Entomology, particularly in the past, has been a field dominated by men, and for some the word ‘Entomologist’ itself conjures an image of an eccentric bearded gentlemen armed with a butterfly net. There are, of course, many women who have made important contributions to the study of invertebrates and as today is International Women’s Day I thought I would share the stories of two women associated with the invertebrate collections at World Museum, Liverpool. They have both made significant contributions in their fields, but their names are relatively unknown to the North-West England Invertebrate community.
Dr Alwen Myfanwy Evans (1895-1937) – Entomologist, Lecturer and Explorer
First up is Dr Alwen Myfanwy Evans. She was born in Stockport but spent most of her life living on Greenhill Avenue in the Mossley Hill area of Liverpool. In 1918, at the age of 23, after completing her Masters degree at The University of Manchester, she began working at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM). She initially studied tsetse flies (Glossinidae) and subsequently went on to specialise in Anophelines (malaria carrying mosquitoes). She quickly became a recognised expert in African Anophelines and in 1921 she became LSTM’s first female lecturer in entomology.
Alwen went on two major expeditions to Africa, the first of which was in 1925 to Sierra Leone. Here she spent several months carrying out mosquito surveys in Freetown and worked in the lab assisting local experts with species identification. She subsequently published ‘Breeding places of Anopheline mosquitoes in and around Freetown, Sierra Leone’ in 1926.
In 1928, she obtained her PhD from the University of Manchester after completing her thesis, ‘A Short Illustrated Guide to the Anophelines of Tropical and South Africa’.
In addition to being a brilliant entomologist, she was also an excellent artist. She illustrated several highly detailed and beautiful mosquito drawings, some of which she used for her teaching (below).
In 1936, Alwen spent 6 months in East Africa under the auspice of a Leverhulme Research Fellowship.
Before sailing for Kenya, she said ‘The principal part of my researches will be the exact identification of certain mosquitoes. About 30 species are known to exist, and I have the natural desire of the entomologist to add to the list. My researches will form the starting point from which other workers may devise methods of controlling insect-carried diseases’. She earned a reputation in the press as being an intrepid explorer. They described how she was ‘wading through crocodile-infested swamps, trampling through jungle and over desert looking for mosquitoes’ and ‘went where no woman had ever been’ to help fight malaria. She was very committed to her research and even fed the live mosquitoes she collected with her own blood by placing them on her arm on her homeward voyage.
Upon her return from Africa, she completed her most famous work, ‘Mosquitoes of the Ethiopian Region’ but sadly died, aged 42, just two weeks after completing it. It was later published by the British Museum in 1938 and was recognised as one of the most important contributions ever made on the subject. The following year, in the journal Nature, a fellow scientist wrote ‘We have nothing but praise for this comprehensive and scholarly work, which is admirably arranged and clearly illustrated. In every respect it forms a worthy memorial to its author, whose decease, in the midst of an active and scientific life, was a great loss to workers in medical entomology’.
Alwen had a worldwide reputation and was held in high esteem in a male dominated field. Despite her relatively short career, she made important contributions to the study of malaria carrying mosquitoes and discovered and described many new species to science.
World Museum’s collection of World Diptera (flies) is dominated by the medically important groups in the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine Collection. These 30,000 specimens include some of Alwen’s mosquitoes. The photos below show a few examples of the specimens which proudly hold Alwen’s name on their labels, now immortalised in the museum’s entomology collections.
Nora Fisher McMillan MBE (1908 – 2003) – Conchologist, Museum Curator & Author
Nora McMillan (born Eleanor Fisher) was born in Belfast in 1908 and her interest in shells was sparked by summer visits to Millisle Beach, County Down as a young girl. Encouraged by a family friend, she joined Belfast Naturalists Field Club junior section where she learnt more about marine animals and her growing expertise was nurtured by fellow members. She was educated at Liverpool Girls’ College in Huyton and Merseyside became established as her second home. Over the years she developed a specialism in Conchology, the study of mollusc shells, and more specifically post-glacial freshwater Mollusca.
In 1929 Nora started working at Belfast Municipal Museum and Art Gallery (later Ulster Museum), and in 1933 she joined the curatorial staff of Liverpool Museum (now World Museum) working in the vertebrate zoology department. Due to the strict hierarchy of the time, it meant that she was initially not allowed to study the shell collection even though by then she was recognised as a rising star in conchology. I was also shocked to discover that Nora was forced to leave the museum in 1937 when she married William McMillan, a local dental surgeon. This was due to the ‘Marriage Bar’ which was a policy that meant that women had to give up work upon becoming married. It didn’t apply to all occupations but was particularly prevalent in local government where it was organisational policy. The rationale behind this was that married women no longer needed an income and would be otherwise occupied looking after their husbands, home and family. Furthermore, women were seen as selfish if they didn’t want to give up their posts as they were thought to be denying opportunities for men and unmarried women. I can imagine that this must have been incredibly frustrating for ambitious women such as Nora. Between 1938 and 1956 Nora held small part-time positions in the Geology and Dental departments at the University of Liverpool before eventually returning to the museum as curator of the conchology collections thereafter.
She was an adventurous woman and travelled widely in Europe, Africa, Australia and New Zealand. In the early 1970’s she even went alone on a shell collecting expedition to a whaling station in the Arctic Ocean.
Nora was a well-respected curator and author who boasted an impressive list of achievements and accolades. In 1970 she was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy (Ireland’s leading body of experts in the sciences and humanities) and was also President of the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. She produced over 400 publications and wrote several books including ‘Observer’s book of Seashells’ (1977) and ‘British Shells’ (1968). The British Shells book was one of her most significant publications, it opened up the subject of shell recording to a wide audience, bridging the gap between science and the general public, and is still useful today. Nora also received an honorary MSc from the University of Liverpool in 1991 and an MBE for her life’s work in 1992. In 2000, a newly discovered sea snail was named after her, Chrysallida macmillanae.
Nora continued to work at Liverpool Museum as an employee until her retirement and then as a volunteer until she was 92. Known to friends and colleagues as ‘Mrs Mac’, she was described as a larger-than-life character. She kept goats in her garden which she apparently walked through the neighbourhood in Bromborough where she lived for most of her life. In addition to conchology, she also had interests in geology as well as being a keen amateur botanist, naturalist and local historian. Her house backed onto Dibbinsdale Nature Reserve where she recorded wildlife for more than 60 years. In 2003 she sadly passed away after a short illness, aged 95.
Nora was responsible for recognising and sorting the most scientifically important material within the museum’s conchology collection. She curated the Mollusca collections at World Museum for 50 years, particularly the collections of Frederick Price Marrat who described many new species to science. Nora also persuaded several conchologists to pass their collections to the museum, which as a result, now has one of the largest regional collections with good representations of popular groups.
Delving into the museum’s conchology collections I found hundreds of specimens that Nora had collected, and many more from other conchologists that she had sorted and labelled. Nora did an extensive study of the Mollusca of Cheshire marl-pits, focusing on the Bromborough district of the Wirral. The report was published in the Journal of Conchology in 1959 and the associated specimens were donated to the museum in 1995. They are all meticulously curated in various containers of different shapes and sizes, some of which can be seen in the photos below.
Alwen Myfanwy Evans (1895-1937). Available at: https://www.lstmed.ac.uk/alwen-myfanwy-evans-1895-1937#:~:text=Alwen%20Myfanwy%20Evans%20was%20LSTM (Accessed 4 March 2022)
Blacklock, D. B & Evans, A. M (1926). Breeding Places of Anopheline Mosquitos in and Around Freetown, Sierra Leone, Annals of Tropical Medicine & Parasitology, 20:1, 59-84.
Evans, A.M (1927). A short illustrated guide to the anophelines of tropical and South Africa.
Evans, A.M (1938). Mosquitoes of the Ethiopian Region. Anophelini adults and early stages. British Museum (Natural History), x–404.
I, A (1939). Mosquitoes of the Ethiopian Region. Nature,143, 662.
Liverpool Women of Renown. Available at: http://126.96.36.199/myplanetliverpool-new.co.uk/liverpool-women-of-renown/ (Accessed 4 March 2022)
McMillan, N. F (1968). British Shells, Wayside and Woodland Series, Warne, ISBN 0723209650
McMillan, N. F (1977). Observer’s Book of Seashells of the British Isles, Warne, ISBN 0723215677
McMillan, N.F (1959). The Mollusca of some Cheshire marl-pits: a study in colonization. Journal of Conchology. 24: 299-315.
Nora Fisher McMillan. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nora_Fisher_McMillan (Accessed 4 March 2022)
Nunn, J (2006). In conversation with Nora McMillan MBE (1908-2003). Mollusc World. 11, 10-12.
World Museum Shells and other invertebrates. Available at: https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/shells-and-other-invertebrates (Accessed 4 March 2022)
World Museum True Flies (Diptera) collection. Available at: https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/true-flies-diptera-collection (Accessed 4 March 2022)