In the shadows of Huxley and Forbes

I spent two years at the end of the 60s sitting at a laboratory bench immediately beneath a large, rather shiny, stuffed fish, the species of which I have recently realised I never ascertained. Its glass eye watched me without expression as I struggled first to become a zoologist and then an entomologist. I succeeded in the first, but not the second.

In the Forbes lab, Mrs. Dowson bravely assisted us in our attempts to dissect various slimy creatures and mount others on microscope slides.

We were surrounded by the past. We used specimens that had been handled by Huxley and HG Wells. The glass cases that lined the lab walls were filled with animals dredged from the oceans by various famous expeditions of the 19th century, including the Challenger expedition.

I believe I was privileged to be amongst the last to study the animal and plant kingdoms from bottom to top. We digressed a little into physiology (using such advanced technology as smoked wax cylinders to record the twitches of frog legs) and mathematics (using hand-cranked calculators to work out our statistics). But mostly we peered at entire creatures, or bits of them.

It was through the double doors of the Forbes lab that one of my near-contemporaries burst one day in 1968 with the news that "The revolution has started!" Sadly it hadn't, and life in South Kensington went on much as before.

My final year, in which we moved up a floor, coincided with the arrival of computers and my growing disenchantment with the prospect of a life spent examining the reproductive organs of small flies, or working on ways to kill as many of them as possible. The departmental library was absorbed into the huge main college library, which removed most of the pleasure of late-night study just off the Beit Quadrangle.

I may not have become an entomologist, but having learned something of their incredible variety and beauty, I did come away with a deep love of plants and animals that has never diminished.