It seems like it was inevitable that I would end up in Biology. In fact, looking back at my childhood it is actually more surprising how long I remained in denial of my obvious path in life (I was going to be a ballet dancer). Many of my earliest memories revolve around my love for the Natural History Museum in London. I used to hand in shells and fossils at the info desk and weeks later they would return in the post with little cards describing their species and range. I still have those cards. My love of museums was so great that I tried to set up my own in our back garden, populated by coloured rocks and caterpillars. I kept snails and stick insects as pets. I was obsessed.
There is a good chance, however, that this would have been just a childhood phase, long forgotten by now, were it not for one specific thing: The St Ivo School Entomology and Natural History Society. Despite it’s fancy-sounding name, Ento (as it was known by it’s members) was more commonly known in the school as “the reptile hut” or “that place that stinks”. It did stink. It also housed one of the largest collections of exotic animals owned by a state school*. The collection was in constant flux, but during my seven-year stint (from age 11 onwards) we had everything from jirds, chipmunks and Egyptian spiny mice to several 10 meter boa constrictors. The Society was founded in 1957 by biology teacher Henry Berman. The story he told was that it was originally just an entomology society, until one of the pupils asked if they could get a tarantula (controversial given that spiders are not insects). Mr Berman agreed on one condition, that the responsibility for caring for it would be entirely on the students, not himself.
By the time I joined the school, several decades later, the collection had ballooned to hundreds of different species, requiring the Society to be split into four “departments”: Mammals, Reptiles, Amphibians and Invertebrates. All new members had to spend several weeks in each department, learning how to care for all the different animals, as well as some of their basic biology, before passing a series of tests to become full members. At this point they could choose a department to specialise in. Each species had a card with it’s scientific name, family, range and care instructions, and tests involved learning the scientific names of at least three species from your department, and some general knowledge about the working of the society (including out motto “There is no they”. The main determinator of membership, however, was whether the senior members thought you worked hard enough. Despite the huge number of animals, the old deal still remained. Mr Berman was retired from teaching by this point and came in twice a week to supervise us, but the responsibility for the upkeep of the whole collection lay with its student members. Upon Mr Berman’s second retirement (for real this time), the management of the Society was taken over by another biology teacher who changed the emphasis from classical natural history to more practical animal welfare. While the removal of some of the more academic requirements for members was slightly sad, the continuing growth of the collection required it.
Long before I arrived, news of the society had (somehow) reached a naturalist working for Disney who send us several animals from the US, including two ornate box turtles, who were still there when I joined. This was not the only donation the Society received. We were considered almost like a local animal rescue center due to the sheer range of animals we kept. During my time there I remember receiving old lab mice left over from undergraduate experiments at Cambridge University, gerbils that had been bought for a small child and subsequently rejected, four leopard geckos, seven hamsters, two corn snakes, a royal ball python and, most memorably, two boa constrictors and two Burmese pythons, all over 5 meters, from a man who was emigrating to Spain. On top of that we had breeding colonies of endangered voles, a slow worm that had been run over by a car and couldn’t be re-released, scorpions, tortoises, terrapins, treefrogs… the list goes on. You can imagine the amount of care all these animals required. Every break and lunch time was spent in the small, windowless building behind the science block that housed the collection, feeding, watering and cleaning. During school holidays we drew up rotas of who would come in when. The workload was intense, and, despite limited supervision by volunteer biology teachers, the hierarchical structure and claustrophobic environment meant bullying was a constant problem. Despite all this we still went. Every day, month after month, year after year. Snake bites (actually less painful than hamster bites we discovered) didn’t put us off. The infestation of cockroaches (escaped several decades before and almost impossible to eradicate in the warm reptile room) didn’t put us off. Hating the sight of each other didn’t put us off.
This is because the benefits were amazing. Each summer we would take the collection round all the local primary schools, showing our animals at summer fetes and open days. We attended the annual Conversazione (a word I could barely pronounce at age 12) of the Cambridge Natural History Society, held in Cambridge University. There I got to meet Cambridge professors and local activists. More than one ex-member has gone on to work in science (and we produced a fair number of veterinarians as well). One meeting with a fellow ex-member stands out in my mind. Several years ago I was volunteering in the Entomology section in the Manchester Museum cataloging scarab beetles. I admit I was slightly bored and had, for some reason, decided to google the society to see if anyone had written about it online. What I found was the blurb of a book on stick insects that said the author had been a member. While reading this my boss appeared behind me. Embarrassed at having been caught slacking off, I told him I was just reading about this guy who had gone to the same school as me. “Oh yes” said my boss, “he’s just upstairs dropping off some new specimens, do you want to come meet him?” And that is how I met Dr Phil Bragg.
On a more serious note, I credit the presence of the Society on my CV with my getting into Manchester University. I later discovered I had some of the lowest intake grades of anyone on my course, yet I graduated with one of the highest degrees. My experience helped me get a position in the Manchester Museum during my undergraduate studies, I think it is still helping me now. It is the one thing from school I will never remove from my CV, and I suspect I am not the only one it helped.
I wish I could finish this post by describing what the Society is up too now. Unfortunately I can’t. In 2007, following the prolonged illness of the teacher in change and with no new volunteers to take his place, the school decided to close down the Society. It survived 50 years, a serious fire and countless idiot children but in the end it seems the school did not value it enough to pay for it’s survival. I don’t even know what happened to the animals in the collection. Despite working for the school during my summers in the years proceeding the closure they never informed me of their decision, or the fate of the animals I had spent almost a decade caring for. I can only assume they were sold or given away. It seems highly unlikely the school received even a fraction of the money the collection was worth, but that is a small price to pay as long as they all went to good homes. The decision still makes me angry to this day.** St Ivo is a good school, but it is still a comprehensive (or rather an Academy these days). Many of it’s students will never get the advantages provided by private schooling, but for almost half a century they did have access to something almost no children in the UK ever will. I got that advantage, and I will always be grateful for that.
*A quick note about the facts and stories I write here. These are all things I remember being told by other members or in some cases Mr Berman himself. That said I don’t know how accurately I am remembering these things (it was a while ago) or indeed how accurate they were to begin with. I choose to believe what I remember, but I could be wrong. There is a section about the Society on St Ivo School’s Wikipedia page though that may be more accurate.
**and not just me. I’m sure it was a difficult decision and that the school had their reasons, however, I will always believe they made the wrong call.