Story Books

I never thought I was one for the history of science. I always rejected the collegiate system here in Cambridge and that repulsion I cultivated for the smell of ageing privilege dampened my desire to revel in the deep historical legacy of this city. But just as travelling has increased my appetite for Paul Theroux’s books, so working as a scientist has instilled in me a gradually increasing curiosity in the ways biologists talked, hung out and dealt with each other in the past.

Some time last year I was in the beautiful Balfour Library in Cambridge’s Zoology department and I fell in love with a book. In two volumes, Albert A Gray had painstakingly dissected out the inner ears of a huge range of reptiles, mammals and birds, carefully dried and fixed them, suspended them in front of a specially constructed camera and taken 3D stereoscopic images of them.

You can order the text of “The Labyrinth of Animals” easily enough, but the copy I had available to me was something else. The printing was perfect, the binding solid, and the photographs extraordinary. As well as this, the back cover of the first volume contained a thin pocket which contained the angled lenses you need to be able to see the stereoscopic images: they’re 3D glasses from 1908. Now I’m ever so slightly cross eyed, which means that the usual stereoscopic images published in journals (and magic eye pictures) are a complete mystery to me, but thanks to these rather nifty little specs, I can see the anatomies perfectly.

Gray's rather nifty 3D specs
Gray’s rather nifty 3D specs

The work itself is a masterpiece in microanatomical analysis. I rely on microCT scans of skulls and filling in the space left by the inner ear on computers to get to the ‘labyrinth’. The way Gray was able to extract the inner ears (which don’t have any hard parts) is incredibly impressive in itself, without even considering the excellent science he wrote to accompany the images.

One of Gray's 3D Labyrinths (they look a lot better in real life)
One of Gray’s 3D Labyrinths (they look a lot better in real life)

Gray’s tome spent a lot of last year on my desk and it was during this time that I became curious about the folded pieces of paper inside the front covers of both volumes. Some previous librarian had decided to stick an accession number over the edges of both, so I couldn’t open them. But, with the help of zoology’s premier librarian Clair Castle, we – terribly slowly – extracted the stickers.

And therein lay early twentieth century etiquette, albeit in an extraordinarily difficult to decipher script.

The first letter, under an embossed letterhead of “14 Newton Terrace, Glasgow” read:

Dear Dr. Lister,

You may remember that I promised to send you a copy of my paper, in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, on the labyrinth of certain animals.

Shortly after that time I decided to publish the work in book form and instead of sending you the paper I decided to send you a copy of the book. There has been some delay in setting the book out but at last it is [done] and I now send you a copy which I hope you will accept, along with my sincere thanks for the trouble you took over my paper for the Royal Society.

With kind regards,

I remain,

Yours very sincerely,

Albert A. Gray.

PS. The second volume will not be out for six or eight months yet. I will send you a copy when published.

Lister was at Cambridge as an anatomist which explains why we had his copy in the library, and in 1900 had become a member of the Royal Society, which goes some way to explaining why Gray was thanking him by sending a package which must have been quite a sum to send. But the manners! I’d read some selected letters of Charles Darwin the year before and had found then that the way in which scientists talked to each other by post put any of my emoticon riddled emails to shame. I don’t think I’d be taken too seriously if the next time I punched out a letter on my Remington Ten Forty I signed off “I remain…”. Although I think I’ll try.

Clair and I extracted the second volume’s sticker and found more:

Dear Professor Lister,

I have much pleasure in forwarding to you by parcel post the second volume the “Labyrinth of Animals.” I am very sorry that it is so long in appearing, but I had much trouble with the photographers and have only just [?finished] the book now.

One of the features which has appeared most interesting to myself in the work in the second volume is the solution of the problem as to the manner of the bulging in the floor of the scala tympani which is found in so many mammals and which is constantly referred to in the final volume. The explanation of its existence is this: it is really the [vestige] of the perilymph [can’t read one word] which is found in reptiles and, in the case of birds, becomes developed into large oval cavity.

It is very sad to learn about the difficulties of our old master Landerson and am glad that a subscription is being raised for him. It must, moreover, be a final satisfaction to him to find that his son is doing so well as an architect.

I remain,

Yours very sincerely,

Albert A. Gray.

I couldn’t track “Landerson” down on the Cambridge Alumni Database, even though Lister had been at St. Johns in 1875. Perhaps I read Gray’s handwriting wrong. But the tone of the letter, the downright pally-ness of it, means Albert and the newly ‘Professor’ Lister must have set up a correspondence after time apart as students and got on rather well.

It’s a shame so many of my colleagues never visit the library. As everyone’s research can be conducted on search engines in their office (which, of course, is wonderful) the personalities of the scientists who conducted the research is getting a little forgotten. Yes, I know that it’s the work they did that’s their legacy, but I also know that when I leave here it’s going to be the endless chats in the tea room, whisky soaked film nights and not-so-hour-long happy hours that I’m going to recall most vividly – not the analyses I performed in my office.

So, to any librarians out there, please don’t cover up letters from the authors in books they presented as presents to their friends. They’re what make people who just happen to have been scientists still seem like people over a hundred years after they seal the envelope.

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