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Behind the scenes

3 Posts tagged with the charles_darwin tag

You could say that this month's post is written in the spirit of January detoxes and body cleanses and all that healthy, New Year resolution-y stuff. It is also, I should mention in advance, not a post for the faint-hearted, so if you are of a nervous or squeamish disposition, you should probably look away now.


You could say that this month's specimen is the most intimate and personal one I've ever written about. It is, I believe, unique in our collection as being the only specimen donated by a member of staff having been sourced from his own body.


I'll let the protagonist - former Museum Science Educator and current Discovery and Learning Officer at ZSL London Zoo, Theo Blossom, take up the tale:

It was May 2012, 7.30 in the morning. My alarm had gone off in my university campus dorm room, where I was studying for my Masters in Conservation Science. I got up out of bed, and I started to walk across my room. Two steps across the floor, I felt something… something between my legs, something dangling... So I put my hand down my underwear, and I felt something coming out of my… well, my bum! At this point I began to feel a little alarmed.


I started to pull at it tentatively. Whatever it was kept coming and coming and coming. It was a bit traumatic, but  finally, "it" came out. All nine inches of it! I held it up in front of my face, in disbelief - and then - it gave its last wiggle of life! That was when I began to freak out.


What Theo had just bravely removed from his own behind was (it would later be confirmed) a roundworm, Ascaris lumbricoides. He named it Judas and put it in a flatmate's (n.b. 'special thanks to Izzy') Tupperware container.



An example of the human roundworm, Ascaris lumbricoides, (however, not 'Judas'). This species can grow up to ~40 cm (16 inches).


A visit to the campus doctor confirmed the aforementioned species type and also allayed some of Theo's fears about this strange creature that had been living in his body.

(The campus doctor) was a very well-spoken old boy who was probably, quite frankly, bored of handing out condoms. So when I slapped down Izzy's Tupperware box in front of him he became quite animated. Thumbing through a rather tatty book of potions he said: "Mebendazole, that will kill them. That is, if you want to kill them? It seems a shame. This little fella has probably been providing you a service - I presume you're fit and healthy with no allergies?"


It's all about the idea of "ecosystem services", Theo in turn explained to me. That is, the benefit that human species gain from resources and processes supplied by ecosystems. In this case, exposure to parasites (roundworm) keeps our immune system active and therefore better able to cope with other foreign bodies, from everyday pollen to more harmful bacteria.

I've since worked out that this little dude was inside me for two years. I didn't know. He caused me no problems. Coincidently or not, I have no allergies. The reality is our bodies are riddled with living organisms which are there all the time but do us no harm whatsoever. In fact, they benefit us in many ways.


After learning all this, I began to feel a bit bad. This little guy has been part of a marvellous little ecosystem that was boosting my immune system, and I'd just ended the party.


But Judas - who is actually female, not male - lives on, in body, and, technically, in spirit, in the Museum's specimen collection. After speaking to a Museum expert in parasitic worms to find out more about Ascaris lumbricoides, Theo was encouraged to donate his find (or should that be harvest?) to live on in perpetuity behind the scenes of the Darwin Centre, among our more than half a million other parasitic worm specimens.




Theo revisiting his roundworm, affectionately known as Judas, in the Museum's Darwin Centre this week.

It's a dream come true for anyone into natural history to have their name recorded in the scientific scriptures of the Natural History Museum, alongside the likes of Charles Darwin. I just didn't think it would be quite like this!


My great, great grandchildren, can, if they wish, in years from now, walk into the Museum and request to see Judas in all her glory. My great grandchild will ask my granddaughter: "Mummy, can we go and see great Granddad's worm?" And from beyond the grave, that will be a proud moment for me.




'To see "Ex Homo sapiens (Theo Blossom)" written on a specimen jar at the Natural History Museum is pretty awesome!' Theo said, adding: 'She looked a bit smaller than I remember, though.'


It's almost a year since I started blogging for the Museum, and as I considered what I should profile for my 12th Specimen of the Month, I inevitably began to reflect on all the amazing specimens I've already written about, those on my list to write about in the future (which, for various reasons, can't be featured today), as well as all the specimens I've yet to even discover exist here.


One of the most incredible things about the Museum is just how many specimens we care for. To describe it by coining a phrase from Charles Darwin (although he was talking about the evolutionary Cambrian explosion, but anyway...), the Museum's collection is full of 'endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful'.


So today I thought I would celebrate all the specimens in our collection. All 80 million of them!


As you can obviously gather, not all 80 million are on public display. In fact, only about 0.04% of our total collection is on show in the public galleries. The rest is housed behind the scenes, in specially-built, and often specially-temperature-controlled, storage facilities.


Our 80 million-strong specimen collection is composed of:


More than 34 million insects in 140,000 drawers, of which 8.7 million are butterflies and moths.


Some of the modern and historic storage cupboards containing the drawers that house our insect collections.



The collection was boosted in 2010 with the donation of 45,000 weevils of 4,500 different species from Oldřich Vořisek, a private collector in the Czech Republic. Half were new to the Museum, and it included almost 750 type specimens. Pictures © Libby Livermore.


More than 27 million animals, ranging from the smallest fishes and frogs to enormous elephants and blue whale skeletons.


Before Dippy took pride of place, elephants were a dominant feature of Hintze Hall (or Central Hall as it was back then). In this picture from 1924, three elephants can be seen on the main floor, while a further two elephant heads are mounted above the Darwin statue on the stairs.



Mounted heads used to be much more prominent around the Museum in years gone by, as illustrated by this photograph of the balcony of Hintze Hall from 1932 (left). [Note, also, the terrifying location of the glass display cases at the top of the stairs!]

Today, most of our mounted animal heads are kept in storage (right).


More than 7 million fossils, with the oldest dating back more than 3.5 billion years.


One of my favourite fossils is this petrified tree trunk: the wood of a conifer from the Triassic era (250-200 million years ago) has been replaced with the mineral agate.



Another fossil I'm quite fond of, which also has a mineralogical connection, is this ammonite (Parkinsonia dorsetensis), from the mid-Jurassic era (174-166 million years ago): its chambers have been filled by calcite crystals.


More than 6 million plants, algae, ferns, mosses and lichens, 10% of which come from the British Isles.


Our oldest plant specimen is a mounted American hop hornbeam (Carpinus virginiana), which dates to 1740 and was collected just about a mile from here at the Chelsea Physic Garden.



Watch herbarium technician Felipe Dominguez-Santana demonstrate how plant specimens are mounted in this video from 2009. It was filmed around the time that all our herbarium specimens were moved into the then-newly-built Darwin Centre.


More than 500,000 rocks, gems and minerals, of which 5,000 are meteorites.


Here I am reflected in some pyrite in the Minerals gallery.



For some reason this malachite specimen causes innumerable giggles. We don't know why.


And, more than 1.5 million books and artworks in the Museums Library and Archives.


As a book junkie, the Museum's Library collection (of which there are six sub-collections: zoology, Earth sciences, botany, entomology, general, and ornithology at Tring) is a thing of beauty in itself, to me. This is a view from the balcony over the Earth sciences collection, which is in the old Geological Museum building (now the Red Zone), built between 1929 and 1933.



Just a small selection of some of the 540+ copies of Origin of Species held by the Museum's library. We have the largest collection of Charles Darwin's works in the world.


Finally, not officially counted in the 80+ million, but...


The web team's collection of dinosaur toys, totalling 15.


The topic of this blog post is quite possibly the newest specimen in the Museum's collection, as it was just a matter of hours ago that it was catalogued. It's also the first specimen I've played a part in acquiring.


The specimen I am talking about is Charles Darwin's groundbreaking book The Origin of Species, which set out the theory for how new species evolve by the process known as natural selection. But the version of the book that is now officially call number 9C o DAR ORI in our library, and which I am writing about today, is a unique one.


During Darwin's lifetime (1809-1882) The Origin of Species book went through six editions, with various changes, revisions and additions each time. It was originally titled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, but was shortened to The Origin of Species by the sixth printing.


The Museum's library contains the largest collection of Darwin's works in the world, including 541 copies of The Origin of Species in 43 languages, including Braille.


Today, that number has risen to 542 with the addition of a 'variorum' by graphic designer and typographer Simon Phillipson. Simon's Origin of Species - Evolutionary Edition is a book on the evolution of the book on evolution, if you will. He explains:

It highlights all the linguistic changes Charles Darwin introduced to the book since its first publication in 1859, and presents the changes alongside the complete sixth and final edition that was published in 1872. So now you can compare all the alterations Darwin made to each of the editions.



This typographic-inspired book has 964 pages, plus a fold-out Tree of Life diagram, and is printed on thin, bible-like paper. On the left hand pages is every punctuation mark, word, sentence and paragraph that has been removed from, edited, or added to Darwin's classic opus over the past century and a half. The right hand pages contain the full text of the sixth edition with words highlighted in metallic bronze ink where they correspond to the text on the left.

You see a lot of tightening up on statements and alterations of words to make an argument more factual or to emphasise its significance, for example. There are also a lot of grammatical and spelling changes too. The thing that struck me the most is that when reading this you really start to get a sense of the man behind the book: where he doubted his ideas, or struggled in phrasing particular sentences due to religious pressure. For example the reference to a god or the creator dips in and out throughout the editions. You can also see how over time he took his own voice out of the book, making the wording more factual, or formal, than personal.



The book was made possible thanks to a crowd funding campaign last summer that raised more than five times Simon's initial goal. But the idea for the Evolutionary Edition first began around 2009 while Simon was studying for his graphic design degree in London.

I was listening to an adaptation of the Origin of Species as an operatic performance by Hotel Pro Forma and Swedish musical group The Knife, and that started to get me thinking about how I could also reinterpret or present this book in a new way. This led me to start reading into the background and history of Darwin, and I became curious about the different editions that he wrote.


It is important to mention that comparing the text of different editions, such as Shakespeare or Darwin, is not a new or original concept. But with my background as a graphic designer and typographer, I wanted to take this variorum concept and create my own interpretation. I wanted to present all the changes Darwin made in a visually engaging and interesting typographic way which people would be able to pick up and explore for themselves.


I, along with 779 other backers, agreed that Simon's concept indeed sounded engaging and interesting and pledged my support. I have since been eagerly awaiting the arrival of my copy of Origin of Species - Evolutionary Edition, and carefully following Simon's updates on the long and involved process of making his grand idea a reality. When I told Judith Magee, the Museum's Library and Archives Special Collections Manager, about the book she was intrigued and keen to receive a copy to add to our Darwin Origin of Species collection. Simon says:

It goes without saying that this is an incredible honour and also one of the biggest surprises. I certainly never expected anything like it. I still very much consider myself to be a Darwin novice! The support for this project has been completely overwhelming. In all honesty it is hard to put into words, but it is down to all the great support from all my backers of this project who have all played an important role in getting the book to sit amongst the largest Darwin collection in the world.




See a first edition of Darwin's book in our Treasures Cadogan Gallery.