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Department of Zoology


W.H. (‘Bill’) Thorpe: animal behaviour in Cambridge

If you were looking for Bill Thorpe’s house, you would follow Burrell’s Walk, at the side of the University Library, and cross Grange Road to pick up Adams Road. At the top of Adams Road, you would turn the corner into Wilberforce Road, and find, not far down the road on your right, a striking white house, with a self-consciously modernist appearance and a vaguely nautical character. 9 Wilberforce Road was designed by the architect Doris Cosens (1894-1945) and built for W.H. Thorpe in 1937. Very appropriately, given Bill Thorpe’s interests and career, the house backs on to one of Cambridge’s rather secret places, the Adams Road Bird Sanctuary owned by St John’s College.



William Homan Thorpe (1902–1986) shares with his better-known contemporary Niko Tinbergen (1907-1988) - working in Oxford and a Nobel Prize winner in 1973 - the distinction of being a founder of new approaches to the study of animal behaviour in the twentieth century. In dynastic terms, the Oxford school was the more influential. Although the official supervisor in Oxford of Robert Hinde (1923-2016) was David Lack, Tinbergen was a crucial influence. Hinde’s return to Cambridge to join Thorpe thus introduced an Oxford stream to the study of animal behaviour in Cambridge. Robert Hinde, himself, was the research supervisor of Patrick Bateson (1938-2017) whose career was spent in Cambridge. Thorpe, Hinde and Bateson were all members of the Department of Zoology.

Bill Thorpe’s major contributions to the field of animal behaviour concerned the nature of bird song and the mechanisms of imprinting, both areas involving the study of learning. His book Learning and Instinct in Animals (published in 1956) was influential in its own right but also in familiarising a wider zoological audience with the ideas of both Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989, and thus, again, Thorpe’s close contemporary). Tinbergen, himself had already introduced some of the ideas of Lorenz in his own book The Study of Instinct (1951). Lorenz, who knew Tinbergen well, and shared the Nobel Prize with him and with Karl von Frisch, spent his academic life in Germany and Austria, and his influence on continental approaches to animal behaviour was profound.

William Homan Thorpe was born in Sussex into a highly religious family. His upbringing was supported in large part by a nurse companion who dedicated her life to the family. The family contributed to young William’s interest in natural history, but his own reading seems to have been a fundamental influence. Throughout a childhood limited by illness and relative isolation he maintained an interest in natural history and particularly in entomology. This provided the impetus for a successful attempt at admission to Cambridge to study agriculture at Jesus College (1921). He did graduate with a degree in agriculture, but much of his time as an undergraduate was spent birdwatching. With the encouragement of the Professor of Zoology, Stanley Gardiner, he also attended courses in zoology and went on several courses at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory. After his graduation Bill studied for a Diploma in Agricultural Science, but in plant pathology rather than entomology. All this clearly made for a very broad grounding in biological sciences. Stanley Gardiner was impressed, and the young Thorpe was recruited to give lectures on entomology in Part II Zoology, even as he began doctoral research on capsid bugs and moths in the Department of Agriculture. He interrupted this research with two years on a Fellowship to the University of California, studying parasitic insects, and finally obtained his Cambridge PhD in 1929. After a postdoctoral period at the Imperial Institute of Entomology, he was invited to return to Zoology in Cambridge as a Lecturer in Entomology. He took up this post in 1932 after visits to Trinidad and Panama.

Bill Thorpe’s research in entomology centred on the evidence for ‘races’ in insects and led him to propose a role for learning in habitat selection, perhaps with implications for speciation. Here were grand and controversial themes, some of which have reappeared in much more recent work by others on habitat selection, and indeed they reappeared in his own later work on the role of learning in bird behaviour. There were travels in Africa during this period, and his extensive travelling for his research certainly belied his relative delicacy in childhood and adolescence. In adult life he was enthusiastic about both swimming and riding.

Thorpe had strong religious convictions that became particularly pertinent with the outbreak of the Second World War, when he registered as a conscientious objector and pursued war work on agricultural pests. In 1936 Thorpe had married Mary Vincent, herself an accomplished biologist, working at the Molteno Institute in Cambridge. Mary had come from a clergy family and supported Bill through family life and also, by Bill’s own admission, through his restless exploration of theological and philosophical issues.

The major source for information about Bill Thorpe’s career is inevitably the Royal Society Biographical Memoir of Thorpe written by Robert Hinde in 1987, the year after Thorpe’s death; much information in this sketch is taken from the Memoir. It is worth reminding those familiar with Robert Hinde’s own life history that Hinde flew bombers in the Second World War (and, late in his life, wrote an account of his experiences) but subsequently became eloquent in his objection to warfare. One feels that there might have been some fascinating conversations between the two men going beyond the crucial issues of animal behaviour; but perhaps they never happened, given Thorpe’s reticent and self-contained nature in personal relations rather than in public forums where he periodically explored the interrelationships between science and religion.

Robert Hinde’s detailed Biographical Memoir of Thorpe has to be definitive where the formation of what was to become Zoology’s Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour is concerned because, as Hinde recalls, the Sub-Department began as the Ornithological Field Station:

The station was established in 1950; a wire fence was erected around the site, and 60 aviaries, made partly from scrap left over from wartime beach defences, were purchased. For a year or two the total staff consisted of Bill Thorpe, myself [i.e.Hinde] and a technician, Gordon Dunnett: the only buildings were a disused blacksmith's shop and an abandoned Home Guard Nissen hut.



Bill Thorpe outside the Ornithological Field Station office in the 1950s. This was probably the first photograph of Bill taken at Madingley; the path to the right passes through a wicket gate into the gardens of Madingley Hall.

The formation of the Field Station, some miles outside Cambridge in the village of Madingley, was preceded by Thorpe’s post-war return to aspects of insect physiology (including plastron respiration) that he had initiated earlier. However, in the immediate post-war period Bill Thorpe had also maintained an active natural history and scientific interest in bird behaviour, partly stimulated by the work of Konrad Lorenz. Thorpe, who had supported Lorenz after the end of the Second World War both scientifically and personally, nearly succeeded in bringing Lorenz to Britain. However, although Thorpe was successful in getting an offer of a post for him, the German authorities retained Lorenz by offering a post with better facilities. Had it happened in later years, the attempt to bring Lorenz to Britain would hardly have been without controversy because of his well-documented embracing of German National Socialism, an involvement for which he subsequently expressed regret.

By the time of the formation of the Ornithological Field Station, James Gray had taken over as Professor of Zoology. At the inception the advisers included Gray, David Lack and Edward Armstrong (author of the New Naturalist volume on The Wren and a longstanding friend of Thorpe). Robert Hinde records that Gray’s initial, and vital, support became somewhat tempered because he (and Hans Lissmann with whom he was working) disagreed with Lorenz’s ideas as espoused by Thorpe. However, the Station prospered and eventually became the Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour.

It was at the Field Station/Sub-Department that Bill Thorpe carried out the work for which he is probably now best remembered. This is his detailed study of the acquisition of song in chaffinches, aimed at separating and clarifying the roles of ‘instinct’ and learning. (It eventually turned out, famously, to be a combination of both; not an unfamiliar biological outcome.) Eventually this work was broadened to other species and involved some familiar names in animal behaviour: Peter Marler, Fernando Nottebohm, Joan Stevenson (Joan Stevenson-Hinde) and Joan Hall-Craggs (who wrote Thorpe’s obituary, containing several period photographs, for the journal Ibis). Other aspects of ‘learning’ in general began to be explored, including the work on imprinting that was carried forwards by Pat Bateson. Some aspects of this work subsequently involved Gabriel Horn when he was Professor of Zoology, and he and his team contributed a neurophysiological dimension to the studies.

Bill Thorpe was (somewhat notoriously) a stickler for precise definitions in animal behaviour. Some of these definitions became rather wordy, but they doubtless contributed to tightening-up aspects in need of a bit more discipline. Robert Hinde recalls the Thorpe-Zangwill discussion group that Bill formed with Oliver Zangwill, the Professor of Psychology; a group dedicated to thrashing out some of the more refractory problems and a formative influence on some younger workers.

Robert Hinde in his Biographical Memoir of Bill Thorpe does a magnificent job of detailing Thorpe’s lifelong commitment to fusing his deep religious conviction and his penetrating knowledge of the natural world partly derived from observation, but also in no small part from experimental investigation. Whereas the religious conviction of, for example, R.A. Fisher (the most rigorous and analytical of persons) was a relatively quiet, personal matter (Fisher was a devout High Anglican, and this was regarded simply as an  eccentricity by his scientific colleagues), for Bill Thorpe it impelled him to very public and repeated rehearsals of his beliefs, usually in the form of a lecture series. Eventually, in 1945, he espoused Quaker principles and practice. When Jacque Monod published his existentialist Chance and Necessity (English version 1971), Thorpe replied with the book-length Purpose in a World of Chance in 1978. Coincidentally, both Thorpe and Monod were exceptionally fine musicians. It was a requirement for the design of Thorpe’s Cambridge house that it should accommodate his grand piano. Apparently Liszt was a favourite composer: not music for the faint-hearted.

One of the questions that Thorpe addressed throughout his life, and to which he brought the full battery of his experience in science, theology and philosophy, concerned ‘animal agency’; in other words, the extent to which animals can act to influence their own evolutionary trajectory, for example by habitat choice. When viewed with current eyes, especially in the light of progress in behavioural ecology, imprecisions and complications abound in this area. (How, in general, would Bill Thorpe have accommodated behavioural ecological thinking?) Gregory Radick, in a penetrating essay in the British Journal for the History of Science in 2017, deals in detail with the development of Thorpe’s ideas about agency and with the life events, both scientific and personal, that may have influenced him in this regard. Radick notes:

‘… a 1965 book by the Cambridge entomologist-turned-ethologist William H. Thorpe. Neither the book nor the man is especially well remembered. When he wrote it, Thorpe was in his early sixties, and already some way into that phase of a scientific career now derided as the ‘philosopause’. Science, Man and Morals put into permanent form lectures he had given in Oxford in 1963 ...’

Despite what might seem as rather dismissive of Thorpe as not ‘especially well remembered’ and as being, in 1965, some way into the ‘philopause’, Radick’s essay is by no means uncharitable to him. There is not the space in this sketch to include some of the fascinating aspects that Radick brings to light, and I would, in any case, be rehearsing only lamely what Radick does brilliantly. I encourage you to read the essay (the reference is at the end of this text). In evaluating the extent to which Bill Thorpe’s broader framework of ideas influenced his scientific work, it is important to bear in mind that Robert Hinde was both intrigued and impressed by the tough-minded attitude that Thorpe brought to the results of experiments: Bill Thorpe the scientist was a clear sighted and practised observer who recorded what he saw and not what he might have wanted to see.

Thorpe became Professor Thorpe only in 1966, having already been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1951. He had been a founding editor of the journal Behaviour, sat on several National Trust committees (he was Chair of the Wicken Fen Executive Committee from 1964-1973, and the current main building at the Fen is named in his honour), was involved in other conservation initiatives, and sat on the committees of an exhausting list of societies (including the Royal Society). At his undergraduate college, Jesus, he served as a Fellow from 1932 for the rest of his life and took several other roles, including that of Senior Tutor from 1945-47.

There is no doubt that Bill Thorpe was a thoroughgoing biologist of both breadth and depth; he was a pivotal figure in the development of Anglo-American study of animal behaviour; he was a tireless worker for conservation causes; and in contrast to those of us who allow the great questions of life to float past us unresolved, he contended with angels to the end of his days. Like Ludwig Wittgenstein, another personality familiar with intellectual struggle, who said ‘Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life’, Thorpe wrote, ‘All through I have had the extraordinary good fortune of being able to make my lifelong interest into my work and I have never for a moment wished for any other career than that which I have, with such great fortune, enjoyed’.


Main sources used for information about W.H. Thorpe and his work:

Hall-Craggs, J. (1987). OBITUARY William Homan Thorpe 1902-1986. Ibis 129: 564–569. doi:10.1111/j.1474-919X.1987.tb08244.x

Hinde, R.A. (1987). William Homan Thorpe. 1 April 1902-7 April 1986.  Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 33: 620-639. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1987.0022

Radick, G. (2017). Animal agency in the age of the Modern Synthesis: W.H. Thorpe’s example. British Journal for the History of Science: Themes 2: 35–56. doi:10.1017/bjt.2017.8


You can see the Thorpe house at 9 Wilberforce road in the photograph on the web site of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBApix):