R.M.S. “Megantic”, Ship of Science 1924



On 25th July 1924 the White Star Line Ship Megantic left Liverpool.  It carried a precious cargo of scientists with many thought to be en route to a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Toronto. Amongst the illustrious collection of distinguished gentlemen scientists was a young woman Kathleen Carpenter M.Sc. from Aberystwyth University just starting her career in freshwater ecology.

The passenger list gives addresses and occupations which were not always specific to their specialist areas.  However in many cases their careers are subsequently recorded in scientific history:

William Alexander Balfour-Browne, Highgate, Zoology Lecturer; diving beetle expert, Cambridge, Queen’s Belfast & Imperial College; later President of the Society of British Entomology; friend of Robert Lloyd Praeger.

Prof. Edward Charles Baly, Liverpool, Professor of Chemistry.

Irving Howard Cameron, London, surgeon; helped to found the medical faculty of Toronto University; founder and editor of the Canadian Journal of Medical Science.

Kathleen Carpenter, Stockton, Tees, scientific investigator; pioneering freshwater ecologist.

Sydney Chapman, Morecambe, professor; mathematician and geophysicist; in 1930 he described the photochemical mechanisms that give rise to the ozone layer.

Rev. Albert Cortie, Stoneyhurst, lecturer; Jesuit priest; astronomer who travelled to Sweden on Solar eclipse expedition of August 1914; prominent member of British Astronomical Association.

Frederick George Donnan, London, University Professor.

Reginald Fisher, Harpenden, statistician; father of modern statistics!

William Godden, Stoneywood, biochemist; livestock dietician, later Deputy Director of Rowett Research Institute.

Dr. Charles Alfred Matley, paleontologist and geologist, worked in India and Wales; later Government Geologist for Jamaica.

Wilfred McLean, University College of Wales, Bangor, lecturer.

Florence Annie Meckeridge, London, lecturer.

Prof. Edward Mellanby discovered vitamin D and the role in preventing rickets.

Sir Max Muspratt and his family, manufacturer, Liverpool; chemist and politician, director of Imperial Chemical Industries, Member of Parliament, Lord Mayor of Liverpool.

Florence Adam Randall, London, lecturer.

Donald Ward Outler, Harpenden, biologist.

Harold James Page, Harpenden, chemist;  chief chemist and head of the Chemical Department at Rothamsted Experimental Station; became director of the Rubber Research Institute of Malaya, and during the Second World War was interned in Sumatra for three and a half years.

Prof. Sidney Hugh Reynolds, Bristol, professor; geologist.

Prof. David “Thorday” Bangor University; plant physiologist.

Prof. William Ernest Turner, chemist and pioneer of scientific glass technology.

Prof. Robert George White, College Farm, Bangor University, animal breeding and farm management; bred an improved Welsh mountain sheep.

Other occupations represented on the ship included teachers, engineers, farmers, factory managers, cooks, accountants, domestic servants, housewives, advertising agent, clerks, fitters, foremen, manufacturers, land owners, telegraphist, draughtsman, golfball maker, nursery governess, veterinary surgeon, merchants, cotton buyer, carpenters, solicitor, insurance agent, school principles, upholsterer and typist.   This cross-section of occupations reflected the wide socio-economic foundation of society at that time and a high degree of global mobility.

Four years later Kathleen Carpenter would publish a book chapter entitled “The Biology of Inland Waters in Relation to Human Life” and discuss the environmental impact of the Industrial Revolution.  Her fellow passengers were players in this Revolution. But at this point in time she was about to spend several days confined to this bubble of scientists, industrialists and wider society, contemplating the next step in her developing career in freshwater ecology.  Did she get advice from any of her fellow passengers?  I think the answer is almost definitely yes. May be she was writing the book chapter?


Kathleen Carpenter – Before Kick-Sampling

Kick sampling is a standard and widely used method for sampling the invertebrates living on the bed of a stream or river. It involves placing a net in the direction of flow, with open net mouth facing upstream.  The biologist kicks the substrate in front of the net for a standard period of time and the dislodged organisms are carried into the net for counting and analysis.

This technique became established in the mid 1970’s, with organisations such as the Institute of Biology and the US Environmental Protection Agency adopting its use.  Today kick-sampling is the accepted standard around the world for collecting comparable samples from stream beds.

However working in the early part of the 1900’s Kathleen Carpenter, a pioneering freshwater ecologist in Wales, carried out an extensive survey of the rivers around Aberystwyth.  It is evident from her papers archived in the National Library of Wales that she was a very thorough fieldworker.  Here is the description of the sampling strategy she developed before kick-sampling.

“The method adopted is as follows: first , as large a number as possible of stones in the bed of the stream are turned over and any Molluscs, Insect-larvae etc. adhering to them are picked off. Next, water is squirted over the surface of the stone into a jar, to wash off any smaller forms.

Samples of mud from the bed and edges of the stream are then taken, and the roots of any submerged vegetation are well scraped with the sharp edge of a collecting- net, to dislodge individuals which may be sheltering among them.

Masses of the weed are brought away, and are subsequently well shaken in water, and, finally, weed, mud and water are looked over carefully with first a hand lens and then a binocular dissecting microscope, lest any small species should escape observation.

A small silken tow-net is also dragged along the surface of the water to collect Copepoda etc.

When all these precautions have been taken, an afternoon’s collecting may yield the harvest of a dozen species – except in one of the richest streams, that is to say! ”

Kathleen Carpenter used these samples to produce simple lists of species and to compare the differences in biodiversity between rivers polluted by metal mine water and more pristine river systems. There is no indication given in her papers that she was assisted in the field so what other practical precautions would a woman pioneering ecologist have to take when contemplating climbing into a stream?   Although after World War One women were able to adopt more practical work clothes, including trousers, we do not know what Kathleen Carpenter wore.  Clearly it would be difficult and potentially dangerous to kick sample in a long skirt!  Our early women aquatic biologists coped with some exceptional social challenges including what to wear.

You are invited to come hear more about the life of Kathleen Carpenter at my International Women’s Day public lecture at Aberystwyth University on the evening of 7th March 2016 – details here.

Carpenter’s Cannibal Salmon




Atlantic Salmon (public domain image)


War loomed large on the front page of the Northern Daily Mail on 1 Sept. 1939. Poland is complaining about being a victim of German aggression and Hitler is making provocative speeches.

The British Association for the Advancement of Science was meeting in Dundee and the anxious committee decided to cancel the remainder of the meeting.   The night trains to London and other parts of the country were simultaneous booked up with all available sleeping accommodation reserved.

Kathleen Carpenter (from Liverpool University) was lucky, because earlier in the day she got to report on one of the first detailed studies of the diet of young salmon (Vol. 110: 81-96, 1940: Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London).  She had examined hundreds of young salmon from the Welsh Dee over a two year period.

Several newspapers ran headlines on the theme of “cannibal salmon” and contained almost identical quotes from Dr. Carpenter:
“The result is to show that the young salmon are wholly opportunists in their feeding, taking greedily any sort of animal food which is available, no matter what its nature and origin.”

“The stomach contents include examples of almost all the invertebrate animals found in the streams, and also such miscellaneous items as a bird’s feather, a mole-flea, ants, spiders and millipedes, many winged insects, portions of the skeletons of fishes, and some unmistakable salmon eggs.”

“The interest of this new record of cannibalism is enhanced by the fact that one parr, which had swallowed five of these eggs, was a prematurely ripe and already spent male, and so may quite possibly have eaten his own offspring.”

The abstract of her scientific paper described the salmon as “indiscriminately carnivorous”- they ate whatever was available at the time.   She considered material from outside the river ecosystem important, especially leaf-eating tree-parasites which fall into the river in the autumn.  For this reason she thought the growth of riparian trees and vegetation desirable. Fish scale readings seemed to correspond to the seasonal cycle in feeding.  In her opinion there is no evidence of loss of appetite at any season but merely variations in opportunity.

This paper was Kathleen Carpenter’s last contribution to the scientific literature.

Three days after the aborted Dundee meeting on the 3rd Sept., Britain declared war of Germany. Presumably Kathleen Carpenter returned safely to Liverpool.  In a review of the pollution of rivers of West Wales in 1944 (which was first documented by Carpenter), Lily Newton remarks in a footnote that a complete set of scientific records were destroyed in enemy action.  There is no acknowledgement of any assistance from Kathleen Carpenter. To add to the mystery Liverpool University archives have no record of Kathleen Carpenter.

You can find out more about Kathleen Carpenter at my International Women’s Day lecture at Aberystwyth University on the evening of 7th March 2016 – details here. If you have any records for her in Liverpool during or after the Second World War please get in touch.