Aired: 1 October 2012, BBC Radio 4
Curator: Jimmy Carr
Steering Committee: Erica McAlister, Al Murray
and Jan Bondeson
Erica’s donation to the museum was a dung pat. ‘We need to people to go out and look at dung,’ she insists. ‘A lot of the stuff scientists want to know about flies goes on in dung piles and there aren’t enough people studying it. For example, there’s a British fly called the hornet robber fly (Asilus crabroniformis) that lives in, on and around dung. We know all about the adult but we can’t tell you where the larvae live.’
The UK has around 24,000 described species of insect, of which 7,500 or so are flies. In many ways larval stages are more interesting. Fly larvae are basically walking stomachs, designed to eat. It’s the part of the fly life-cycle that has the greatest impact upon the environment but it’s also the least understood and the least observed. ‘This part of the ecosystem is being ignored,’ notes Erica. ‘So let’s use the weight of the Natural History Museum to focus on it. There’s a huge amateur scientific community and we want them to go out and find fly larvae and report where they are living and what behaviour they exhibit.’
‘Every type of poo attracts its own kind of insect,’ Erica says. ‘Each dung pat becomes a unique mini-ecosystem with insects that specialise in that kind of poo. My career so far, every single part of it, has been around poo.’
Curator at the Natural
Erica McAlister is the Collections Manager for Diptera – the ‘true flies’ that have only two wings – at London’s Natural History Museum. ‘The flies everyone thinks about are the vomit-on-food flies,’ she says. ‘But I also deal with all the bitey, stabby, piercey flies. A lot of the medically important flies are all under my jurisdiction.’
Erica took on her current role in 2006. Her job involves the identification and classification of donated specimens. There are about 120,000 described species of fly, 60,000 of which the museum has in its collection. There are thousands more undescribed.
Erica has been bitten and stung by many types of insect over the years, but nonetheless she believes that insects have an unjustly bad reputation. ‘We should try to show that insects and spiders aren’t creepy-crawlies, they’re just animals; a part of nature. They do good work. There’s nothing sinister or creepy about them.’
Without flies there would be no chocolate. Cocoa pods are produced when cocoa flowers are pollinated. The main pollinators of cocoa flowers are ceratopogonid midges in the genus Forcipomyia. Flies are massively important for pollination – hoverflies are some of the most prolific pollinators. Flies are also crucial for the environment in helping to dispose of dead organisms.
Curators are a little obsessive; it’s a certain character ‘strain’ we have. If I eat a packet of Skittles I’ll put them all out and separate the colours to make sure that I don’t eat the wrong colours first. You’ve got to save the purple and red ones till last.
Al Murray is a comedian, writer and TV presenter best known for his onstage persona, ‘The pub landlord’. He won the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1999, after being nominated in 1996, 1997 and 1998. In 2003, he was listed in the Observer as one of the 50 funniest acts in British comedy.
Al is a great-great-great-grandson of William Makepeace Thackeray. He studied modern history at Oxford and performed in the Oxford Revue with Richard Herring and Stewart Lee. He started out with an act that involved sound-effect impressions, including of guns, animals and a particularly impressive car boot opening and shutting. ‘My first Fringe show with the Revue in 1989 was described as “the worst show on the Fringe” by the Observer’, he says.
He retains a passion for history, particularly modern history. ‘Modern history is “juicier”; it’s closer to explaining where we are now,’ he says. ‘Why read fiction when you can read history? It’s already happened. If you want to understand what it was like to be in a building on fire while Tiger tanks are coming up alongside and trying to blast you out of the building, listen to someone talk who was there.’
Al has always had a passion for the drums. He still plays today for the rock cover band T-34. He appeared at the Download festival in 2010 and 2011 and got to duet with Phil Collins on his chat show. It was while touring with Harry Hill as drummer with a comedy band called The Pub Band International that Murray created the Pub Landlord as a compère to link the various parts of the show together. He now co-owns a company called PimpCo with Chris Newell that ‘pimps’ drum kits with original artwork, printed drum wraps and decals.
For his donation to the museum, Al brought in a travelator.
‘For me, the travelator represents the two polar opposites of human achievement,’ he explains. ‘At one end you have the great thinkers, designers, engineers, the people who designed the motor and the gears and the interlocking plates. And at the other, you get the lazy sods who just stand on it and can’t be bothered to walk.
'It’s also a great example of “unexpected consequences”; a good idea gone horribly wrong. Travelators were intended to get through people through airports quicker. But because people stand still on them, they’ve actually slowed things down – it’s faster to walk.’
Moving walkways were invented in the mid-19th century – around the same time as the escalator – but even today you’d be lucky to find one that goes faster than 2mph. At 5.5mph the one at Montparnasse station in Paris is the current record-holder.
At Oxford we were extremely suspicious of the Footlights. They seemed to be so much more organised, more ruthless, and much better known than us. No one had heard of us! I’m glad to hear some things never change.
For his donation to the museum, Jan presented a safety coffin. ‘In the past, people were terrified of being buried alive,’ he explains. ‘Before modern medicine, it was quite hard to tell when someone was really dead.’ Many towns in 19th-century Germany, for example, had a Leichenhaus, a building in which corpses were kept on beds attached to bells that would respond to the slightest movement and summon an attendant. Only when they really started to smell were they removed.
The first practical safety coffin was invented by physician Adolf Gutsmuth in 1822. It was equipped with a long tube through which food or drink could be administered if necessary to the deceased. He tested the coffin himself by being buried alive and once gave a speech about his coffin, while interred in it, to an audience gathered around the tube on the ground above.
Genuine and legitimate methods that were once used to check whether a person is dead include putting horse-radish near the patient’s nose, pouring vinegar (or urine, if no vinegar available) into the patient’s mouth, and putting needles under the toenails. A French doctor, Jules-Antoine Josat, invented a pair of strong pincers to attach to the person’s nipples on the basis that if you were alive you would definitely react to that. Another idea, proposed by a German doctor called Middeldorph, was that a long needle with a flag at one end should be thrust into the heart of the apparently dead person, and the flag would wave about if the heart was still beating.
Jan Bondeson is a Swedish-born rheumatologist (joints, soft tissues and connective tissue disorders like arthritis) and currently works as a senior lecturer and consultant at the Cardiff University School of Medicine.
Outside of his career in medicine, Jan has written several nonfiction books on a variety of topics. They include a Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, Animal Freaks, and The Pig-faced lady of Manchester Square and Other Medical Marvels. He has also written biographies of The London Monster, a forerunner of Jack the Ripper, who was convicted (or perhaps framed) for stabbing 50 women in the buttocks between 1788 and 1790, and Edward ‘The Boy’ Jones, a teenager who became obsessed with the youthful Queen Victoria and broke into Buckingham Palace to stalk her. His book Buried Alive is a historical study of the signs of death, and the risk of being prematurely buried by mistake. He is also a regular contributor to Fortean Times magazine.
Jan has also written several books about dogs, including a biography of Greyfriars Bobby, the Most Faithful Dog in the World, who is supposed to have kept vigil on its master’s grave for 14 long years. Most recently he has written Amazing dogs – a Cabinet of Canine Curiosities, which featured, among other stories, Nazi experiments to make dogs talk. ‘It has been claimed that the Nazis saw dogs as being almost as intelligent as humans and tried to train them to “speak”, read and spell and they even conducted experiments in man-to-dog telepathy,’ he explains.
I’ve always had a profound interest in history, especially the history of medicine … and a bit of a fancy for the macabre and odd.