from Dr Georgina Montgomery, Associate Member of the History Faculty affiliated to the Oxford Centre for the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, and Byrne Bussey Marconi Visiting Fellow at the Bodleian Libraries in 2021
Charles Elton – looking young and adventurous on his motorbike in the 1920s, in the picture above – is often referred to as the “father of ecology.” Elton spent much of his career conducting long-term ecological research in Wytham Woods, which remains an active field site to this day. Although it would be easy to imagine Elton working alone in the Woods, Wytham has embodied a collaborative approach to science. Groups of students and researchers worked together with Elton to collect data on the huge diversity of fauna and flora that exist in Wytham.
One animal that might seem mundane to us, but is important for understanding the ecology of a place, is the mouse. Details about the mice were recorded on a ‘body card.’ This card was specially decorated
by Elton to celebrate the occasion of the 2000th observation, of a mouse which was live-trapped in 1928.(Bodleian Libraries, MS. Eng. c. 3328, folder A71)
By 1952, Elton and two collaborators, R.S. Miller and B. Macpherson, developed a custom-made punch card for observations of plants and animals at Wytham Woods.
In the summer of 2021, I will be leading walks in Wytham Woods in the footsteps of Charles Elton. These events are part of an appreciation of the history of Wytham Woods as a scientific environment.
An event for children aged 10-12 will take place on 3 July, with an event for adults to be scheduled later in the summer. https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/nature-science-and-history-all-in-one-morning-for-10-12-year-olds-tickets-159505307669
The photos below capture the diversity of researchers who studied field ecology in Wytham during the 1950s. Students came from across the United Kingdom, and travelled internationally, to study ecology with Elton in Wytham. Below, you see just two of the many women who have conducted research in Wytham Woods from the 1940s onwards. From 1950 the number of women enrolled in Elton’s field ecology course frequently outnumbered the men.
Wytham is not only a place for science. Wytham Woods has attracted artists and poets, including Elton’s wife, E.J. Scovell. Her poems often focused on nature. The scientists and artists who now work here also appreciate the beauty of the Woods.
Preserving the beauty of Wytham Woods was also an important reason why this area was given to the University of Oxford by the ffennell family in memory of their daughter, Hazel, who died in 1939, only in her early thirties.
- Dr. Georgina M. Montgomery’s recent publication for The Royal Society’s Notes and Records https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsnr.2021.0007 . This essay on the history of Wytham Woods formed part of a special issue entitled “Biodiversity and the History of Scientific Environments” which Dr. Montgomery also co-edited about the history of scientific environments in the UK, USA, and Korea: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/toc/rsnr/current
- More information about the Wytham Estate can be found in Notes on the History of the Wytham Estate, a limited edition reprint of the 1955 booklet by A.J. Grayson and E.W. Jones of the Imperial Forestry Institute at Oxford, complete with a pull-out map of the Wytham Estate with annotations from the 19th and 20th centuries.
- For the work of Charles Elton, see the Charles Elton Archive on ORA, The Oxford University Research Archive
- And find the Correspondence and papers of Charles Sutherland Elton, FRS (1900-1991) in the Bodleian Libraries