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Lancelot Hogben, FRS (1895-1975)

By Milo Keynes

On his death in 1975, Lancelot Hogben left behind two unedited versions of an autobiography that have now been combined and published by his son, Adrian, Emeritus Professor of Physiology and Biophysics at the University of Iowa.1 Lancelot Hogben, whose first name derived from that of a Methodist missionary prominent at the time of his birth, came from a non-conformist Kentish family, the son of “poor but intellectually dishonest parents”. (Throughout this paper all the quotations taken from Hogben’s autobiography1 are placed between double quotation marks.) His strong and unrelieved Methodist upbringing influenced him all his life, but he escaped early from the doctrine that the fate of the unsaved is in everlasting hellfire. On the way to losing his religious faith and becoming an evangelical atheist – later he liked to say “I’m an atheist, thank God” – he joined the Society of Friends, renouncing any intention of becoming the Methodist missionary that his parents wanted him to be.

At sea in a storm in a small boat, he and a research student, the future scientific journalist, Maurice Richardson, “joined in prayers to Darwin, Marx and Bernard Shaw”, with invocations that apparently succeeded. However, he soon turned against Marx and “found Marxist dogma dished out as dialectical materialism deeply distasteful and wholly incompatible with my own criteria for intellectual integrity. Having off-loaded one brand of religious fanaticism, I had no inclination to submit to another.”

For a time while at Cambridge he was active in the Fabian Society and later, when Professor of Social Biology at the London School of Economics in 1930-37, he used to visit Beatrice and Sidney Webb at Passfield Corner. He was a tub-thumping member of the Labour Party for many years: he and his first wife, Enid Charles, an ardent socialist, Trade Unionist, economist and feminist, whom he married in 1917, found that socialism “filled the religious vacuum that human nature abhors”. Eventually, however, he swayed away from socialism into “humanism”.

A pacifist and conscientious objector to military service in the First World War, he spent three months soon after he had graduated as a prisoner in Wormwood Scrubs on the passing of the Conscription Act of 1916. He vigorously opposed racial discrimination. When Professor of Zoology in Cape Town – ”an athletic institution where intellectual pursuits were not altogether discouraged” – from 1927 to 1930, his opposition to “the tightening grip of apartheid” ensured his early departure from South Africa. In the late 1930s he helped Jewish scientists in Germany, and in 1940 was caught in Norway by the German invasion there when lecturing on the falsity of Nazi racial theories, but managed to get home through Sweden, Siberia, Japan and the USA.

In his first book, A short life of Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), written in 1918, he wrote of Wallace’s ‘lofty idealism that sought to place the possibilities of science at the service of mankind’.2 It was doing this himself by writing his popular “self-educator” books, each with an alliterative title, that made him famous. He used his friend H.G. Wells’s The outline of history3 as the model for the four ‘Primers for the Age of Plenty’, and claimed to have written Mathematics for the million: a popular self-educator,4 with sales over the half-million mark by 1978, in six weeks to pass away the time when ill from a near-fatal streptococcal infection in 1934. This was followed by Science for the citizen: a self-educator based on the social background of scientific discovery5 in 1938, which had sales of 130 000. The third and fourth primers were books edited by Hogben, which came out in 1944 and 1947: F. Bodmer’s The loom of language – a guide to foreign languages for the home student,6 with its store of organized knowledge about European languages; and H. Hamilton’s History of the Homeland. The story of the British background.7

While at McGill University (1925-27), he found that the Canadian students, who had little knowledge of Latin, Greek or English etymology, had difficulty in recognizing the meaning of, and memorizing, biological terms. Understanding this, whenever he introduced a new technical term, he linked its components with already familiar words of similar roots, emphasizing each word’s “mnemotechnic” value. This was the start of his “assembling a universal vocabulary built on the Latin and Greek roots that form the basis of the language of science”, published as Interglossa in 1943,8 which he had earlier outlined in the last chapter of The loom of language and written while fire-watching in Birmingham in 1942.

Outside these books and his scientific writings, Hogben wrote a play in 1917, and in 1918 published a book of poetry, Exiles of the snow, and other poems,9 with a second one in 1932 under a pseudonym, A journey to Nineveh, and other verses.10 He had met Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf at a socialist club, and in her diary of 1918 Virginia Woolf wrote:

The poet Hogben was also there [at the 1917 Club]. I laid his little book on the arm of my chair. Gossip of the usual kind. Poor Hogben’s book is precisely the dreary imitative stuff one might have expected; or even worse than one might have expected – what Lytton would call “illiterate”; under the influence of Swinburne, incredibly ungifted, & weakly rebellious.11

Virginia Woolf was notoriously unkind in her diary, but likely to have been right about Hogben’s Swinburnian lyrics.

Lancelot Hogben, a handsome man, was an experimental biologist with a wide and optimistic curiosity, who could vividly impart his (often non-conformist) enthusiasms. His contradictory beliefs, such as becoming a vegetarian under the influence of George Bernard Shaw, but being a vivisectionist as a scientist, did not worry him. His mother wished him to be a Methodist missionary, and her hopes were encouraged when at the age of 14 he decided to be a biologist, as “a medical qualification was then the prerequisite for those without independent means. Happily, my mother regarded a medical missionary as a field officer of senior rank in the Lord’s service, and encouraged my intention to become a physician”.

Hogben went to the Tottenham (Middlesex County) Secondary School in Stoke Newington, made happy by finding that he could use the local “public library for his secular (weekday) reading no fiction which mentioned an unmarried mother, or work tainted with Darwinism, was allowed to enter the home”. Self-educated in zoology, he went up to Cambridge in 1913, where he had obtained a Major Entrance Scholarship at Trinity College – chosen because it gave the highest award available – to add to one of the first London County Council bursaries. At Cambridge he read zoology and was taught by the physiologists Keith Lucas, E.D. (later Lord) Adrian and (Sir) Joseph Barcroft, and the palaeontologist Clive Forster Cooper, later Director of the Natural History Museum.

In 1917, he was appointed a lecturer in the Zoology Department of Birkbeck College, at which there were no facilities for research, so moved to the Imperial College of Science in 1919, where he studied comparative endocrine physiology and soon became a senior lecturer. It was at this time that he first met Julian Huxley and published a paper with him.12 In 1922, he moved to Edinburgh, at first with the geneticist F.A.E. Crew in the Animal Breeding Research Department (later the University Institute of Animal Genetics), working with F.R. Winton and Gavin de Beer. A year later he moved to the Medical School Physiology Department with Sir Edward Sharpey-Schafer, working on the comparative physiology of the pituitary gland. With his collaborators, he studied the endocrine control of colour change in frogs, and in 1922 isolated the melanocyte stimulating hormone (MSH) of the posterior pituitary. MSH was the sixth hormone to be isolated, after: adrenaline (epinephrine), 1894; secretin, 1902; oxytocin, 1902; thyroxin, 1919; and insulin, 1922. In 1923 he co-founded the Society of Experimental Biology and its journal with Julian Huxley, J.B.S. Haldane and Frank Crew.

He only remained in Edinburgh until 1925, when be moved to Montreal to be better paid as Assistant Professor of Medical Zoology at McGill University, with summer research at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. This was another of the frequent moves from post to post that occurred throughout his career, as in 1927 he accepted an invitation to become Professor of Zoology at the University of Cape Town, a move which in its turn lasted only three years. It was during this time that he discovered the African claw-toed frog, Xenopus laevis, so often called the Xenopus toad, as an experimental animal for biological research.

Hogben demonstrated the dependency of ovarian function in the Xenopus on the pituitary gonadotrophins, and in the early 1940s this became the basis of the Hogben pregnancy test. On injection of urine or serum into the dorsal lymph sac of the female frog, a positive response to the placental luteinizing hormone, human chorionic gonadotrophin (HCG), gives ovulation within 4-12 hours. However, the test, which may be positive two weeks after the first ‘missed’ menstrual period, is relatively insensitive. This means it may give false negative results despite concentrating the urine before injection; on the other hand, that it gives no false positive reactions was an important element in its use.

The frog carries its eggs in the abdomen at all times, and may be tested repeatedly after a gap of two or three weeks. Other, more sensitive, tests using one-off ovarian changes in mice, rabbits or rats are far more expensive. The earlier Ascheim-Zondek test, introduced in 1927, using immature mice, requires repeated subcutaneous injections over five days for completion.

The introduction of these tests, which could give a reliable diagnosis far earlier in pregnancy than was possible before, was of great clinical and social importance. When the Eugenics Society took over the Marie Stopes Mothers’ [Birth Control] Clinic in 1958, the Clinic provided a pregnancy testing service to local general practitioners; the zinc-lined tanks, in which the Xenopus frogs were kept in the basement, were still in use in 1970. But the employment of frogs for pregnancy testing mainly ceased when comparable immunologic tests, which use antibodies to HCG and give results within a few minutes, were introduced in the early 1960s. A dipstick, now available without prescription, gives a colour change within one minute with an accuracy of 99%.

To be continued in a subsequent issue of the Newsletter (with references). Reprinted from Notes and Records of the Royal Society, London, 1999; vol. 53: pp. 361-369