Obituary: Professor Sir Vincent Wigglesworth
Wednesday 16 February 1994
VINCENT WIGGLESWORTH was one of the world's outstanding biologists. The descriptive study of insects is a science with a long history, but Wigglesworth created a new science - the study of their physiology.
He was born in 1899 and entered Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, in 1922, intending to follow a family tradition in medicine, and qualifying at St Thomas's after serving in France in the First World War. But a studentship allowed him to do research in Cambridge and Professor FG Hopkins, whom he greatly admired, suggested he investigate excretion in the cockroach. This introduced him to the insect as a vehicle for research.
The critical step in his career came in 1926, when PA Buxton saw that progress in medical entomology required knowledge of insect mechanism, and appointed Wigglesworth to a new lectureship in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. From then on he produced over 300 papers, the last, only a year before his death, presented (on videotape) to the International Congress of Entomology in Peking to respond to the award of their gold medal.
From 1926 Wigglesworth investigated the major systems of a range of medically important insects and in 1934 produced a small book, Insect Physiology, which is still a classic student text. It was followed by the comprehensive Principles of Insect Physiology (1939), which he updated through seven editions. This became the bible of every worker in the field, and he delighted in replying to questions, 'You'll find it in the book.'
In 1945 he moved to Cambridge as Reader in Insect Physiology, taking with him the staff of the small Agricultural Research Council Unit of Insect Physiology which he started in the London School in 1943, and in 1952 he was elected to the Quick Chair of Biology: a title which the New Yorker thought appropriate to his unending stream of publications. He held the chair until his official retirement in 1967, and attracted a stream of research students from all over the world. Almost every insect physiologist of note of that generation served their studentship on the top floor of the Cambridge Zoology Department.
It was a tough apprenticeship. You were given your problem and expected to get on with it. 'VBW' - as he was known to his family as well as to colleagues - was jealous of his time in almost every respect except one: if you wanted to discuss anything about your research, you had his instant attention. But he never interfered in any way with the discretion of his staff: he may have disapproved of the way they worked, but all that mattered was that they produced good research.
Although he published significant texts on almost every aspect of insect mechanism and confessed that he had chosen to do so methodically at first, in order that his book could be 'from first-hand knowledge', by far the most outstanding of his many distinguished discoveries relates to his deciphering the hormone system which controls insect growth, metamorphosis and reproduction. In this he was helped by two things. First, he was a superb classical histologist, which enabled him to identify in microscopical preparations the cycle of secretion of the minute glands in the insect brain. Second, there was a tropical blood-sucking bug Rhodnius prolixus, vector of Chaga's disease, which was cultured in the London School. This remarkable insect, whose development in an unlit incubator could be predicted with literally clockwork accuracy, was the ideal vehicle for insect research, and amongst biologists it is now the best-known and best-understood of all insects.
Wigglesworth worked alone, with remarkably little technical assistance, and only some half-dozen of his publications are in joint authorship. While he had an infinite capacity for painstaking work, he also had a remarkable gift for experimental design, such that almost every experiment yielded valuable information. He rarely used complex equipment, and to the end demonstrated what fundamental science may still be achieved by simple classical methodology.
Wigglesworth was elected to the Royal Society in 1939, appointed CBE in 1951 and knighted in 1964. He lectured to and received honours from academies and universities throughout the world, but remained largely unmoved by these. Exhibiting his gold medal of the Royal Society at tea, he observed quietly that the only previous one he had obtained was as champion muleteer of his regiment. He served on many public and academic bodies, but he loathed administration and always wanted to be back in the one place where he was happy: at his bench in his laboratory.
VBW was a gentle, formal person, reserved to the point almost of shyness, with a wry sense of humour, but behind this it was always evident that there was a piercing analytical mind; every statement he made was carefully weighed. Although his career started in applied science with the need to advance medical entomology, and turned into the study of insects as a pure science, he remained deeply concerned about applied issues: the development of synthetic insecticides and latterly the possibility that his own discoveries of insect hormones might be used for applied purposes. His pronouncements on these are wisely sceptical.
Not only did he work alone, but it appeared that he chose to be lonely. After his four children left home he lived in college all week, spending only his weekends at his house in Lavenham, where his wife, who predeceased him by eight years, worked as an illustrator of children's books. Indeed it is likely that in large measure the generosity of Caius College, in providing him rooms, enabled him to continue productively for his last decade.
Few people can be credited with both creating and substantially advancing a new science, which today is pursued in laboratories throughout the world, but Wigglesworth was one of these: the Father of Insect Physiology.
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