Zoology , the Department, and institutions more widely in Cambridge.