Water Life Magazine 1936-1958: Part 3. The Editor and J.B.S. Haldane

As I have acquired some copies of Water Life magazine I have also bought batches of The Aquarist, the other British magazine of the period that contained articles on reptiles and amphibians. In 1952, Margery Elwin wrote a series of three articles for The Aquarist which means she must have given up the editorship of Water Life on a date between 1946 (see below) and 1952. The only reason I noticed them was that my eye struck one word: Lysenko, and on reading it through I realised that she was giving serious consideration to Lysenko being right. By 1952, I thought, one had to be something of an apologist for communism Soviet style still to be mentioning Lysenko in a magazine article. And then, that’s when I found the links with J.B.S. Haldane, brilliant polymath, geneticist, evolutionary theorist, marxist and, for a long time, apologist for the Soviet state under Stalin.

I will not dwell on Lysenko here, other than to remind readers of what happened to conventional ‘western’ geneticists as Lysenko’s views that the environment could alter genes were adopted as fact, thereby supporting the Soviet view of how communist organisms ought to behave. Conventional Mendelian geneticists, opponents of Lysenko and his flawed doctrine of inheritance of acquired characteristics were crushed by the state. Nikolai Vavilov, an internationally recognised authority on crop genetics and a Foreign Member of the Royal Society was arrested in 1940 and sentenced to death. That sentence was commuted to imprisonment for 20 years; he died in prison of starvation in 1943.

Incidentally, my guess is that Lysenko, having discovered vernalization of seed, failed to differentiate parental effects, that now come under the heading of epigenetics, from genetic effects in breeding experiments, and got carried away in his interpretation of his own and Michurin’s results. As he rose to political dominance of agricultural science he dismissed ‘pure’ science. To Lysenko, biologists were ‘fly-lovers and people haters’. To non-comrade western biologists Lysenko was a shit.

J.B.S. Haldane’s papers are available online. The first contact with Margery Elwin recorded was in 1937. She wrote to him a year later about the ‘Walthamstow Wonder’, an albino Common Frog: You remember the “Walthamstow Wonder” – that albino frog which I brought to show you last year? It’s owner’s brother has now found a number of real albino tadpoles, four of which I have acquired…She goes on to describe the tadpoles and continued: If you would like any of the tadpoles Dr Fox is trying to dispose of them at 5/- each, I believe. She also asked for a fruit fly culture and the recipe for the culture medium.


She seems to have written another letter shortly after the first to report that the owner had obtained spawn from crossing the albino with a light-coloured female. She had some of the spawn and sent some of it to Haldane.


Haldane replied on 18 March 1939: Dear Miss Elwin, Thank you very much indeed. We have put the spawn into a tank and will do our best, but you will realise how difficult it is to be sure of rearing a batch of tadpoles. I heartily congratulate the owner on having kept the frog alive during the winter and got it to breed. He also sent recipes for fruit fly culture medium.

The Walthamstow Wonder was described in the 12 July 1938 issue which I have not seen. The follow-up article by F.B. Fox, describing the hibernation conditions, was in the issue of 28 March 1939.

The next correspondence, from 1946, is more revealing and confirms what I had begun to think from the articles from 1952 in The Aquarist. She wrote to Haldane from her home address on 2 June to say that Water Life was being revived as a quarterly magazine‡, that she was still the editor and asking him to write an article on ‘scientific method’ at three guineas per 1000 words. She continued:

        I hope you don’t think this is a great cheek but I always read your articles in the Daily Worker [the official organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain] of with great interest and you have the sort of approach I should like to have. Incidentally I am a member of the Communist Party and an enthusiastic supporter of the D.W. and am going to invest some of my new earnings in shares in the Peoples Press. I haven’t written to you on our official paper because I wanted to tell you this, but if you would be willing to write for us I will then approach you officially.
        I must now stop as I am due to go canvassing with the D.W! Hoping I shall hear from you soon.

Haldane replied from University College on 14 June; yes he would write an article but would prefer to have the magazine rather than cash. He said that his wife (then Helen Spurway) was working on newts; that they had some Green Swordtails with pink eyes and asked if anything was known of the genetics. He added that she should get an article from R.A. Lantz of Manchester who ‘has probably the best collection of amphibia in Britain. During the war he was the Fighting French consul in Manchester’. Finally, he invited her to see his wife’s collection and asked her to introduce him to the Guppy Society. He signed off, ‘yours fraternally’.

There is a very good background to the reason so many British scientists of the 1930s and 40s were marxists and communists in Diane Paul’s paper:

Their major concern, however, was not with Marxism as a guide to scientific practice or to the history of science…their concern was with the social relations of science – with the relation of scientists to the mass public, the government, the schools and universities, the other professions, and the culture in general.They believed that culture to be largely ignorant of, when not actually hostile to, the natural scientific enterprise and they aimed to change things by reforming both science and society. In fact, they saw the reconstruction of science and the scientific reconstruction of society as interdependent tasks. Science they wished to rationalize and to redirect, away from war especially; and society they wished to reorganize in accord with scientific principles and in ways that would support further scientific progress. In general,they thought no one more qualified for the task of scientifically reorganizing society than themselves.

The default of the process that clones British scientists is still set to the left, often the far left, of centre.

There must have been visits by the Mandeville’s to Haldane at UCL because there is a letter in the archive from Haldane on 27 November asking Louis if he could photograph about three more newts in the next 10 days for Helen Spurway in order for her to have slides for her talk in Germany. He added: She apologizes for not asking you earlier, but has been intensively over-worked because of dereliction of duty by a colleague which has nearly killed our Drosophila stocks and kept her on a 14 hour day (sometimes 36 hours at a stretch) for the last month. We have only 1 flash bulb, but several more are on order.

From then, the Mandevilles became involved with genetics research in Haldane’s Biometry Department at UCL. In 1948 Haldane supported their case to the local fuel office for two tons of coal to heat their fish house. In the days of real austerity after the war, coal was rationed, and the amount requested more than doubled that which the household could have bought during a whole year. Temporary emergency exemptions were made for exigencies such as a bedroom that needed to be heated for a sick child. I remember well parents and grandparents coming to see my grandfather at all hours bearing a chit from the fuel office. He ran the local co-operative society’s coal yard and instead of waiting until he was in the office, they tried to ensure that he would arrange for a special delivery of an extra bag as soon as was possible. The bureaucracy entailed by coal rationing was onerous (I helped him even at the age of five or so by stamping the latest updates on delivery notes with a large rubber stamp and a red ink pad). Extra coal was difficult to get and Haldane wrote to the local fuel office: ‘This greenhouse is used to house experimental animals on which scientific research of considerable importance is carried out’. The outcome is not recorded.

Louis Mandeville was appointed an Honorary Research Assistant by UCL in 1949. Haldane wrote: …who is an old student of this College, is a dental surgeon who is doing part-time research in animal genetics in this Department. He has a paper in the press describing original research in the field of human inheritance. I wish to recommend that he be appointed Honorary Lecturer. The paper in press at the time was on the congenital absence of permanent maxillary lateral incisor teeth*. I have not been able to find any further publications on his work at UCL.

Margery Mandeville in a letter in 1957 (see below) states that she was in charge of Drosophila stocks for about 3 three years, and there is a note in the Haldane archive from about 1950, showing the lines she had in culture.

The results of her research in the 1950s, Pathological melanosis in an intergeneric hybrid† were published in Nature in 1957. It begins: During the past three years, I have been working on the genetics of an apparent intergeneric cross between two viviparous cyprinodonts, Xiphophorus helleri and Mollienisia sphenops. Some of the results may interest not only geneticists but also those engaged in the fields of endocrinology and cancer research. Her address is given as Zoology Department, Chelsea Polytechnic. She must have had some position at Chelsea, which is now part of King’s College, London but I have not been able to find any records online in which to look for information.

Haldane and Spurway left Britain, lock, stock and barrel, for India on 24 July 1957. The final letter in the UCL collection is from Margery Mandeville to Professor Lionel Penrose FRS then occupying the Galton Chair at UCL. On 29 July she asked if her fish could be housed at UCL now that Helen Spurway had vacated the space for tanks. She explained, Up till now I have kept my fish at home but this is becoming increasingly more difficult as I now have no one to look after my fish or attend to the fish-house fire when I am away from home. I want to continue this work but I am afraid this will be impossible unless I obtain more satisfactory accommodation for animals. Professors Haddow, Horning and Koller of the Chester Beatty Research Institute, are very interested in the results I am obtaining and so is Professor Huxley. At the moment I have an expenses grant from the British Empire Cancer Campaign. This is only £50, but I think I should have no difficulty in getting it increased if necessary.

And that is as much as I know. Lacking most of the post-war copies of Water Life I do not know when Margery Elwin ceased to be editor of Water Life or what happened to her after 1957, if she was successful in getting her fish housed at UCL and what her role was at Chelsea Polytechnic.

What I do know is that she was responsible for a highly informative, science-based magazine that had the key players of the 1930s as contributors. How very different from the magazines of the present century.

Finally, the only photograph I have found of Margery Elwin, taken I think by Louis Mandeville at the Dutch congress of aquarium clubs in late 1937 or early 1938.


From Water Life 22 February 1938. Margery Elwin would then have been 29


‡The publisher in the 1940s was the Poultry World empire, Iliffe Press. The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook for 1947 shows that Water Life and Aquaria World was published by Iliffe Press, Dorset House, Stamford Street, London. They presumably bought the title after the war from The Marshall Press.

*Mandeville LC. 1950. Congenital absence of permanent maxillary lateral incisor teeth: a preliminary investigation. Ann Eugen, London 15, 1.

†Elwin, MG. 1957. Pathological melanosis in an intergeneric hybrid. Nature 179, 1254-1255.


Clark, R. 1968. J.B.S. The Life and Works of J.B.S. Haldane. London: Hodder and Stoughton

Paul, DB. 1983. A war on two fronts: J. B. S. Haldane and the response to Lysenkoism in Britain
Journal of the History of Biology 16, 1-37


One thought on “Water Life Magazine 1936-1958: Part 3. The Editor and J.B.S. Haldane

  1. Pingback: Water Life Magazine 1936-58: Part 17. The First Post-War Issues from 1946 | Reptiles, Amphibians and Birds: A Historical Perspective of their Care in Captivity

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