Notes in the collections tell natural stories | Curator of Micropalaeontology

Earlier in the summer I tweeted a picture of a microfossil slide I made in 1997. On the back I had written that it was made while I was listening to England bowl Australia out for 118 in a cricket test match at Edgbaston, Birmingham.

slide with cricket annotation
A microfossil slide with a cricket-related annotation on the back.

The slide got me thinking about more important hidden notes I have found recently that relate to historical events and provide a context to the microfossil collection. This post examines evidence of a collector’s escape from a disintegrating ice floe, attempts to cover-up a major disagreement between two scientists and the sad end for a laboratory that led to my first job as a curator.

Climate change scientists rescued from an ice flow

This newspaper article was found in a box of microfossil residues by my PhD student Marina Rillo while she was working on the Ocean Bottom Sediment Collection at our outstation in Wandsworth.

Newspaper article describing rescue from ice
Part of the newspaper article found with a collection made from an Arctic ice floe.

Scientists rescued from Ice flow. New York, Thursday. 16 scientists were rescued by plane tonight from a crumbling Arctic ice flow 500 miles north of Alaska…….

Before leaving, the scientists feverishly crated their scientific equipment into trucks in the hope that this could be included in the airlift. But this proved impossible. Within a few hours the 5,000ft runway had been reduced to 4,000ft and air force staff still had to be evacuated…..

The valuable equipment may still be lost – which would be an exact repetition of an incident of November 1958 when a floe known as Alpha One, with a similar research station, suddenly disintegrated. The present site – Alpha 2 – was selected because it was thought to be safer.

Three bottle of sediment from an Arctic Ice Floe
Sediment collected by Dr D. Ericsson from Arctic Ice floe Alpha 2 in 1960 before the ice broke up.

Despite having to leave his equipment behind Dr D Ericson, one of the scientists on the expedition, had managed to rescue some research samples from Alpha 2. Three residue bottles marked ‘From drifting Ice Island Alpha 2’ now reside with the small newspaper cutting and are being studied by PhD student Marina as part of her work on the evolution of planktonic foraminifera.

Article with paper obscuring an uncomplimentary note
Title page from a 1933 paper by Arthur Earland that has a piece of paper pasted over a less than complimentary note from Edward Heron-Allen.

Heron-Allen’s message about Earland – evidence of their major disagreement

Edward Heron-Allen (1861-1943) and Arthur Earland (1866-1958) collaborated for over 25 years in the study of the Foraminifera and even exchanged microfossil Christmas card slides. In the early 1930s their collaboration ended suddenly.

The Heron-Allen Microfossil Library at the Museum contains a copy of a 1933 publication by Arthur Earland with a double sheet of paper pasted over a note on the title page. The contents of the note suggests that it was Arthur Earland who had tried to hide it and provides direct evidence for one of the reasons for their falling out.

I had my name removed from the titles of this paper, when, on my return from Ceylon in 1933 I found that Earland had claimed all my work upon it as his own, and that, not having knowledge of the German language, he had ignored Hans Wiesner’s report on the ‘Sud-Polar Expedition’ (1919) in which (in my own opinion) most of his new genera and species are described and figured.

Edward Heron-Allen 1934

BP Laboratory notes mark cuts resulting from low oil prices in the early 1990s

BP lab notebook annotationThe final entry in a British Petroleum Microfossil Lab notebook before the lab was closed in 1992.

In 1992 BP closed its micropalaeontology laboratory at its offices in Sunbury on Thames. They donated the BP microfossil collection and associated documentation to the Museum and provided funds to ensure its proper curation. This sad note was written by the last laboratory workers shortly after the last samples were processed and picked under the microscope.

At that time I was writing up my PhD and worrying about my job prospects. Over a year after my PhD grant money ran out I came to London to volunteer at the Museum to gain experience. Shortly afterwards, an opportunity arose for me to take on the temporary BP funded contract to curate the Former BP Microfossil Collection and I held that position for almost 6 years.

I have picked out a few, sometimes personal, examples of documentation that provide context to our collections with historical information. Very occasionally we get asked to return material from our collection so information relating to the acquisition of collections is particularly important. The Heron-Allen Micropalaeontology Library and the Museum Library and Archives are crammed full of important associated historical information and are consulted regularly by historians and scientists.