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Museum receives unique collection of diatoms

03 November 2005

The Natural History Museum has been lucky enough to receive the most significant marine diatom collection of our times, donated by Norman Ingram Hendey.

Hendey type spcimen slide of Mastogloia arabica from Kuwait

Hendey type spcimen slide of Mastogloia arabica from Kuwait

The basis of the food chain

Diatoms are microscopic unicellular algae with a silica 'shell' and are one of the most common types of phytoplankton. Viewed under the microscope, they appear in a wide variety of shapes with many interesting and beautiful patterns.

Diatoms live in both marine and fresh water and are extremely important for all other animals as they form the basis of the food chain on our planet.

Norman Ingram Hendey

Norman Ingram Hendey died in 2004 at the age of 101, having been an active diatomist since 1921. During his career he described over a hundred new species and as a consequence his collection is rich in type material (material originally used to describe a new species).

Hendey worked for naval intelligence during the war years until 1946 when he worked for the Admiralty research laboratory. It was there that he began investigating diatom fouling on ship hulls (where dense communities of diatoms colonise and form  thick gelatinous layer of slime, slowing down a ship), making an important contribution to the development of anti fouling paints for ships.

Slide of Cocconeis sublittoralis Hendey from Chichester Harbour

Slide of Cocconeis sublittoralis Hendey from Chichester Harbour

Hendey produced many detailed studies on phytoplankton and, in 1964, produced the first comprehensive marine flora for the British Isles, An Introductory Account of the Smaller Algae of British Coastal Waters.

Investigations using diatoms

Hendey pioneered the use of diatoms in forensic work as tools to diagnose and differentiate between cases of accidental drowning and murder.

Diatoms are frequently used in climate change studies where fossilised diatoms can predict the existence of, for example, large lakes in East Africa millions of years ago (see below for a link to this BBC article). 

In the 1970s Hendey was using marine diatoms as a tool to monitor pollution on the coastline of Cornwall. This use of diatoms is now widely used, for example, a recent Museum project used diatoms to assess pollution levels in the River Ouse in Cambridgeshire.

A unique time slice into biodiversity

The Hendey Diatom collection comprises over 6000 diatom slides, an extensive collection of diatom literature as well as his original notebooks on the collection. At a time of rapidly depleting global biodiversity, this collection gives the museum a unique time slice into British and global marine biodiversity. The collection will be accessible to researchers and is already the subject of a number of science enquiries.