This blog is written by Daisy Cunynghame from our Archives team to mark Explore Your Archive Week 2013 (www.exploreyourarchive.org)
The scientific work the Museum has done is found throughout the Archives, for over 250 years the Museum has been researching and studying, and the results of that are held here.
By delving into the Archives you can see that the Natural History Museum was far more involved scientifically in both world wars than might have been thought.
In the First World War the Museum’s science departments played a significant part in the war effort, with 14 Government departments consulting the Museum on a wide range of issues, from solutions to crustaceans damaging telegraph cables and fungus destroying army tents, to examining German Zepellin propellers to determine their composition. Museum staff provided advice on the safest ways to remove bullets from human bodies, information on possible alternatives to oil and food sources and the prevention of dysentery and contamination of foodstuffs. What information was supplied to the Admiralty ‘in relation to white mice in regard to certain matters connected with submarines’ can only be guessed at!
Lazarus Fletcher, the Director of the Museum, took it upon himself to send samples of whale meat to various senior government officials, with the idea of persuading them of the usefulness of this alternative food source. Although one responded that ‘I had two or three people to dinner on Monday night and I feasted them royally on whale, for I think a joint of whale is really a royal dish’, other responses that it was ‘oily’, ‘tough’ and ‘unappetising’ were less positive, and the suggestion was never taken up.
Entomologists worked on eradicating ticks and mites, mosquitoes, and flies in the trenches, as well as how to protect the envelopes of air-ships and underwater cables from insect attacks. The Zoology Department contributed important work on safe food to eat and designing camouflage, as well as examining crustaceans on sunken submarines to determine the age of wrecks and producing an ambitious study on using gulls to locate enemy submarines.
Gulls were successfully trained to identify submerged submarines by circling above them – though they couldn’t be trained to distinguish between a Fritz and a Tommy sub. While this particular study did not quite produce the desired result, it is a great example of just how creative Museum scientists were during the war.
Botany gave advice to the military on such topics as using moss for surgical dressings, suitable food for humans and horses in foreign climes, and the right timber to use for airplanes and air-ships.
The geological department seems to have been the department which turned itself over the most completely to war work. Staff provided advice to Government on where to drill for water and oil, based on fossil specimens. One of the enquiries received was to determine how to build and maintain cement platforms in salt water and so enabling the easy docking of naval vessels.
But perhaps their most important work was in relation to the battle-grounds themselves, where they provided information and guidance on the geology of the terrain.
Across the Museum staff received letters from soldiers – from those who suddenly found themselves in charge of a paddock of goats or 200 camels and needed urgent advice, to those suffering from a scourge of bed lice or fleas. One man sent a selection of mosquitoes, adding that 'they were done to death with such violence they'll be difficult to identify'.