Everyone remembers the international scientific conferences at the start of their careers. There is the mixture of excitement and trepidation, a presentation to prepare and the logistics of travel arrangements. You may be travelling alone across the world or taking advantage of attending a more local venue.
My father was nervous when I set off across Europe alone by train to attend the Cladocera Conference in Budapest which was still behind The Iron Curtain. I also have very fond memories of an early morning walk from a croft in the highlands to the local station to catch a train to the Palaeolimnology Conference in the Lake District.
We can empathise with Kathleen Carpenter when she set sail on her career in freshwater ecology. She boarded the White Star Ship, Migantic, in Liverpool on 25th July 1924, en route to the British Association for the Advancement of Science Meeting in Toronto. She had just completed her M.Sc. degree at Aberystwyth University on The freshwater fauna of the Aberystwyth District of Cardiganshire and its relations to lead pollution.
She appeared to be travelling alone and described herself as a scientific investigator on the passenger list. I scanned the occupations of the other women passengers on the same page – domestic, housewife, teacher, manageress. The social history of women was in transition but Kathleen Carpenter was confident about her scientific credentials.
The passenger list was not in alphabetical order suggesting passengers were recorded as they arrived and three lines below Kathleen Carpenter another name caught my eye – William Alexander Balfour-Browne, Zoology Lecturer from Highgate. Freshwater ecologists in Ireland and the UK will recognise this famous name associated with water beetles. After studying zoology at Oxford, he went on to teach at the predecessor college to Queen’s University Belfast and lectured at Cambridge. He was a friend of the Irish naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger who wrote The Way that I Went: An Irishman in Ireland (1969). Balfour-Browne went on to be President of the Society of British Entomology.
It was fascinating to realise that travel records have the potential to reveal scientific associations. Carpenter and Balfour-Browne may have arranged to travel together and perhaps took the opportunity to discuss their research? Can you imagine their conversations over dinner or strolling along the deck? Kathleen would have been a charming travelling companion as her passion for her field is clearly evident in her writing. Perhaps they discussed their book plans, as in the following years Carpenter published A Life in Inland Waters (1928) and Balfour-Browne produced a Textbook of Practical Entomology (1932).
Are you curious to hear about the other famous scientists who were on the Migantic? You can find out at my International Women’s Day lecture on the life of Kathleen Carpenter at Aberystwyth University on the evening of 7th March 2016 – details here.