The British Empire and its effect on Plymouth


Edgar Johnson Allen


Edgar Johnson Allen was a marine zoologist and scientific administrator, was born on 6 April 1866 at 6 Havelock Terrace, Preston, Lancashire, the son of the Revd Richard Allen, a Wesleyan Methodist minister, and his wife, Emma Johnson, daughter of a Bideford shipbuilder. They had three daughters and five sons, of whom Allen was the second. He was educated at the Grove School near Leeds and Kingswood School, Bath, before studying chemistry and physics at the Yorkshire College, Leeds, where he graduated with an external London honours BSc degree in 1885.

Allen briefly taught science at Dunheved College, Launceston, before being appointed first headmaster of Coke College, Antigua. He returned to Europe in 1890 and spent a year studying under F. E. Schultze at the Zoological Institute in Berlin before undertaking postgraduate research in zoology under W. F. R. Weldon at University College, London. During the summers of 1892 and 1893, assisted by grants from the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society, he visited the laboratory of the Marine Biological Association (MBA) of the United Kingdom at Plymouth to work on the nervous system of Crustacea. In December 1894 he was appointed the laboratory's director, its fifth in eight years of existence. This instability was partly due to strained relations with the parent body, and this situation improved when Allen also became secretary of the association in 1895 (from 1902 secretary to the council). Chronic underfunding was a more long-term problem and Allen, too, contemplated resignation at one stage but weathered the difficult years, remaining as director until his retirement in 1936. During this time, under his outstanding scientific and administrative leadership, the previously small and struggling laboratory developed into a leading centre for marine research.

Allen was immediately concerned to expand the scope of the laboratory offshore and to undertake more extensive oceanographic surveys of the region. Through the support of members of the association such as G. P. Bidder, and others, these began in a hired vessel in 1899-1900 and were developed during the following decade into 'regular investigation of the physics, chemistry and biology of the Western Channel and Approaches', carried out in the association's own yacht Oithona.

During the first decade of the twentieth century the Plymouth laboratory undertook government-sponsored fisheries research as part of the British contribution to the work of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. However, in 1910 the fisheries work was taken over by the government, and the laboratory again found itself without adequate funding. During the First World War its work was largely suspended and Allen was employed on other projects, including experiments on the hearing of sea lions under water and whether they could be employed to track submarines.

It was not until 1919 that renewal of support from the Development Commission enabled the laboratory to expand, and undertake research which had an important bearing on the subsequent development of biological oceanography. Allen believed that 'the problems of marine fisheries were most likely to be solved with physics and chemistry' (Mills, 5). He felt that the broad questions of fisheries could be settled only by comprehensive knowledge not only of the fish themselves but also of the conditions in which they lived. This view grew out of work he had begun in 1905 on the laboratory culture of phytoplankton. He demonstrated that growth was proportional to the amount of nitrate present, and that phosphate was also essential. He further showed that marine productivity had a direct effect on fish populations (using mackerel catches as an example), and that stocks were boosted when conditions were good for phytoplankton growth, the microscopic plants of this 'blue pasture' being 'grazed' by zooplankton, which then in turn became food for many of the commercial fishes.

After 1910 'both Allen's work and his philosophy of research dominated the way scientists' at Plymouth approached problems (Mills, 203). In the work carried on at the laboratory during the 1920s and 1930s, which developed both from these ideas and from work carried out before the First World War by German fisheries scientists at Kiel, he achieved his aims partly by ensuring that the physical sciences, as well as biology, were strongly represented. However, he did not believe in heading a team, preferring rather, having recruited staff, to allow individuals to work on problems that interested them--though these may well have been suggested by Allen's leading questions. As one of them, L. H. N. Cooper, later said: 'Allen never directed. He just planted seeds' (Mills, 206).

During these years Allen himself was principally engaged in projects connected with both the local and national standing of the laboratory. He was continually seeking to extend its influence, by, for example, introducing Easter and summer classes for students. He never married, and much of the space in the director's house, which formed part of the laboratory building, was given over to its work. The habits of economy instilled in the lean early years remained with him and he used his considerable business acumen to support the laboratory and operation of its research vessels. He paid particular attention to developing the library, much of it through exchange of scientific periodicals, and throughout the period of his directorship acted as editor of the association's own journal. For much of his time at Plymouth opportunities for personal scientific work were limited, but Allen's research was well regarded. He worked extensively on Polychaeta but published few of his results, instead making them available to W. C. M'Intosh for his monograph for the Ray Society. At different times he also studied aspects of amphipod genetics (eye colour in Gammarus), and fish biology.

Allen's contribution to science was recognized both at home and overseas. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1914, and awarded its Darwin medal in 1936. He was a foreign member of the Royal Academy of Denmark and was awarded the Hansen memorial medal and prize in 1923. The Linnean Society awarded him its gold medal in 1926, and in 1938 he received the Agassiz medal for oceanography from the US National Academy of Sciences. He was made a CBE in 1935, and a fellow of University College, London, in 1938. He was awarded a DSc degree by the University of London, and that of LLD by Edinburgh.

Allen was also active in both local and national societies, serving as president of the Devonshire Association in 1916, of the Plymouth and District Field Club, and of the Plymouth Institution. In 1922 he chaired one of the sections of the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Plymouth. For many years he was a member of the Devon and Cornwall sea fisheries committee. From 1929 to 1937 he served on the Tees and Mersey survey committees of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and was on the Water Pollution Board from 1932 to 1937. As a member of the British delegation he served on several committees of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea.

In 1912 a colleague, feeling that scientists should be more forceful in negotiations with the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, wrote of him 'Allen is ... so frightfully retiring' (A. E. Shipley to G. P. Bidder, MBA archives), but in 1923, when he received the Hansen medal, a Danish newspaper commented (in translation) 'Dr Allen is a sympathetic, tall and slender figure, with a congenial man-of-the-world appearance' (MBA archives).

On retirement in 1936 he was persuaded to stay in Plymouth, and spent his last few years still involved in scientific interests until failing memory obliged him to give up research. He died suddenly on 7 December 1942 at his home, Reservoir House, Skardon Place, Plymouth.

by Margaret Deacon


Empire in Your Backyard: Plymouth Article | Significant Individuals




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