skip to content

Department of Zoology


Sydney J. Hickson – a life among corals.

A discovery...

In 2021 Natalie Jones, Conservator in the Department’s Museum of Zoology, looked again at two puzzling specimens that had been on her bench for some time waiting for investigation. She described them as ‘two small mystery boxes of dry coral at the back of the old spirit store.’ As anyone who has worked in a museum knows, specimens occasionally have the habit of taking themselves off to inappropriate locations, seemingly at random. One of the specimens that Natalie had found was in a box still clearly bearing a picture of a camel and rider in a desert scene with palm trees, with the inscription ‘Meltis MECCA FIGS’; it contained a sizeable piece of coral. The label on the Swan Vestas match box that accompanied it indicated that it contained spicules from the same specimen. The labels gave the identity of the material as Gorgonia darwinii from Tagus Cove in the Galapagos Isles. There was a rather faded Post-It note with the boxes that read ‘? Beagle No 1306’. Natalie quickly discovered that the description of the specimens corresponded to one found on page 290 of Charles Darwin’s Zoology Notes & Specimen Lists from H.M.S. Beagle. However, another small note included with the specimens raises further questions: it reads ‘Professor Hickson This is almost certainly from Tagus Cove; I supposed a glance at the spicules would decide.’  The note is signed only with a single initial, probably an ‘N’.  Could this be a ‘lost’ Darwin Beagle specimen?

Charles Darwin appears to have been the subject of other biographical studies, but what, however, of ‘Professor Hickson’?

Cambridge to Manchester and back again

Sydney John Hickson was born, auspiciously, in 1859, on June 25th. He died in 1940 at the age of 80, and the order of service for his funeral is available through the Archives Hub at the University of Manchester, which holds his papers. His funeral service took place ‘at the Church of St Benedict, Cambridge’. Since Sydney Hickson spent most of his working life as Professor of Zoology at Manchester University, what is the Cambridge connection? Hickson was elected FRS in 1895, the year after he took up the chair at Manchester, and his Royal Society Biographical Memoir was written by J. Stanley Gardiner (1872-1948), the third Professor of Zoology in Cambridge from 1909-1937 (himself the subject of an earlier one of the present series of biographical sketches). Gardiner turns out to be just one of many Cambridge connections. He shared with Hickson an abiding interest in corals, and both did extensive field work in warmer seas. I have called on Gardiner’s Memoir for some documentary information about Hickson, but neither in that source nor elsewhere have I discovered a ready-made full list of Hickson’s publications.

In what follows I have used the familiar term ‘coral’ and retained several group names that are now deprecated. Currently, within the cnidarian class Anthozoa the subclass Octocorallia (also known as Alcyonaria) contains the order Alcyonacea (= Gorgonacea, still used by some) in which are included the soft corals and gorgonians on which Hickson did most of his work.

The home of the prosperous Hickson family was in Hampstead, and the family atmosphere was one of ‘advanced’ political thinking, with visitors to match. Hickson retained allegiance to Liberal causes throughout his life. He was educated at home and then at a grammar school in Leatherhead. From there he moved to University College School and then to University College itself in 1876. He attended lectures by several of the zoological luminaries of the day, including T.H. Huxley and E. Ray Lankester, who facilitated his transfer to Cambridge, to Downing College where he matriculated in 1877. Hickson maintained a strong relationship with his old college, where he eventually became a Fellow and subsequently an Honorary Fellow. A large part of the attraction of Cambridge at that time was the presence of the physiologist Michael Foster (1836-1907) who had himself attended University College School, and, naturally, that of Francis Maitland Balfour (1851-1882, again a subject of a previous sketch in this series).

The death of Frank Balfour in 1882 on Mont Blanc was a deeply traumatic, but Sydney Hickson had moved from the influence of one charismatic figure into the ambit of another. After he graduated in 1881, with a first-class degree, Hickson moved to Oxford and took up a post as assistant and demonstrator with Henry Nottidge Moseley (1844-1891). In 1881, Moseley had been elected as Oxford’s second Linacre Professor and is chiefly known for his work on corals and his participation in the Challenger Expedition of 1872-1876, for studies of the tracheal system of Peripatus, and for work in anthropology. He received the Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1887, largely for the coral work. There is a touching memoir of Moseley by G.C.Bourne, which presents a picture of a man of enormous energy, although prone to depression (not such an unusual combination), highly critical in his scientific approach and boundlessly dedicated to interested colleagues and students. Bourne notes that ‘The students soon came to look on the laboratory as their chief centre in the University; I, for one, look back on the days spent there as amongst the happiest of my life.’ Moseley seems to have been one of those rare people who is at home with the very latest ideas and technical developments, but also at home in the field as a scientific naturalist, and with students.

The eyes have it... but the corals win in the end

While Hickson was a Cambridge undergraduate, he published his studies on the structure of the eyes in the scallop Pecten, but once he came under the influence of Moseley, his lifelong interest in corals began. Hickson’s training under the serial influences of Ray Lankester, Balfour and Moseley were doubtless an influence on the very visual nature of his investigations and publications. In his Biographical Memoir of Hickson, Stanley Gardiner notes that, ‘In vacations Alcyonium was being examined at Plymouth and its in- and out-flowing currents experimentally investigated in the living polyps … This work was followed up twelve years later by a detailed study of the whole anatomy and of the habits of Alcyonium; and twenty years later by his pupil Miss Pratt’s valuable study of the allied tropical genera from the Maldives.

Hickson’s earlier papers indicate a habit in all publications of replacing text by figures where possible.’ Hickson had already investigated the biology of the so-called ‘organ pipe coral’, the alcyonarian Tubipora muscica, and its fossil relative Syringopora. His undergraduate work on the Pecten eye was not forgotten, however, and he returned to eyes in an 1885 paper on the eyes of arthropods, including a detailed histological account of that of Musca.

In 1885-1886 Hickson visited the Celebes, now Sulawesi, obtaining formative field experience described in his book, A Naturalist in North Celebes. When he returned, the pull of Cambridge brought him back for two years, during which time he also worked at London in Ray Lankester’s laboratory. 1888, however, saw him back in Oxford taking on many of the ailing Moseley’s teaching duties. In 1890 he was back in Cambridge yet again, now to a formal post of Lecturer in Advanced Zoology. This Cambridge period saw studies on the hydrozoan ‘coral’ Millepora and a variety of other ‘hydrocorallines’.

After four years in his Cambridge post, Hickson left to take up the post of Beyer Professor of Zoology in Manchester in 1894. His predecessor, Arthur Milnes Marshall (1852-1893), had at one time been interested in alcyonarians, and it almost seems that there was a coralline mafia at work in Hickson’s life. The precocious Marshall achieved a London B.A. while still at school and matriculated at St John’s College, Cambridge in 1871, six years in advance of Sydney Hickson. That brought Marshall inevitably under the influence of Michael Foster and Frank Balfour, And in 1875 he returned from a brief period in Naples to teach alongside Balfour. In 1879 he was appointed as Professor of Zoology at what was then Owens College in Manchester. He was an experienced and enthusiastic mountaineer and rock climber and, despite many intrepid trips to the Alps, he met his early death on Scafell in the Lake District in 1893.

Equality for women in education

Hickson threw himself into life in Manchester. The combination of his broad scientific interests, his specific expertise and commitment to education and its social value in general meant that he took on a range of roles both within the University of Manchester and outside. He was, for example, in keeping with his Liberal views, for several years, President of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, and long-term President of the Manchester Microscopical Society. He supported equality for women in education (he was a Governor of the Manchester High School for Girls), wrote several books of popular science, and lectured frequently to working people. And all the time he kept up his research on corals, where some of the evolutionary aspects of his work formed part of his Royal Society Croonian Lecture of 1918. Hickson has access to a wealth of specimens and developed a high level of taxonomic expertise, pioneering the use of cut sections and spicules in taxonomic work.

The return to Cambridge

Hickson was due to retire from his post in Manchester in 1924, but he was asked to continue until 1926. In that year he returned to Cambridge. He gave undergraduate lectures on coelenterates and continued his research. Those with a particular interest in Hickson’s coral work from this period may consult Gardiner’s Biographical Memoir with its full account. One aspect is, however, of significance to the present story, his work on Gorgonacea, with an emphasis on the examination of spicules. Indeed, this was the subject of Hickson’s very last paper, published shortly after his death in 1940. Hickson’s own material (sections and type specimens) was lodged with the British Museum (Natural History), now The Natural History Museum. As noted earlier in this sketch, his papers, including 33 of his diaries spanning 1899-1936, are in the archives of the University of Manchester.

And the coral in the ‘Meltis MECCA FIGS’ box? Well, that is another story.