Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Everyone I have ever met has, at some point in our conversations, told me that they wished they could work in a natural history museum. I am one of the rare lucky people in the world because I have worked as a research scientist in a natural history museum, so I can tell you that there is a book out there that brilliantly captures what this experience is like: Richard Fortey’s Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum (NYC: Alfred A. Knopf; 2008).

This is a charming and affectionate tour through the the inner workings and politics of London’s Natural History Museum by paleontologist and trilobite expert Richard Fortey. This book is an amusing and engaging natural history of .. well, London’s Natural History Museum; its scientists and curators, collections, exhibits and its history. And Fortey is the reader’s tour guide through the maze of dusty corridors and rooms.

The book gets its name, The Dry Store Room, from a basement area that houses a jumble of miscellaneous items such as old exhibits and desiccated specimens; a giant sunfish with a “silly little mouth out of proportion to its fat body”, shells of giant tortoises, boxes of human bones. “It was rumoured that it was also the site of trysts,” Fortey writes casually, “though love in the shadow of the sunfish must have been needy rather than romantic.”

Specimens are what natural history museums are all about, so the author takes you behind the scenes to show you cabinet drawers filled with pinned insects or stuffed bird skins; jars of alcohol containing preserved reptiles or fishes; complete plants from their flowers to roots squashed flat between pieces of paper; boxes containing countless teeth and bones. Then, from these dusty centuries-old collections, he takes you into ultra-modern sparkling laboratories with DNA sequencers and computers where scientists (such as I) work on reconstructing evolutionary trees for their research organisms.

Even though the museum houses many famous and fascinating specimens, it is the museum’s community that is the most fascinating of all. Fortey reveals odd anecdotes about some of the museum’s most interesting individuals such as the anchovy expert, Peter Whitehead, who, despite being an egomaniac and “thin as a lath, with sharply defined bags under his eyes”, was mysteriously attractive to women — a character that he frequently indulged. Even more peculiar was the curator of botany, Herbert Wernham, who had a penchant for collecting unusual mementoes from his many paramours: he maintained an alphabetical series of index cards with a small sprig of each girl’s pubic hairs affixed.

But some of the museum’s community were not as benign, most notably, the enigmatic Richard Meinertzhagen. He was a soldier, pilot, spy and ornithologist whose exploits were the inspiration for the famous James Bond — “Agent 007″. Meinertzhagen was honored by having a room named after him in the BM — the British Museum, as it was then known. But it has since been documented that Meinertzhagen stole hundreds of bird preserved specimens from the BM and other museums so he could fraudulently relabel them with his own name as collector and later donate them back to the museum [read more about Meinertzhagen here].

In this book, Fortey also indulges himself in a typical grad student amusement: identifying which scientist most resembles his or her research organism. Grad students from time immemorial no doubt, have noticed that some scientists actually begin to physically resemble their study organisms, and Fortey pontificates upon this also. He specifically mentions the small-mammals man with the twitchy, vole-like manner; the bee man who wears furry jumpers (sweaters); the butterfly man who is fond of brightly colored paisley waistcoats, and even the author claims that he has come to resemble a trilobite over the years.

Speaking of devotion to their research, Fortey also writes amusingly (but accurately) of the hidden culture of scientific research;

There is a persuasion I have come across among the scientists and curators that the right way to die is slumped in front of the microscope at an extremely old age. In the right hand the quill pen will just have scratched out the last species description of a huge and complex group of organisms. The old boy or girl will have a vague smile upon that wrinkled but deeply distinguished face: a job well done. Then another curator should come along and incorporate him or her into the collections, another fine specimen of Homo taxonomicus. Or maybe deposit his cadaver in the demestarium to be stripped down by the beetles. [ … ] The duty towards discovery is not something that can be lightly cast aside. These people feel it at a very profound level, and it is not connected to financial reward, and only accasionally to public recognition. Their motivation is an unquenchable instinct to find things out and to make these discoveries known to others. Their duty is towards an inventory of the biosphere, which now needs their services more than ever before. It is probably one of the better manifestations of what it is to be human. (pp. 290-291)

I also harbor this desire and find it deeply distressing that I will not fulfill what I think of as my true final destiny.

This entertaining book is 314 pages long, and includes a section at the back with references for many of the publications mentioned in the text, along with a user-friendly index that fills eleven pages for the proper names of both people and specimens. The book also has roughly 100 black and white images (but no graphs or other scary science pictures) peppered throughout its pages and even has a special 14-page insert of color plates in the middle of the book.

This charming book was so fun to read, and I truly appreciated the author’s dry wit and careful observations and his ability to bring London’s natural history museum to life. However, it is possible that I am slightly biased: Reading this book reminded me of “my” museum, the American Museum of Natural History, where I worked as a postdoctoral fellow for two years — these were unquestionably the best years of my entire life. Nevertheless, I think that most people will agree with me that Fortey’s book is a fascinating look at the history and life of the museum and its community, and is a must-read for anyone who wishes to become a biologist, who wonders what happens behind the scenes in a natural history museum, or who wants to learn more about scientists and their relationships with each other and with their work. Highly recommended.

Richard Fortey was a senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London until he retired in 2006. His previous books include the critically acclaimed Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth, short-listed for the Rhône-Poulenc Prize in 1998; Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution, short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2001; and The Hidden Landscape: A Journey into the Geological Past, which won the Natural World Book of the Year in 1993. Fortey was Collier Professor in the Public Understanding of Science and Technology at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Bristol in 2002. In 2003, he won the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing About Science from Rockefeller University. He has been a Fellow of the Royal Society since 1997.

Comments

  1. #1 Mo Hassan
    December 5, 2008

    Excellent review of an excellent book! I too recommend it, as an employee and student of the NHM; it has taught me more about the place than walking around it aimlessly!

  2. #2 Horwood Beer-Master
    December 6, 2008

    From looking this guy Richard Fortey up on google, it appears he’s done some work in the past with Phil Lane, one of my old lecturers from Keele (and, like Fortey, a trilobite expert). I remember Prof Lane quite fondly, he used to come across as quite hostile to us little undergrads, but I always had the strong suspicion that this attitude was just an act he put on to amuse himself.

    I’ll have to add that ‘slumped in front of the microscope’ thing to my list of ‘fantasy ways to die which don’t stand a chance of happening’, alongside such things as being in an interstellar spaceship caught up in the blastfront of a supernova, and many others.

    By the way, it seems that a museum is not the only place you can find desiccated specimens stored. It would appear that some people prefer to keep such specimens at home.
    Each to their own I guess!

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