In my ongoing quest to uncover the most fascinating and curious specimens and stories from behind the scenes at the Museum, I recently came across this lovely tale that I think epitomises the inquisitiveness, perseverance and patience that it takes to be a good scientist. Let me recount it for you:
In 1973 Dr Peter Whitehead, head of marine fishes at the Museum, began a personal quest that would soon take on international (and interdisciplinary) significance.
Whitehead, an expert in clupeids - herrings, anchovies and their numerous relatives - was attempting to track down the original painting of a fish called a piquitinga. The painting was used as the basis for a woodcut that accompanied a description of the species by the naturalist Georg Marcgraf in Historia naturalis Brasiliae in 1648. Marcgraf's brief Latin description and poor quality woodcut was then used by Carl Linnaeus and later taxonomists, who variously identified it as a herring or as an anchovy.
The woodcut of piquitinga from Marcgraf's Historia naturalis Brasiliae (1648). Detail was lost from the original painting when the book illustrations were made.
Whitehead was determined to get to the bottom of the classification once and for all. He knew that Marcgraf's original paintings were part of a collection known as Theatri rerum naturalium Brasiliae given to Friedrich Wilhelm, Elector of Brandenburg, in 1652. The Elector's library formed the basis of the subsequent Royal Library, which later became the Prussian State Library in Berlin.
During the Second World War, allied bombing made Berlin unsafe, so hundreds of boxes of material were removed from the library and allegedly sent to a Benedictine monastery in Silesia called Grüssau. And that's where the trail went cold.
The materials were not returned to Berlin after the war, and the monastery (now known as Krzeszów) nor the major libraries in Poland knew anything of their whereabouts.
Whitehead admitted that 'the search took on something of an obsession'. Indeed, there are two bulging folders in the Museum's archives - known as the Grüssau file - filled with reams of correspondence relating to the matter.
During his years of detective work Whitehead discovered that as well as the natural history artworks he was looking for, the Prussian State Library had also held many important musical manuscripts by artists including Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Mendelssohn. These too were evacuated during the war and had not been seen since. He said:
For a year or more I was quite unaware that I had joined one of the biggest and hitherto more frustrating searches for treasures lost during the last war.
Whitehead called on the Polish Ministry of Culture to help, and despite an 'immediate search of all Polish libraries', nothing was found. Undeterred, he 'redoubled his efforts' and began contacting Polish libraries himself.
The breakthrough came in March 1977 with a 'matter-of-fact' letter from Jan Pirozynski at the Jagiellon Library in Krakow: 'I am very glad to be able to tell you that the problem of the lost manuscripts has been cleared up. I have been authorised to tell you that the manuscripts exist... I hope this will be satisfactory to you for this moment'. Understandably, Whitehead was 'absolutely delighted' to hear of the 'miracle'.
It was not until September 1979 that I was able to visit the Jagiellon Library. A trolley was wheeled in bearing seven large volumes. Lifting one of the Theatri, the librarian opened it at a marked page: "There!" he said with a flourish, "There is your piquitinga!" It was a magnificent oil painting and immediately resolved all doubts - it was the small herring Lile piquitinga.
The oil painting of piquitinga from Theatri rerum naturalium Brasiliae, vol 1, p161. Remarkable for its realism, it immediately proved that Marcgraf's fish was the herring Lile piquitinga.
Also contained among the many boxes Whitehead was responsible for tracking down were original scores, in whole or in part, of Beethoven's 7th, 8th and 9th symphonies and his 3rd piano concerto; Mendelssohn's violin concerto and incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream; various Bach cantatas; and Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, Marriage of Figaro, and more than 90 other pieces which represented nearly a quarter of all his works known to survive in manuscript.
So that is where Brazilian fish and brilliant composers meet - in boxes in a Polish library, undiscovered for more than a generation.
That Marriage of Figaro, Cosi fan tutte, Beethoven's 9th and piquitinga should reappear after almost 40 years in wooden crates was unbelievable.