The shell-loving scientists torn apart by a mystery woman

  • @SteveAConnor

They lived in Edwardian England at a time of impeccable manners and stiff upper lips, but for these two gentleman scientists something very bitter and acrimonious must have happened to destroy a 25-year collaboration on the study of microscopic sea-shells collected from the other side of the world.

One was a senior civil servant and the other a successful lawyer but both shared the same amateur passion for the formanifera, a group of microscopic marine animals that protect themselves with beautiful, if tiny, shells.

The two amateur collectors spent much of their spare time collaborating closely and even shared rooms at the Natural History Museum in London where they prepared joint scientific papers and exquisite microscope slides packed full of formanifera shells intricately arranged in mesmerizing displays.

Some of the slides spell out simple messages. Some were given by one of the friends to the other as “thank you” slides, and some were lovingly prepared as miniature Christmas presents – one celebrates “Xmas 1912” spelt in tiny shells.

But then in the early 1930s something suddenly happened to rip apart the long friendship of Arthur Earland, a high-ranking civil servant with the Post Office Savings Bank, and Edward Heron-Allen, a wealthy lawyer with Establishment connections.

Documents and letters unearthed by Giles Miller, senior curator of microfossils at the Natural History Museum, suggest that the falling out may have resulted from a combination of events, including professional rivalry over who could claim academic credit for their joint work, and personal enmity over “that final woman” who appears to have come between the two old friends.

“Anecdotal evidence suggests they visited the museum to work on different days after this to avoid seeing each other. Historical data and two key pieces of evidence in the museum archives suggest a number of factors in the deterioration of their personal and professional relationship,” Dr Miller said.

A copy of a scientific monograph authored by Earland alone, even though it was a joint effort, suggests one source of friction. The copy was in the personal collection of Heron-Allan and it contained a note in his own handwriting that had been deliberately obscured by several layers of paper.

“I had my name removed from the titles of this paper, when, on my return from Ceylon in 1931 I found that Earland had claimed all my work upon it as his own,” it reads. Heron-Allen also criticises Earland’s ignorance of other research in the area.

A later letter written in 1943 by Earland, meanwhile, suggests he was jealous of Heron-Allen’s wealthy connections, which allowed him pay for the scientific publications where he was named as the first author. This body of work eventually led Heron-Allen to be elected Fellow of the Royal Society.

And then there was the appearance of a mysterious female, Dr Miller said. “The 1943 letter states that everything was fine until ‘that final woman’ came around. Heron-Allen was a very charismatic and popular figure and often had an entourage of young females. It would appear that one of them may have been involved in the rift between the two scientists,” he said.