Hugh Watson, 1885-1959

Obituary by H. E. Quick.

Extracted from Journal of Conchology, Volume 24, p.359
Hugh Watson
Hugh Watson was born at Newcastle-on-Tyne on 1 June, 1885, being the third and youngest child of John Watson and Laura Elizabeth Watson (née Burnup), and died at his home at Cherry Hinton near Cambridge, on 21 January 1959. He received private tuition under the Rev. A. J. Knapton and entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in October 1907, where his tutor was the Rev. R. St. J. Parry. He was placed in the first class of the Natural Sciences Tripos, part I, in 1910, proceeding to the M.A. degree in 1914. Watson was of independent means and devoted his life to the study of malacology, besides being interested in a large number of very diverse charities and good works, about which he informed himself fully and to which he contributed with discrimination. Hugh Watson, then living at Lauder Grange, Corbridge-on-Tyne, was elected a member of the Conchological Society on 10 January 1900 and was President 1926 – 27. He was elected an honorary member in 1955. He was a life member of the Malacological Society of London, which he joined in 1905.


Watson was the last survivor of his family and left no near relatives. He was a reserved and apparently somewhat lonely man, and though he had a wide circle of correspondence amongst British and foreign malacologists, no one seems to have known him at all intimately; this was no doubt partly due to his generally poor health and frequent attacks of severe migraine. Nevertheless those who were privileged to meet him encountered a friendly welcome and a charming old-world courtesy. His knowledge of Gastropoda and the literature and taxonomy of the class was immense, and he would take any amount of time and trouble to instruct novices and to help all who consulted him. Watson’s standard of scientific accuracy was very high; he would publish nothing until everything possible had been done to ensure the truth of every statement and to clarify all aspects of the subject, even at the cost of considerable delay. His papers are a model of style and lucidity, and very little of his output over many years has ever called for correction, though his insistence on meticulous accuracy has doubtless curtailed the amount of his published work. He was a skilled draughtsman, and his exquisite and accurate drawings of shells and anatomy are seen at their best when reproduced in collotype.

In his younger days Watson travelled and collected snails on the Continent, but for many years he remained at home and depended on other collectors to supply him with material for his studies, which were mainly concerned with the Gastropoda of Europe and South Africa.

Hugh Watson would listen with the utmost patience and even diffidence to the views of others, often far less well informed than himself, but had no hesitation in criticizing or condemning any superficial or inaccurate work, demanding from others the same exacting standard as he set himself. By his helpful and constructive advice he endeavoured to save authors from the humiliation of adverse criticism by ensuring the accuracy of their statements. There are many at home and abroad who will mourn the loss of a wise counsellor and remember Hugh Watson with gratitude and respect.

Grateful acknowledgments are tendered to Mr. F. Woods, Secretary of the Trustee Department, Norwich Union Life Insurance Society, and to Mr. B. W. Sparks for their kindness in supplying biographical particulars.

Hugh Watson — An appreciation by Hugh Ingram

Extracted from Journal of Conchology, Volume 24, p.360

Hugh Watson's name has become something of a legend in the annals of twentieth century Conchology. The impact which he made upon this science and its devotees may be judged from his influential writings and from the controversy which they sometimes aroused. I would like to try to place on record the very different impact which he made upon an inexperienced young amateur who was privileged to know him personally.

I first visited Mr. Watson in November 1957, since when I may have seen him about four times. This may seem a brief acquaintance upon which to found an appreciation of such a man, but one of his remarkable gifts was the ability to crowd many impressions into one afternoon, with a minimum of wasted time. He used to say that he grew tired very quickly and could therefore talk for no longer than an hour, but one could seldom observe this time limit because his visitors were so few and he was so reluctant to see them leave. As far as I was concerned, this could not have been because he expected much information, though he was very patient with inexperience and would take great trouble to explain the complex details of his current taxonomic problems. Here, as always, he had a great ability to bring out the interest of a subject which many regard with boredom or even antipathy. He would present his arguments with a most attractive clarity and precision of thought and speech, and his replies to my questions were always phrased with a curious Edwardian courtesy exactly matching the interior of his old-fashioned study.

For many years he had been confined to his house, where a housekeeper and gardener looked after him. His health made it difficult for him to do much collecting, either on his own account or for his colleagues abroad. Collecting on his behalf was therefore a particularly great pleasure though he was hardly the person one would normally have chosen as an instructor in the art of preparing specimens and packing them for the post. His letters of acknowledgment, written in close, angular handwriting on the familiar cream postcards, were another aspect of the pleasure of his friendship.

Mr. Watson was in the habit of supplying his friends with lists of species not hitherto found in Cambridgeshire or in Britain, but which, he felt, had probably been overlooked. When I happened to mention that I had found it necessary to dissect some specimens in order to satisfy myself that they were not among his desiderata, he was delighted at the prospect of a new recruit to Malacology. He considered that Malacology was a much neglected science, and it must have been a great disappointment to him to have to give up lecturing on this subject at such an early age.

Most of us will only be able to regret his passing as that of an authority in his particular study. A few, more fortunate, can look back in gratitude to the memory of a great friend.

Hugh Watson

By Bernard Verdcourt
Extracted from Journal of Conchology, Volume 24, pp. 407–410

Since I visited Hugh Watson a good many times and had a voluminous and continuous correspondence with him for about fifteen years, I feel that I probably knew him as well as anyone and some personal reminiscences may be of interest. I would also like to show that it is wrong to think of him as an austere, severely critical and wellnigh infallible man. He was as capable of putting 1955 at the top of a letter which was written in early 1956 as are most of us. This may help to reassure those who, like myself, have thought of giving up any attempt to do scientific work after having received a particularly devastating quire of criticism about some work one had sent him.

Owing to his retiring habits Hugh Watson’s name was known to a relatively small circle of zoologists, but it is undoubtedly true to say that he was one of the most accurate and careful scientists of his generation and that he would under different circumstances have gained the highest honours obtainable in the scientific world; he was not interested, however, in such mundane considerations.

I first corresponded with Hugh Watson in 1945 concerning the interesting fact that certain species became much rarer at the eastern end of the Chiltern Hills, e.g. Abida secale and Pomatias elegans. We rapidly discovered a common interest in the genus Carychium and after my first visit to his house in February 1946 I withdrew from publication a preliminary article on the subject and we agreed to co-operate to produce something more elaborate. This first criticism of a paper which I had from him rather discouraged me, although on looking back on it I realize that it was the most complimentary I ever received from him and that in fact I would have been delighted if I had known just how devastating he could be. Even when I ventured to admire certain papers which had recently appeared and which seemed to me to be excellent, he would proceed with unrelenting tenacity to show me just how bad they really were. The short joint paper on Carychium was not to be finished for another six years and I had a perfect demonstration of the amount of work which went into a paper which bore Hugh Watson’s name. We examined thousands of specimens of recent and fossil Carychium from throughout the range of the species we were interested in; I took scores of photographs trying to produce something which was satisfactory, measured hundreds of shells and spent hours at a time trying to mount and flatten out the incredibly minute radulae.

My first visit to his very pleasant house will always remain a clear memory – the desk piled high with years of correspondence, postcards bearing dates in the early 1920s in racks above the mantelpiece, his apologies for the weak tea we drank, and his own fine but gentle face and silky silver hair still with a good deal of golden-chestnut about it. I visited him on many occasions during the past fifteen years, every time I came home on leave from Africa, but my last intended visit was not to be; he died a few days before I arrived in England. Instead I spent a most sad afternoon hunting amongst his effects for the large quantity of material which I had sent him from Africa during the past ten years and also for that of some of his other correspondents; he had scarcely been able even to glance at all this material. The volume of correspondence he had had to deal with was evident from the two large piles which had accumu-lated since his death; letters bearing postmarks from an incredible number of places ; several books he had ordered arrived either just before or after he died, including a superb copy of Férussac which he had only had time to glance at.

Although every paper, drawing and letter which left Hugh Watson was meticulously prepared and faultless, curiously enough he was very far from orderly in the way he stored his collections, correspondence and even his books. He was one of those people who could remember the position of everything and orderly storage was not necessary. Many people with memories above the average find that it saves a good deal of time if at least some sections of their affairs are left purely to memory. Correspondence and unworked material were always left in the original wrappings, and voluminous notes about his replies were written in pencil on blank parts of the letters or wrappers, or on old share dividend announcements. This correspondence was heaped in piles of hundreds of letters on his desk, which resembled a mountain range and seemed to change but little in configuration in the time between one’s vistts, even when these were separated by as much as three years. From a concho-logical point of view his collection was rather poor; he had some glass cabinets with various shells on display, and also a vast amount of material which had been sent to him for study and which he had often been allowed to retain (although he borrowed large quantities of material also), mainly housed in cupboards ; often shells were balanced rather precariously on the corks of the tubes containing the dissected animals to which the shells belonged. Many of his ornamental shells lacked data labels and since he was not primarily interested in collecting shells he kept no catalogue. His first and foremost interest was the elucidation of the affinities and relationships of the animals themselves. Some people will perhaps be relieved to know that such a paragon was very human and even downright untidy in some respects!

His method of writing a paper was not to keep writing fresh drafts and continuously altering, but to keep all the threads in his head (save of course for certain data which one must note down) and then when he was satisfied that his arguments were complete and sound he would write the paper down in its entirety all at once. This probably explains why his papers are so clear and the uniform flow of thought and language which characterizes them ; not only are they masterpieces of accurate research but also of good plain English. He would not use a long word when a simple one would do. He liked to give all his references at the foot of the page, even if they took up over half the page. He did not like diagrams and always insisted that a figure must be absolutely true to nature to be of any value at all. I frequently had arguments with him over methods of mounting radulae. He always claimed that he could make out far more detail if a radula was unstained and mounted in glycerine jelly than if it was stained and mounted in a mountant of more suitable optical properties. Any arguments to show that glycerine jelly showed things up because of great differences in refractive index, resulting in distortion, fell on stony ground.

He had absolutely no time for shoddy work in any sphere and most people took what he had to say to heart, though sometimes they had a feeling that he had been a bit too exacting over something which did not really matter. He would not admit, what is well known to all mathema-ticians, that in some cases an approximation is all that is justified. This somewhat high and mighty attitude even prompted one famous con-chologist (now also dead) to call him the “ Hitler of the snail world” which is completely unjustified. Nature is not herself so accurate; variation in the field is so considerable that to harp on small details sometimes leads one into being a splitter and Watson had tendencies in that direction. I remember once having a long argument with him when he suggested that a certain fat Carychium from a Welsh locality was a distinct species; one of the few arguments I ever had with him which resulted in him admitting that he was wrong. Occasionally he was what can only be described as pig-headed over this desire for more than usual precision. Once when taking a series of photographs for him he complained that some were not quite the correct size even though I had carried out the work using one fixed magnification and measured it with a micrometer and tried to arrange the shells themselves in the same position; I was naturally a little annoyed when I found that he had been measuring the prints by eye with an ordinary child’s ruler. A photographer in Cambridge who was entrusted with the enlarging of these particular photographs was nearly driven to distraction and in the end had to explain that such accuracy as Watson desired was not inherent in the materials themselves and wholly beyond his ability, owing to the expansion and subsequent shrinkage of the sensitized fibres while passing through the various solutions.

Watson was the final court of appeal when one had a mollusc problem. Hundreds of workers all over the world were continuously asking him for his opinions. He was incredibly conscientious about his correspondence and his answers were often quite long papers almost in a state fit for publication. He would spend weeks answering one difficult query and exhaust it to such a degree that it is little wonder that he had little time left for his own researches; he also complained that financial and domestic problems took up much of his time. If he had ignored his correspondence, as some of his fellow workers do, he would have got through a great deal more than he did. Another feature about his correspondence that will always be remembered is the number of words he could get on to a small piece of paper. He may well hold the record for the number which can be compressed into an air letter form.

I sometimes got the impression that he tended to foster the idea that he was in chronic ill health and that if he had not been such a willing prisoner in his own home he might have grown stronger. I cannot recollect him having mentioned leaving his house during all the time that I knew him; even his dentist used to attend at his house. Most letters I received from him contained some passage or other about his poor health and his “vile body” as he always called it. Even when one had visited him for a few hours in the afternoon he often complained that the excitement had put up his temperature and forced him to stay in bed for a couple of days; one always tried to be as quiet and gentle in his presence as possible. There is no doubt that he was delighted to have visitors, but always by careful appointment, and one would sometimes get a last-minute telegram warning one not to come because he was feeling worse. I would have visited him a good deal more often if I had lived in England and regret very much not being home during his last illness when perhaps some help would have been appreciated. It is sad to reflect that practically no one went to the funeral of a man known to hundreds of workers throughout the world.

I have been tempted to end these reminiscences with a quotation from one of his letters to me, to give comfort to those of us who are more fallible. Where he culled it from I have not found out but it was in inverted commas:–

“If all the good people were clever
And all clever people were good,
The world would be nicer than ever
We thought it possibly could.
But somehow ‘tis seldom or never
The two hit it off as they should.”

The “never” is not needed in the fifth line because Hugh Watson was proof indeed that goodness and cleverness could be found together in one man, each at its highest level.

Addendum. – My correspondence with Hugh Watson, comprising all the letters he wrote to me and a proportion of those that I wrote to him, are in my hands, since they contain much valuable information of use to a student of African Mollusca. It will eventually be presented to the Department of Zoology in Cambridge, to which he bequeathed his collections and library.