Albert Günther: the "greatest ichthyologist" of his age

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In February, I introduced a Sun Catfish (Horabagrus brachysoma) into my tank. Since then, he's probably grown about three-quarters of an inch in length. The species is a member of the the catfish family Bagridae, a widely distributed and speciose (some 30 genera, 210 species) taxon. Bagrids have four pairs of well-developed barbels surrounding their mouth and adipose fins of variable size. While scale-less, they are protected by a spine in front of their dorsal and pectoral fins. "Sun catfish" is an aquarist name; to scientists the species is commonly known as Günther's catfish after Albert Günther (1830 - 1914) who first described the species in 1864*. Below the fold, I want to talk a little about Günther himself.

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Albert Carl Ludwig Gotthilf Günther (1830 - 1914) was born in Esslingen, Germany, the son of a lawyer who died when Albert was six. In 1847 Günther entered the Höheres Evangelisches-Theologisches Stift (University of Tübingen) to study for the Lutheran ministry. Graduation in 1851 was rapidly followed by a doctorate awarded for a thesis on the fishes of the River Neckar (1853), and an eventual medical degree in 1857. While studying medicine, he continued his zoological research with work on his first publication, Handbuch der Medicinischen Zoologie.

In 1855, Günther visited London and met both the famed anatomist Richard Owen, and John Gray, the Keeper of Zoology at the British Museum. The latter offered him a job cataloging the museum's snake specimens upon his graduation with his medical degree. This, in turn, lead to him being charged with cataloging the fish collections, a task that would eventually result in his eight-volume Catalogue of Fishes (1859 - 1870). This work examined some 30,000 specimens and described 6,843 species (along with 1,682 doubtful species), and resulted in Alfred Newton describing Günther as 'immeasurably the greatest ichthyologist of the age'. Indeed, the American icthyologist David Starr Jordan would describe the Catalogue as the 'foundation of modern ichthyology'

In 1875, Günther succeeded Gray as the Keeper of Zoology and thus oversaw the relocation of the collections to a new building in South Kensington in 1883. By the time of his retirement in 1895, the collections at the musuem had doubled, the number of staff had increased, and greater amounts of time were being spent on the educational function of the museum. All of these changes were directly due to Günther's leadership.

Günther never endorsed the theory of evolution. Perhaps because of his grounding in German idealism, and his religious upbringing, he saw the purpose of zoology to be the definition of species, and did not believe that theory had a place in zoological investigation. Despite this, Darwin acknowledged that parts of his Descent of Man owed much to Günther's work and he greatly influenced Wallace's work on the geographical distribution of animals.

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* Günther, A. (1864) Catalogue of the fishes in the British Museum: Catalogue of the Physostomi, containing the families Siluridae, Characinidae, Haplochitonidae, Sternoptychidae, Scopelidae, Stomiatidae in the collection of the British Museum. 455pp. London.

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By John Lynch (not verified) on 24 Apr 2006 #permalink