Obituary: Dame Miriam Rothschild ; Expert on Fleas and Energetic Campaigner for Nature Conservation
Marren, Peter, The Independent (London, England)
MIRIAM ROTHSCHILD was a distinguished zoologist and a dedicated champion of animals and plants, both wild and domestic. Although she was among the most celebrated entomologists of the 20th century, she considered herself to be more of an amateur naturalist than a scientist. More important than formal qualifications was her naturally agile and enquiring mind, allied to the tendency she ascribed to her family as a whole: to become deeply, almost obsessively, involved in everything that interested them.
Undoubtedly her guiding spirit was her father, Charles Rothschild, despite his early death in 1923, by his own hand when she was 15. It was the daughter's duty to his legacy - cataloguing the world's largest private collection of fleas - that led to an outpouring of experimental work on the life of insects and their relationships with plants, and with each other. An unorthodox and eclectic education gave her another rare quality - perhaps unlike most other great scientists, Rothschild always had her feet on the ground. Her life's achievement was almost as fruitful in influence as in original research.
Believing that a formal education was a waste of time, her father encouraged Miriam to pursue anything she found interesting. At 17 she enrolled for university courses in her twin passions of zoology and English literature, but, despite showing an unusual talent for both, never offered herself for the degree examinations. As she recalled, "You always wanted to hear somebody talk on Ruskin when it was time to dissect a sea urchin."
In need of experience in her chosen field of parasitology, she took up a post with the Marine Biological Association at Plymouth, studying snails and their parasites. Though the work was often tedious, it taught her basic techniques in dissection and slide preparation. After the death in 1937 of her uncle Walter, the second Lord Rothschild, creator of a private zoological museum at Tring Park in Hertfordshire, Miriam also edited the Tring museum journal, Novitates Zoologicae.
During the Second World War, Miriam Rothschild joined the team of biologists, philosophers and mathematicians at Bletchley Park under Alan Turing, working on the now famous secret project to decode German communications sent by the Enigma machine. Using "intensive mathematical and logical analysis" to crack the code, Rothschild later claimed that the biologists more than held their own against the maths boffins. During that time, she met her future husband, George Lane, a Hungarian exile, whom she married in 1943; they went on to have two sons and four daughters.
At other times she worked for the Ministry of Agriculture, producing a new form of chicken feed made from seaweeds, and establishing, through repeated dissections, that wood pigeons could carry bovine tuberculosis and so threaten beef production. She also found time to train as an air- raid warden, and qualify as a milkmaid.
After the war, she continued to work on the biology of parasites, particularly fleas. She catalogued her father's vast collection of slide-mounted specimens in An Illustrated Catalogue of the Rothschild Collection of Fleas, published by the Natural History Museum in six volumes between 1953 and 1983. This, her magnum opus, was done in collaboration with Harry Hopkins, a retired civil servant. It required much original, descriptive work on insect tissues or, as Rothschild herself put it, "staring at the backsides of fleas". The writing and checking of over 7,000 drawings was done mainly at night after the children had gone to bed. Perhaps fortunately, she was a lifelong sufferer of insomnia.
Among many published scientific papers on the loathsome but intriguing insects that so captivated Miriam Rothschild and her father, two major discoveries stand out. One was the discovery of a rubbery fluid in the flea's hip-joint which enabled it to make its prodigious jumps - equal in speed to a moon rocket and capable of being repeated hundreds of times without (so to speak) drawing breath. …