Obituary: Maurice Burton
Wednesday 23 September 1992
ONE MORNING in 1948, having travelled up to London in search of a job, I called in at the British Museum (Natural History) to see if there might be an opening there. I was speedily handed on by the Secretary to the Keeper of Zoology and then conducted through the building to Dr Maurice Burton, who immediately downed tools and gave me a whole two hours of his time.
That relaxed generosity with time, I was to learn, was Burton's most abiding characteristic. Though he accomplished a prodigious amount of scientific work and writing, and carried administrative responsibilities besides as a Deputy Keeper of the department, he always seemed to have time to spare. A substantial number of young zoologists entered the museum in the years just after the war, and any one of us who took a problem or a grouse to Burton could be sure of a leisurely and avuncular discussion over a cigarette on the roof of the New Spirit Building or on the colonnade outside.
Burton read Zoology at London University under Arthur Dendy who had worked out the sponges collected by the Challenger deep-sea expedition. After a three-year stint of schoolteaching he moved on to take charge of the sponge collections at the museum from 1927 until 1958. He, in turn, was able to pass on his expertise to the young lady who arrived as his assistant and succeeded him on his retirement. The breaking of such chains of generation-to-generation training is one of the most worrying consequences of the present cutbacks on senior scientific staffs and will be a grave handicap to future young scientists who, in more enlightened times, will have to recommence from scratch without the guidance of more experienced mentors.
Taxonomy is an arduous discipline which requires consistent accuracy during long sequences of frankly boring routine observations, counts and measurements. This is particularly so in the case of sponges in which, more often than not, the species can only he distinguished by the characteristics of the microscopic spicules of silica or lime formed in their body tissues. Burton published a substantial corpus of work on this group, but decided quite early on in his career that he needed to keep a grip on his wider zoological interests in order to maintain his sanity. Thus, while most scientists tend to learn more and more about less and less, Burton's popular writings on natural history, first undertaken as a form of autotherapy, resulted in his becoming one of the most widely informed general zoologists of his day. He was responsible on the one hand for such huge encyclopaedic works as The Story of Animal Life (1949), Purnell's Encyclopaedia of Animal Life (1968-70) and English versions of several Larousse encyclopaedias, and on the other for some three dozen books on a variety of animal topics.
Burton kept a substantial menagerie in the grounds of his large country home at Albury, in Surrey, and, like the Victorian Frank Buckland, delighted in the discovery of bizarre pieces of behaviour in commonplace animals. Visitors to his house will remember the dissolute pet crow which danced uproariously when presented with a lighted cigarette or a handful of burning straw, observations which led to publications on bird-anting and the origin of the Phoenix legend. Another discovery which greatly delighted him was the fact that the pictures in medieval bestiaries showing hedgehogs anointing themselves with their own saliva, or impaling apples upon their spines were based upon real observations and not mere legend.
Growing up in such an ambience it is hardly surprising that Burton's two sons and his daughter chose the same profession and, first as co-authors and illustrator with their father, later alone, made their own contributions to the best of popular scientific writing.
Burton also contributed regular features on natural history to the Illustrated London News and to the Daily Telegraph. Sometimes these were reflections on his own observations or informed discussions of correspondence. Sometimes they were the fruits of conversations with museum colleagues which had been craftily steered in convenient directions.
Some of the old school sniffed at his 'popular' writing, as they sniffed at William Beebe and Peter Scott; they did not realise that Burton had not only made zoological science with the best of them: he had also opened up vistas to countless interested laymen, amateur naturalists and a new generation of budding professional zoologists. Though cruelly plagued by ill-health in his last years he outlived most of his professional contemporaries and will be remembered with pleasure and affection by those who survive.
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