The mystery of the microfossil Christmas cards | Curator of Micropaleontology

At this time of year our famous microfossil Christmas card slides always get a lot of attention. An article in Smithsonian Magazine this week followed a very popular Tweet in early December and perhaps the most famous of the slides is about to be displayed in Museum’s Touring Treasures exhibition in Bahrain in early 2019.

Christmas card slide
Arthur Earland foraminiferal Christmas card slide sent to Edward Heron-Allen in 1921.

This year, three additional Christmas greeting slides were added to our collection as part of an exceptionally generous donation by the Quekett Microscopical Club. They returned Arthur Earland’s foraminiferal collection to its place alongside long term collaborator Edward Heron-Allen’s collection at the Museum by purchasing the collection from the estate of Brian Davidson and donating it to the Museum.

Read on to find out why most of this new acquisition can be considered upside-down, contains more evidence of the two scientists falling out and the mystery of the three “new” Christmas greeting slides.

Edward Heron-Allen (1861-1943) and Arthur Earland (1866-1958) were long time collaborators in the study of the Foraminifera, a unicellular organism that mostly builds microscopic shells of calcium carbonate or by gathering tiny grains of sediment. They worked together on many projects but most famously published the Foraminifera from the Discovery voyage that was Scott’s ill fated trip to the Antarctic. They had a base at what was then the British Museum (Natural History) but were not officially employed.

Heron-Allen and Earland
Edward Heron-Allen and Arthur Earland

Each Christmas they would exchange greetings by meticulously arranging Foraminifera on microscope slides. However, their relationship deteriorated in the early 1930s until they were no longer on speaking terms. It is thought this happened for several reasons including, ill health, scientific jealously, arguments over a publication and a mystery woman. At Christmas 2012, an article appeared in the Independent entitled “Shell loving scientists torn apart by a mystery woman

Thanks to research published by The Heron-Allen Society by former Head of Micropaleontology at the Museum, Dr John Whittaker, we now know that the woman was Helène Bargmann. The generous donation of Earland’s collection by the Quekett Microscopical Club this year has also provided some interesting insights into the relationship between these  scientists.

The mystery of the “new” Christmas slides

Three Christmas greeting slides that arrived with Arthur Earland’s collection are dated 1931, 1932 and 1936 and are addressed “to C. T. from A. E”. Given that his relationship with Heron-Allen had deteriorated by then, were they intended for Heron-Allen but never given?

Three Christmas greeting slides made by Arthur Earland for “C. T.” in 1931, 1932 and 1936 that are part of his personal collection that was donated to the Museum by the Quekett Microscopical Club this year.

This seems unlikely as earlier slides reference their nicknames; Heron-Allen called Earland “Eugene” and Earland called Heron-Allen “Ned”. Others simply say “to EHA”. C. T does not correspond to the initials of the mystery woman Helène Bargmann either. Could this be another person altogether, perhaps the amateur Geologist C. T. Trechmann who had worked extensively on the geology of the West Indies at around that time?

Heron-Allen’s name scored out

Some of the slides in Earland’s Collection have Heron-Allen’s name scored out, perhaps in anger by Earland after the break up of their relationship or simply to delimit Earland’s collection from Heron Allen’s? It’s also interesting that Earland’s Collection does not contain any Christmas greeting slides made for Earland by Heron-Allen. Does this mean that they didn’t exchange Christmas greeting slides or did Earland dispose of slides made for him by Heron-Allen?

Heron-Allen crossed out
Four slides in the Earland Collection where Heron-Allen’s name has either been cut out (left) or scored through (right).

Upside down slides

Earland had a interesting method for mounting and storing his collection. Usually specimens are glued onto cavities made in cardboard slides and a glass cover slip held on top to protect the specimens. Instead Earland stored his slides upside down with no coverslip and details of their identification/collection written on the upper side that is considered the back of most slides.

This provides some interesting information about the long term mounting of specimens as they continue to be well attached despite being stored upside down. There is still a lot to learn about this important new acquisition to our collections and certainly there are more microscopic gems to uncover.

Upside down slides
Four Earland collection slides: Left – as they are stored with the details upwards, Right – the same slides turned over showing the cavity where the specimens are glued.

We’d like to thank the Quekett Microscopical Club for re-uniting these two collections. We plan to work alongside them to digitise the entire Heron-Allen and Earland collection to release more information about this historically and scientifically significant set of collections.

Earland and Heron-Allen collections
Arthur Earland’s Collection (cabinets above) re-united with Heron-Allen’s collection (part shown below).

Hopefully we can publicise further stories from Earland’s Collection via this blog. Until then, I wish all Museum blog readers a very merry Christmas and a happy new year!