Amgueddfa Blog: Natural History

At first glance, The Tomlin Archive helps us to explore the life of John Read le Brockton Tomlin (1864-1954), one of the most highly-respected shell collectors of his time. Alongside Tomlin's extensive shell collection, his correspondence archive holds documents he sent, received and collected, dating from the early 1800’s through to the mid 1900’s. They provide an in-depth look into Tomlin’s life, along with the lives of those he knew.

John Read le Brockton Tomlin (1864-1954)

One letter remains to me, a volunteer helping to record the archive, particularly poignant. The letter in question was written by Professor Dr. Phil Franz Alfred Schilder, a malacologist from Naumburg in Germany.

Schilder wrote the letter to Tomlin on July 11th, 1946. Within this letter, Schilder describes his anxieties surrounding his German heritage in a post-WW2 world, fearing ‘whether any Englishman ever will take notice of any German’ again, because of his nation’s ‘unbelievable barbarism’. Schilder further shares his assumption that Tomlin had been killed in the German bombings of the English South East Coast and Hastings, before it was revealed that the destruction of the English Coast had been falsely exaggerated by Nazi Germany’s official records. This helps us to understand a little more about what life was like for German citizens living in Nazi Germany during the War; Schilder felt very much a victim of Hitlerism, not just through being lied to by figures of authority, but a victim too in the tense and intolerant political and social climate Hitler created in Nazi Germany. Schilder, having a half-Jewish wife, describes their suffering under the Gestapo, living a constant struggle to prevent his wife from being taken to a concentration camp, and being treated himself as a ‘“suspicious subject”’ in Germany.

Schilder describes how he lost his job, Assistant Director of a Biological Institute, for ‘political reasons’ in 1942, and that he only regained his position once the War had ended. Once appointed Professor of Zoology at the University of Halle in November 1945, he delivered a course of lectures, but Schilder reveals how, in the bombings of Germany during the conflict, he lost all of his property. He also describes how his statistical paper on the development of Prosobranch Gastropods during geological times, was ‘destroyed by bomb shells at Frankfurt’. Losing all of his research and property seems, to Schilder, the end of Tomlin’s and his relationship: ‘I can hardly think to see you once more’, and he regretfully states he is sorry to be cut off from a country he spent many ‘fine holidays’ with ‘noble-minded scientific friends’ in.

Schilder can be seen sat on the left in this photograph, also part of the Tomlin Archive collection. ‘June 1932, on downs near Falmer’

This letter’s tone is overwhelmingly one of pain and loss. The Second World War was a truly catastrophic event that claimed millions of lives, and in this letter we are able to understand how the conflict ripped apart the lives of survivors too. It destroyed Schilder’s livelihood, years of pain-staking work, his career, and even many friendships he once had. This letter may first and foremost provide an insight into Schilder’s life, but it also tells us so much more about the unforgiving and intolerant social climate created by Hitler which still exists, in part, to this day, the vast number of victims that were affected, and the sheer scale of destruction and loss it had on so many lives.

 

Transcription of the letter dicussed from F. A. Schilder to J. R. le B. Tomlin:

Naumburg, Germany

July 11 th, 1946.

Dear Tomlin,

Several weeks ago, I wrote to Mr. Winckworth and to Mr. Blok, wondering whether any Englishman ever will take notice of any German, even if he knows that he was far more a victim of Hitlerism than responsible for the unbelievable barbarism of his nation. I did not write to yourself, because I could hardly think you still alive after the stories concerning the total destruction of the English South East coast by the German artillery across the Channel.

Now I learned from an extremely kind answer of Mr. Blok, that the destruction of Hastings was a lie as well as all the other official German records during the war, and that you are well at St. Leonards as before. I was very glad to learn that you are evidently staying in your fine home, in which I enjoyed your and Mrs Tomlin’s kind hospitality several times; and that you recovered from your long life’s first illness just now and visit the British Museum as before. I congratulate you to your recovering, and hope that your illness was not caused, though indirectly, by the events of the war.

I suppose that you know, from my letter to Mr. Winckworth, our personal fate during these last years - - the bloodstained harvest of “Kultur” (as Mr. Blok characterizes them in a very fine way), for a similar letter of mine to Mrs. van Benthem Jutting seems to circulate among my scientific friends in the Netherlands. As Mrs. Schilder is “halfcast jewish”, we had rather to suffer under the Gestapo, and I could hardly prevent her to be taken off into a concentration camp. But on the other side, by the same reason to be a “suspicious subject” I was not obliged to join the army, and possibly to be killed for a government which brought only mischief upon ourselves and upon many friends of ours both in Germany and abroad.

Now, since the American troops occupied Naumburg on my very birthday, last year, all danger both from the Allied Air Force-shells and from the Nazis is over, and we feel much more secure under the Soviet Government than we ever did under the German one during the last twelve years. I have become Assistant Director of our Biological Institute once more - - I had lost this position since 1942 by political reasons - -, and besides I was appointed honorary professor of zoology at the university of Halle, where I now deliver a course of lectures, since November 1945. But we have lost all our property, so that I can hardly think to see you once more, even if travelling to England would be permitted in future - - and I am really sorry to be cut off from a country, in which I spent so fine holidays among noble-minded scientific friends.

During the war, I published a lot of papers on Cypraeacea, even in Tripolis and in Stockholm, but the printing of a big statistical paper on the development of Prosobranch Gastropods during geological times was destroyed by bomb shells at Frankfurt. I wonder, when special scientific MSS. Will be printed again in Germany. I shall send you separate copies of all my papers as soon as such mails will be allowed.

I should be very glad to learn from yourself that you escaped the greatest catastrophe of the white race, and that you recovered fully from your recent illness.

Please tell my kind regards to Mrs. Tomlin.

Yours sincerely

F. A. Schilder

Continuing the international year of the periodic table of chemical elements, for August we have selected arsenic.

Preserving the Beasts – The Use of Arsenic in Taxidermy

The taxidermy animals are a much loved and visited part of displays at the Museum. The word ‘taxidermy’ itself comes from taxis ‘arrangement’ and derma ‘skin’, and is the art of mounting or replicating animal specimens in a lifelike way for display or study.

The development of the methods used to create taxidermy date back over three hundred years. Initially these didn’t preserve the prepared specimens very well, and the taxidermy mounts were usually lost to decay and insects.

Various attempts were made to improve preservation methods and these used a wide variety of materials such as herbs, spices and various salts, applied as powders, pastes and solutions. However these methods were not generally successful.

During the 1700s’ some taxidermists started to use more poisonous chemicals such as arsenic minerals or mercuric chloride to help preserve their taxidermy. Due to their toxic nature these treatments helped prevent decay and insect damage, greatly improving the long term preservation of the taxidermy.

The success of these chemicals soon led to the development of the ‘arsenical soap’ treatment to aid preservation of the animal skin. The soap was a mix of camphor, powdered arsenic, salt of tartar, bar soap and powder lime – I wouldn’t use this for washing yourself though! The soap enable the arsenic to be applied in a practical way by rubbing into the underside of a cleaned and prepared skin. This method proved very popular and remained in use up until as recently as the 1970s’.

The use of arsenic as part of the preservation treatment has since stopped. This is mainly because of its toxic nature and the associated risks to human health, but it is also due to better practices in the taxidermy techniques used today.

Inorganic arsenic (As) is a grey-appearing chemical element with the atomic number 33 on the atomic table. It is a metalloid meaning that it has both metallic and non-metallic properties. Its properties have long been used by humankind in a variety of ways such as a medicinal agent, a pigment and as a pesticide. Arsenic and its compounds are especially potent poisons and hence harmful to the environment and considered carcinogenic. Its toxicity to living things is due to the way it disrupts the function of enzymes involved in the energy cycle of living cells.

Does this then mean that our older taxidermy specimens containing arsenic are harmful in some way? Potentially yes if a specimen is damaged and the underside of the skin is exposed, but an intact specimen poses little risk provided sensible precautions are taken such as appropriate protective equipment when moving or conserving an affected specimens.

Besides, today most of the specimens we have on open display are preserved without the use of toxic chemicals, but such specimens are at greater risk of damage by insects. We thus monitor our collections to look out for the signs of insect infestation, and treat with safe and sustainable methods such as freezing if they occur.

But a good reason not to touch the specimens…..

If you visit the Snakes exhibition at National Museum Cardiff (open till 15 September), you will see a 16th century book from the Library collections.

 

This unusual book is known as Hortus Sanitatis (although it is also written as Ortus Sanitatis) which roughly translates to ‘The Garden of Health’ in Latin. It is an early example of a herbal, a book containing descriptions of plants, along with how to prepare and use them as medicinal remedies.

 

It started life in 1485 as a German ‘Herbarius’, also called the Gart der Gesundheit, before an extended version, translated into Latin, was published in 1491. Unlike the German version, the new Latin version didn't just focus on plants, but also included remedies involving animals, birds, fish and minerals.

 

Over the next 50 years the book was published in many more editions and languages. As well as new Latin and German editions, it was also translated into Dutch and English (although often in shortened versions). The English edition is called the Noble lyfe & natures of man, of bestes, serpentys, fowles & fisshes, and was produced around 1527. All these editions indicate just how popular this book was in the 15th and 16th centuries. Perhaps it saw so many reprints because unlike most herbals of the period, it covered more than just plants. But by the 1530s it was being replaced by the herbals of the 'German Fathers of Botany', Bock, Brunfels, and Fuchs.

 

Our copy of Hortus Sanitatis is one of the Latin editions published in Strasburg in 1517 by Reinhard Beck. The full title is Ortus sanitatis de herbis et plantis. De animalibus et reptilibus. De avibus et volatilibus. De piscibus et natatilibus. De lapidibus et in terre venis nascentibus. Urinis et earum speciebus.

 

It has no known author, as was common with herbals of this period, and is heavily illustrated. The illustrations, along with the purchase of the paper for printing, would have been the most expensive part of producing the book, and so were re-used from other works. Unusually for the period, many of the woodcuts are coloured.

 

Our copy of this book is from the Willoughby Gardner Library, but also has a bookplate identifying it as part of the former collection of Charles Butler. Charles Butler, Esq. [1821-1910] was an English politician and collector. He held a very extensive and valuable library at Warren Wood, Hatfield, which was sold off at Sotheby’s in 1911.

 

It’s most likely that Willoughby Gardner purchased the book from that sale, either directly or indirectly from a rare books seller. He regularly purchased books from famous libraries, and so would have been well aware of such a significant auction.

 

The title page of the book also gives us a clue to a much earlier owner. Written in ink are the words ‘Monasterii Montis S. Georgii 1659’, indicating that it might have formerly been in the possession of a monastery in Austria.

 

The monastery of St. Georgenberg was founded on the site of a hermitage, near Stans, and held an extensive library. In the 17th century the abbot decided to reorganise it and give the books new marks of ownership, written on the first and last folios, and usually dated (most often in 1652, 1659, and 1661).

 

In 1850 the monastery sold a number of books from their library in order to raise money, and many of them have since ended up in public collections in the UK. It is quite likely that Charles Butler acquired Hortus Sanitatis from that sale.

 

 

Further reading;

Anderson, Frank J. An illustrated history of the herbals. New York, Columbia University Press, 1977

Arber, Agnes. Herbals: their origin and evolution, 3rd edition. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986

Hi all, I’m Pip Diment from the Exhibitions team, and I'm one of a group of staff volunteering to care for the six live snakes we are housing as part of the 'Snakes’ exhibition at National Museum Cardiff.

Our exhibition is now open and runs to 15 September 2019. I was part of the team who cared for the snakes for the second two weeks of the exhibition run. We were trained by Guy Tansley from Bugsnstuff and he showed a group of us volunteers how to check on the snakes safely and provide basic care.

Guy Tansley from Bugsnstuff.

We are not required to feed the snakes – we have Dr Rhys Jones generously helping us with that. Our tasks are to change the water daily, remove any poo, ureic acid crystals (wee!) and calcium plugs, also to remove any shed skin and to check the snakes are not too cold or hot and that they are ok. These checks are all done daily by a team of two or three volunteers.

Some of our volunteer snake care team.

On my first day volunteering I worked with Melissa Hinkin (from Artes Mundi, who is a snake enthusiast) and Vic le Poidevin (from our Events team). There was great excitement the first morning as Prestwick, the Jungle Carpet Python had shed her skin and had an enormous poo!  She’s a fairly large snake so it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was huge! Like a large dogs! The skin itself came off in two parts and is now being used as part of the handling collections (not too much handling as it is fragile!). Underneath all that shed skin Prestwick has now emerged even more beautiful with her skin a stunning irridescent effect. And this was still only day one.

On day two I worked with Christian Baars (from Conservation) and Robin Maggs (from Photography). Once again, much excitement as Keith, the Royal Python, shed his skin overnight. Much smaller poo – smaller snake, so made sense! He also looked much more beautiful after shedding his skin.

Days three and four were not as eventful – only water changing and general checks required. Everyone seems very healthy and happy, and we are following their care instructions meticulously to ensure they stay that way. 

I admit I have an unhealthy interest in snake poo – and for the end of my first week we’ve had another poo! This time, again, from Keith. I am not the only one now excited by snake poos – see Robin and Christian admiring Keith’s offering (look closely it has substrate on it which makes it looks like it has eyes!)

I’m so glad I agreed to volunteer. I’ve held snakes before, but never spent so much time with them. I love that they all have great names and their own characters:

Prestwick, Jungle Carpet Python (Morelia spilota cheynei), female, approx. 10ft

 

Keith, Royal python (Python regius), male, approx. 3.5ft.

 

Mela, Boa constrictor (Boa constrictor), male, approx. 6ft

 

Kibblesworth, Hog nose (Heterodon nasicus), female, approx. 2ft

 

Carlos, Milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum campbelli), male, approx. 3.5ft

 

Seren, Corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus), female, approx. 4.5ft

Thanks for reading. You can read some of our other snake blogs here, here and here.

The exhibition runs till 15 September 2019, entry charges do apply, and all your contributions go towards bringing you even bigger and better exhibitions in the future.

Please note that there is no live handling of the snakes within the exhibition. In August we’ll be having snake handling sessions for the public – see here for details of booking.

Also, make sure you come and visit us this saturday (10 August) for our Venom Open Day!

Our summer exhibition, Snakes! gives us a sneak peek into the secretive and captivating life of the snakes of the world. We are posting a series of snake blogs over the summer to share some of our snake related stories.

At the back of our Snakes gallery we have made a map of the snakes of the world. Here you can find out which are the longest, the fastest, even the one that has the longest fangs! And this is where you'll find a picture of rarest snake in the world – the Saint Lucia racer.

Unbelievably, there are fewer than 20 individuals of this relatively small, non-venomous snake left in the world. And they are all confined to a tiny, nine-hectare islet off the mainland of the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI), is an international conservation charity dedicated to protecting our planet’s threatened wildlife and habitats. In partnership with Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and national agencies, FFI is working to bring back these snakes from the brink of extinction.

This species was once the second most common snake on Saint Lucia. So what happened?

In the 19th century small Asian mongooses were introduced to the island. They found the ground dwelling racers easy prey, and their population plummeted to the point that they were thought to be extinct. So now an emergency project has been set up to protect the remaining racers and spread the word about their importance.

But with such low numbers, can they really be brought back?

The answer is a resounding yes! Until fairly recently, the world’s rarest snake was considered to be the Antiguan racer, another Caribbean snake species found only on a handful of offshore islands in Antigua and Barbuda. In 1995, only 50 individuals remained, but thanks to the help of FFI and other national and international organisations, they are making a comeback. Their numbers have increased 22 fold in that time, with numbers now exceeding 1,100 individuals. So there is still hope.

How did they do it? They have focused a lot of work on eradicating the harmful invasive species – particularly ship rats – that have been introduced to the islands and introduced strict controls to help protect these sensitive ecosystems.

Snakes are often maligned and misunderstood, so they have also focused on changing attitudes and raising awareness. This has been so successful that many Antiguans and Barbudans have become enthusiastic advocates of their unique snake and its unique island ecosystem.

So, the hope is that by protecting the remaining Saint Lucia racers, and the tiny islet they live on, their populations will begin to stabilise and grow. It is so inspiring to hear a positive conservation story. I wish them all the luck in the world.

If you are interested in finding out more about snakes – come down to our exhibition! It is on until 15 September. For more details check out our What’s On page.

You can find out more about Saint Lucia racers and the work of FFI here, here and here.

You can find out more about Antiguan racers and the work of FFI here.

You can find out more about FFI here.

You can find out more about Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust here.

You can read our read our previous blogs here and here.