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All creatures great and small

Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868-1937)

Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868-1937)


Walter Rothschild, born in 1868 in Tring, north of London, may have failed in his family’s banking empire, but left a huge legacy as the greatest species seeker of his time. Memorialised by his family as “a great stuttering bear of a man”, 6-foot-3, weighing more than 300 pounds, who “could keep the whole house awake with his thundering snores” (and this in a house with 20-odd bedrooms), everything about Walter was huge, including the flaws – quirks, rather – in his personality. He was, to begin with, hopelessly tied to his mother and lived his entire life on the nursery floor, a short stairway down from her residence at Tring Park, the family home. No doubt as a result, he was alternately shy, socially awkward, and arrogant. In ‘Dear Lord Rothschild’, a biography, the entomologist Miriam Rothschild recalled her uncle’s “almost infantile insouciance regarding other people’s problems.” She may have been thinking about the time when she was 13 and Walter, age 53, sized up her body type in a booming foghorn voice, “Mama, isn’t it strange that Miriam is completely square?” Or maybe she had in mind one sunny afternoon when he received a nervous visitor to Tring Park while “swinging unselfconsciously in a hammock, 22 stone in weight and stark naked”.

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Flouting generations of Rothschild tradition, Walter was inept with money. To the deep dismay of his father, who had hoped that he would follow him as head of the British wing of the family’s banking empire, Walter loathed everything to do with finance. He dutifully showed up to work for 18 years. But all concerned ultimately recognised it as a hopeless cause. Among other missteps, Walter allowed himself to be blackmailed to the point of financial ruin by one of his many mistresses.

“Rothschild’s childhood passion for beetle-collecting developed into an obsession with the wonders of the natural world”

Dealing with the messy business of life caused him so much angst that for one two-year period, until his family found him out, he simply dumped his personal correspondence unopened into a series of 5-foot-tall wicker laundry baskets, which he then rammed shut with an iron bar, padlocked, and stacked up in a corner of his room. It is not a pretty image for a heavy man in a van Dyke beard, but Miriam described his life aptly as “a series of flying leaps from one sort of frying pan into yet another fire.”

And yet Walter was a genius at one thing – the business of seeking species. This craving to collect was fuelled by the opening of the Natural History Museum in April 1881. Here Rothschild’s childhood passion with beetle-collecting developed into an obsession for the wonders of the natural world. Albert Günther, keeper of zoology, noticed the young visitor and two became friends. Günther trained Rothschild in sound Darwinian biology and later helped him hire two highly capable German naturalists, the entomologist Karl Jordan and the ornithologist Ernst Hartert, both also solid Darwinians.

This trio would work together for almost 40 years, pursuing a clear and rigorous programme to understand the proper classification of every specimen, by genus, species, and subspecies – with incredible results.

At the age of 20, in his first year at university, Rothschild had already accumulated 46,000 specimens, mostly birds, butterflies, and moths. That same year, he sent out his first collecting expedition, to New Zealand and Hawaii. By 21, he had his own public museum at Tring, and in the first year alone 30,000 people showed up to see it.

He went on, according to Miriam, to amass “the greatest collection of animals ever assembled by one man, ranging from starfish to gorillas. It included 2.25 million set [that is, pinned] butterflies and moths, 300,000 bird skins, 144 giant tortoises, 200,000 birds’ eggs and 30,000 relevant scientific books. He, and the two collaborators he had selected as assistants, described between them 5,000 new species and published over 1,200 books and papers based on the collections.”

Though the rest of his life was a shambles, Walter managed his natural history enterprises with a keen attention to detail and, in Miriam’s phrase, “a streak of egotistical ruthlessness”. Aided by Jordan and Hartert, he ran Tring, in the words of one colleague, as “a model of how to collect and arrange and work in a museum – a model which the British Museum has signally failed to emulate”.

For much of his adult life, Walter kept 400 collectors actively working in all corners of the Earth. That number does not include an additional 100 collectors specialising in fleas, because they worked mainly for Walter’s younger brother Charles. (Charles almost matched Walter’s passion for nature. Once, spotting a rare butterfly out the window of a train, he pulled the emergency cord, and then ran back down the tracks to collect his prize.) A map showing the whereabouts of Walter’s various representatives looked, to one visitor at Tring, like “the world with a severe attack of measles”.

Entirely apart from his family’s tendency to do things on the grand scale, Walter Rothschild lived in an age of big biological surveys, with a new breed of collectors taking a more methodical approach to the habitats they studied. In place of spectacular novelties, naturalists now aimed to send back “crates of specimens”, historian Robert E Kohler writes. “Survey expeditions produced vast public collections, in the millions of specimens, all prepared and arranged according to standardised procedures” – or at least that was the aim.

Early explorers had set out to dazzle the world with heroic tales and with strange new species, often collected higgledy-piggledy en route. The new species seekers meant to write monographs, not adventure stories. They wanted to have complete material for careful revisions of entire taxonomic groups, shifting species around based on better evidence and more advanced ideas about how different animals might be related. This industrial-scale natural history made for better science. It was more professional. But, except where Walter Rothschild was concerned, it could also at times seem just a little dull. In truth, naturalists sometimes cultivated dullness, to separate themselves from the colorful amateurs who had preceded them. They wanted to be scientists, not showmen.

Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868-1937)

Big was good

To these insecure professionals, Walter Rothschild must have seemed like the worst sort of nightmare: not just an amateur naturalist, but a highly opinionated one, with enough money to dance rings around them, and plenty of “sordid cravings” to boot. Though he was serious about his taxonomy, Walter also wanted to wow the public and himself – not necessarily in that order. Big was good; bigger, better.

“Walter Rothschild’s ambitions were always aroused by large numbers and by objects of gigantic size, difficult and costly to obtain, on the eve of extinction or entirely extinct,” one acquaintance recalled. His museum displayed the largest gorilla specimen and a huge sea elephant 18 feet long and weighing four tonnes at death.

Numbers always mattered. “One of Walter’s truly peculiar traits,” Miriam Rothschild wrote, “was his meticulous recording in his letters of the number of specimens he had acquired and a list of the birds he had seen during his walks… He was like a schoolboy recording the runs he had scored in house matches.” In his own mind, he was always competing, even against the great collectors of the age. After an expedition to La Grave, in the French Alps, he noted that his party had collected more than 5,000 Lepidoptera specimens in 13 days, which he deemed “a record anywhere as [Alfred Russel] Wallace’s collections during his Malay Archipelago trip of several years was not 6,000.” Miriam commented, with a sigh, “Walter liked record bags. He never quite grew up.”

He also loved anything odd or amazing from the animal world. When a shipment of live zebras arrived at Tring in 1894, he set out to train them as carriage animals. Zebras are headstrong, temperamental creatures. But so was Walter Rothschild. Since they would not otherwise submit, he devised a way to lasso them, in effect, by dropping their harnesses down over their heads from the stable ceiling. Then he trained them singly on a small trap, before moving them up to team work. A few months later, he thrilled London by driving a four-in-hand with three zebras and, for steadiness, one conventional carriage pony down Piccadilly and into the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. Later, he had his photograph taken dressed in a top hat riding a giant tortoise around the garden at Tring Park.

For the competition, the worst thing about Walter Rothschild may have been that his amateur science was at least as good as their professional work, and often better. He had managed to complete only two lacklustre years at Cambridge University, where he arrived with a flock of kiwis in tow. But from early childhood he had focused his attention on the animal world, filling up his “freakishly retentive” memory with everything he saw or read along the way. Once, much later in life, a visitor mentioned a rare New Guinea bird not in the Tring collection. Walter remarked, “That bird is illustrated on plate 87 of Gould’s Birds of New Guinea,” and it was.

“I have no duplicates”

To outsiders, and particularly to professional rivals who could not hope to match his efforts, Walter’s style of collecting must have seemed megalomaniacal, as if he meant to sweep up everything on Earth where other collectors were content with a specimen or two.

At one point, when ships visiting over the previous five years had taken and eaten 80 per cent of the giant tortoise species on Duncan Island (now Isla Pinzón) in the Galápagos, he ordered his team to remove all 29 survivors “to save them for science” back at Tring. Rothschild meant to keep them alive, along with 30 giant tortoises from other Galápagos Islands. “I think 60 living Galápagos tortoises will make people stare,” he wrote. (Happily, enough tortoises survived in the wild to provide the stock for a captive rearing programme begun in 1965, with the result that roughly 350 tortoises now live on Pinzón. Rothschild’s conservation efforts were more successful where he leased entire islands to protect wildlife on site – notably on Aldabra in the Indian Ocean.)

Other times, particularly with severely threatened island birds, Walter’s idea of “saving species for science” meant only saving their skins in the collection drawers at Tring. “He has therefore been accused of hastening certain species into extinction,” Barbara and Richard Mearns write in ‘The Bird Collectors’. “If these species had lasted a little longer perhaps some sort of captive-breeding programme could have rescued them, but perhaps not.” Early on, Alfred Newton, a professor of his at Cambridge, warned Walter against overcollecting. “I can’t agree with you in thinking that zoology is best advanced by collectors of the kind you employ,” he wrote. “No doubt they answer admirably the purpose of stocking a Museum; but they unstock the world – and that is a terrible consideration.”

Walter Rothschild

“It is only against the panorama of modern research that the full value of Walter’s butterflies becomes apparent”

Visitors to Tring often worked up the nerve to wonder whether he didn’t have an awful lot of the same kind of bird or butterfly. But Walter always replied, “I have no duplicates in my collection.” What he meant was that understanding evolution meant knowing how different populations of a species vary from one place to another, or over a period of time. It would be absurd to expect one male and one female specimen to tell the whole story. Walter wanted a long series of specimens including all possible variations – the different wing patterns or colours or beak sizes that occur in separate populations or in different age groups, the hybrids, the albinos, the individuals with mixed male and female characteristics, even the teratological specimens – that is, the monsters. His characteristic cry of unmitigated delight on unpacking the latest collection to arrive at Tring was “Hartert! Hartert! Schauen sie, Schauen sie… COME AND SEE WHAT WE’VE GOT!”

Later naturalists would place high value on the work Walter Rothschild, his curators Hartert and Jordan, and their many collectors had done in putting together those lengthy series of specimens for each species. When a later ornithologist, David Lack, was working out how speciation had occurred in Darwin’s finches, he had to spend months doing fieldwork in the Galápagos. But fieldwork wasn’t enough. “You’ve just got to come back to the Rothschild collection and get down to measuring beaks,” he wrote. He also noted that “The drawers of the Rothschild cabinet contain more representatives of some of the Hawaiian sicklebills than are alive in the Islands today.”

The Natural History Museum

Though Rothschild and his collectors were only dimly aware of how important genetics would become to the study of nature, their work preserved the broadest possible swath of genetic variation for each species. “It is only against the panorama of modern research that the full value of Walter’s butterflies becomes apparent,” Miriam Rothschild wrote. “Its importance lies in the unfolding and presentation before your eyes of a whole order – in all its variety and complexity, culled from continent to continent, from one far flung oceanic island to another, from desert and forest and prairie and mountain range. There is also an indefinable factor about these collections, a Walterian factor – call it what you will – a whiff of zest and wonder, which must somehow have been pinned in among the butterflies. Suddenly the outlook broadens, the horizon expands – a penny drops, new ideas materialise, the mind ‘takes off’.” l



Richard Conniff is the author of ‘The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth’ published by WW Norton and Co.

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