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Department of Zoology


Sir Vincent Wigglesworth (1899-1994) - A Lifetime in Insect Physiology

A time there was when zoology in Cambridge was held to be a subject of sufficient coherence that a single series of weekly talks, the Tea Talks, was judged to be adequate to bring the whole Department together. Speakers were drawn from both within the Department and from outside. The balance was firmly towards internal speakers, and research students in their final year were strongly ‘encouraged’ to give a Tea Talk. When they did, they were faced by a front row habitually made up of Departmental luminaries of the time; for example, Ken Machin, Martin Wells, Anna Bidder, Brij Gupta, and, perhaps most notably intimidating, Professor Sir Vincent Wigglesworth. It appears that what became the communal Departmental Tea Talk had actually been instituted by Wigglesworth. During the time when Torkel Weis-Fogh was Professor of Zoology and Head of Department, attendance at the Tea Talks was almost mandatory. It was not until Gabriel Horn took over as Professor of Zoology in 1978 that a diversification of talks began. Gabriel attempted to resist this fragmentation, but even the offer of free tea and cake could not prevent the trend to atomisation.

In the era of the unifying Tea Talk, the Department was notable for a relatively limited range of majority research interests. Broadly speaking, there were groups working on animal locomotion (both invertebrate and vertebrate), animal behaviour (with the Department’s field station out at Madingley), vertebrate palaeontology (in the Museum of Zoology), cell biology (with strength in electron microscopy), and insect physiology (with a strong showing in neurophysiology). As regards the number of individual research workers, insect physiology had some claim to be the area for which the Cambridge Department was best known. Latterly, the ARC (Agricultural Research Council) Unit of Insect Physiology was under the direction of John Treherne. The Unit achieved legendary status (not least for its parties in this later phase) but the dominance of insect physiology in the Department was historically largely due to one person, Sir Vincent Wigglesworth, who held the founding directorship of the ARC Unit from its inception in 1943.

In 1934 he produced his book Insect Physiology, the forerunner to his textbook, The Principles of Insect Physiology, first published in 1939. At least one of these was virtually required reading for generations of undergraduates, graduate students and established workers in this field of study. A later book, The Life of Insects (1964) was a more popular treatment of insect biology. His other books may be found listed in the OCLC WorldCat.  Wigglesworth remained a physical presence in the Department until he was 90, becoming a familiar figure moving rapidly across the New Museum Site on his way to the Department from Caius, leaning slightly forwards, with a rather determined expression, and rarely looking sideways. His 90th birthday party in the Department was a memorable, if characteristically low-key, event, and took place very appropriately in the Tea Room. Anna Bidder, all of four years younger than Wigglesworth, got up on a Tea Room table to deliver a valedictory speech.

Joined Department of Zoology in 1945

Wigglesworth did not join the Department of Zoology in Cambridge until 1945. His arrival was sufficiently significant at the time to be reported as a news item in Nature (156:712), where it was noted that, ‘He showed himself a master of the carefully planned experiment and of the simple technique. Not infrequently his experiments with insects have proved to be important contributions to general physiology.’ At that time the Professor of Zoology was James Gray, who held the Chair from 1937-59. Wigglesworth was appointed at the level of Reader and took over the Sub-department of Entomology as successor to A.D. Imms (1880-1949) whose obituary he subsequently wrote for the Royal Society. The Sub-department was combined with the recently established ARC Unit, and this new empire comprised a field station, within the City at Storey’s Way, and the third floor of the Main Department. Wigglesworth remained in a room on the third floor until he finally left the Department.

Vincent Brian Wigglesworth was born in Lancashire at the close the 19th Century, in 1899. Wigglesworth’s father was a GP, although he started as an engineer, and his dual interest in natural history and mechanical things was clearly an influence on the growing Vincent. Vincent’s mother was a talented artist, and this also was a skill passed on to her son, as evidenced by his illustrations to his scientific papers. The Wigglesworth family moved to Hertfordshire in 1911, and school holidays were spent exploring the surrounding countryside. School meant boarding at Repton, both preparatory and senior schools. With a dreadful inevitability, Wigglesworth went straight to the army in 1917 and served in France during the First World War, as a junior artillery officer until 1919. Wigglesworth’s student in later years, Michael Locke (1929-2013), who wrote the Royal Society Biographical Memoir for Wigglesworth, attributes Wigglesworth’s apparent severity of character to his school and army experience, noting that they ‘… left him with an almost impermeable shell through which he found it difficult to show emotion, contributing to the sense of remoteness that he conveyed to colleagues. He seemed far more unapproachable than he really was. Many, at times of crisis, found his qualities of fair mindedness and realism of the greatest value.’ He had the experience of active war service in common with James Gray.

Wigglesworth’s appointment to the post in the Department of Zoology in 1945 was a return to Cambridge. He had first arrived as an undergraduate in 1919, immediately after his army service, to Gonville and Caius to read medicine, following in his father’s profession. After his initial qualifying examinations, he studied in the Natural Sciences Tripos with a Part I in 1921 and Part II (in physiology) in 1922. He seems to have achieved first class results throughout, and this gave him the opening to a grant for two years of research in the Department of Biochemistry, under Frederick Gowland Hopkins and Rudolph Peters. A fellow research student was Joseph Needham, and much of Wigglesworth’s work was supervised by J.B.S. Haldane. This auspicious start in research led eventually to the degree of M.D. in 1929, but by then Wigglesworth had received his final statutory medical qualifications and done a short (rather traumatic) period of clinical work (1924-26) at St Thomas’s Hospital, London.

In 1926, Wigglesworth took up a lectureship in medical entomology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, combining his long-standing interest in insects with his training in medical physiology. His work here involved many insects of medical and economic importance, but perhaps most important was his introduction to a lifelong companion, the reduviid hemipteran, Rhodnius prolixus. Wigglesworth also began his habit of prolific publication: more than fifty papers resulted from this period.

If 1926 may be judged as the start of Wigglesworth’s dedication to insect physiology, 1939 is also a key year that saw the publication of the first version of his The Principles of Insect Physiology and his election to the Royal Society. He had become Reader in Entomology in 1936 and his work in the years preceding this included extensive field trips to Africa, India, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and Southeast Asia. He also paid visits to related laboratories, including that of the physiologist August Krogh (a Nobel Prize winner since 1920) in Copenhagen, and a visit to Berlin in early 1939, disturbing because of the obtrusive political climate. At the founding of the ARC Unit of Insect Physiology in 1943, Wigglesworth was still in London, but it was while he was on a lecture tour in America, at Harvard, that he received the offer from Cambridge, and it is to his career there that we now return.

The ARC Unit provided an umbrella for a string of distinguished research workers, among them, for example, James (‘Jimmy’) Beament (who wrote the obituary of Wigglesworth for The Independent newspaper), Tony Lees, and John Kennedy. Visitors to the Unit came from across the world. One notable visitor was Torkel Weis-Fogh, who subsequently served as Professor of Zoology in the Department from 1966-75. John Treherne arrived to join the Unit in 1955. Wigglesworth became Quick Professor of Biology in 1952 and held this Chair until he retired from his University post in 1966. In 1967 he passed the Directorship of the Unit to John Treherne, but he remained in the Department until 1992. After his formal retirement, Wigglesworth published 63 further papers.

In his Biographical Memoir Michael Locke describes how Wigglesworth preferred to work in relative isolation, and was notoriously elusive, evading unscheduled discussion, or indeed spontaneous discussion at any length. And this was someone whose fluency with languages extended to reading, writing and lecturing in French, Italian and German. One result of his acceptance of the Quick Professorship, however, was the requirement that he take on graduate students. And what students! To quote from Locke, ‘He supervised about 50 students in all, including P.H. Tuft, MJ. Way, J.L. Cloudsley-Thompson, Joan Whitton, P.S. Corbet, L.S. Wolfe, T.E. Mittler, A.N. Clements, M.W. Holdgate, M.J. Wells, P.W. Miles, M. Locke, K.G. Davey, P.L. Miller, D.S. Smith, J.S. Edwards, J. Strangeways-Dixon, J.E. Phillips, C.B. Cottrell, H.C. Bennet-Clark, J.A.L. Watson, S.H.P. Maddrell, R. Harmsen, A.C.S. Crossley, M.J. Berridge, P.A. Lawrence and T.R. Odhiambo. He said that ‘It is hard to know what, if anything, they owed to my supervision’, and that he deliberately set out to make them work independently.’ Several of Wigglesworth ex-students have written about their time with him. Peter Lawrence, for example, interviewed in Development in 2016 (143: 183-5), recalls that, ‘I remember Wigglesworth telling me early on, when I was reading some obscure paper in German: “Lawrence, you shouldn't be reading too much. You should get on with looking at things yourself.” ’

Everything that he did in research was publishable

Any attempt at a full description of Wigglesworth’s scientific output would require a separate, and very substantial, article, but there is little doubt that his work on moulting hormones, using Rhodnius as the experimental animal, and his experiments with Malpighian tubules, rank among his most remarkable achievements, and perhaps the studies for which he is generally best known. His mind was a highly synthetic one, as illustrated by John Edwards’ article, ‘Sir Vincent Wigglesworth and the coming of age of insect development’ (International Journal of Developmental Biology, 42: 471-3). Edwards writes that Wigglesworth ‘was a central figure in the emergence of the concept of postembryonic insect development as sequential polymorphism regulated by endocrine signals. At a time in mid-century when genetics and developmental physiology were severely compartmentalized, he made the conceptual linkage with the recognition that sequential polymorphism must have a genetic basis with gene activation regulated by internal signals.’ For those wanting more detail, there is a very fine account of Wigglesworth’s 70 years of research in Michael Locke’s Biographical Memoir of Wigglesworth, freely available on the Royal Society web site, where Locke notes that, ‘Everything that he did in research was publishable’.

Vincent Wigglesworth was known to his students as ‘V.B.W.’, with a mixture of awe and affection. His influence and legacy are central elements in the 20th Century history of the Department of Zoology; he stood for what many now will regard as an ‘old model’ of science, in which an individual worker pursued yes/no answers to clear questions, using elegant experimental designs, and with minimal equipment. In his obituary for Wigglesworth’s memoirist Michael Locke, Ken Davey, himself a student of Wigglesworth, recalls that V.B.W. refused to read your dissertation or drafts of your papers; individual responsibility was expected, but the corollary was that the credit also came to you, as an individual.

Wigglesworth was a very private person. He married Mabel Semple in 1928, and they remained married, with four children, until she died in 1986. V.B.W. himself died in 1994, two years after his final departure from the Department. To quote from Professor Sir James Beament’s obituary of Wigglesworth in The Independent: ‘VBW was a gentle, formal person, reserved to the point almost of shyness, with a wry sense of humour, but behind this it was always evident that there was a piercing analytical mind … Not only did he work alone, but it appeared that he chose to be lonely.’ There are, however, indications in Michael Locke’s Biographical Memoir that V.B.W. was highly intellectually competitive. Incidentally, if you want to read the American writer John Updike’s poem ‘V.B. Nimble, V.B. Quick’ you will have to search for it yourself. It starts with V.B.W.’s name – and V.B.W. understandably hated it.

Public honours and awards

Wigglesworth’s collected papers (in 50 boxes) are held at the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge. There were many public honours and awards for this least public person, including the Royal Medal of the Royal Society and his knighthood in 1964. Beament’s obituary reports that Wigglesworth ‘remained largely unmoved by these. Exhibiting his gold medal of the Royal Society at tea, he observed quietly that the only previous one he had obtained was as champion muleteer of his regiment.’ Vincent Wigglesworth abhorred administrative duties. On his appointment to Cambridge in 1945, Nature correctly referred to him as ‘Dr. V.B. Wigglesworth’ because of his M.D. He did not, however, bother with a Ph.D.