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Noteworthy naturalist

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Raphael Meldola (1849-1915) First president of Essex Field Club, Chemist, and Entomologist

Raphael Meldola (1849-1915) was born on 19th July 1849, at his parents home in John Street, St Pancras. He died on 16th November 1915, at his home in Brunswick Square, London, aged 66, and was buried at Hendon on November 18. He was the first president of the Essex Field Club, and a lifelong naturalist, though that was not his profession. He is best known for his work in the first science-based industry, that of synthetic dyes, and as an educator, and lobbyist for science. His numerous publications covered chemistry, natural history, anthropology, evolution, astronomy, photography, and technical and scientific education.

Raphael Meldola was the only son of Samuel Meldola, a printer of Hebrew books, and was named after his grandfather, a leader of London's Sephardic Jewish community. He was educated at private Jewish schools in Kew and Maida Vale. Though science was not among the subjects taught, he showed an early interest in chemistry and gathering insects. During 1866-1868, he studied chemistry at the Royal School of Mines, where he first met the adventurer and naturalist John Keast Lord, who had travelled extensively in the Pacific Northwest. Lord became Meldola's "first natural history friend." Lord died in 1872, in his early fifties, shortly after completing work on the new Brighton Aquarium. Meldola often stayed with an aunt in Loughton, and spent much time exploring Epping Forest. It was in the forest, in the late 1860s, that Meldola first met William John Argent, of Wanstead, his first entomological friend, and, through Argent, William Cole, of Tottenham.

In 1868, Meldola was engaged in analysis of London's waters, prior to joining John Stenhouse at the Mint, until 1871 when he entered the firm of Williams, Thomas & Dower, at Brentford, an early manufacturer of synthetic, or coal-tar, dyestuffs. In 1873, he joined the Royal College of Science, successor to the Royal School of Mines, where he assisted Norman Lockyer, the spectroscopist and founder of Nature. Meldola's expertise in both spectroscopy and photography led to a post with the Royal Society's expedition to the Nicobar Islands in order to record the total eclipse of the sun on 6 April 1875. Due to poor weather this was not entirely successful, though the ultraviolet region at least was recorded, and there were opportunities for studying flora and fauna. In 1877, Meldola rejoined the dye-making industry, this time at Brooke, Spiller & Simpson, of Hackney Wick. Among the products that he discovered was Meldola's Blue and a photographic developer. He left that firm in 1885 to become professor of chemistry at the new Finsbury Technical College (City & Guilds of London Institute, the Technical College, Finsbury; in 1885 renamed Central Technical College). Meldola's main interest as a naturalist was in moths and butterflies, and in mimicry, in particular how a butterfly took on the physical characteristics of a more hardy species in order to ensure its survival. This work was stimulated by his commitment from at least 1871 to natural selection, and correspondence with Charles Darwin. Through Darwin, Meldola made contact with leading like-minded naturalists and biologists, particularly Alfred Russel Wallace, and the Germans Fritz Müller, in Brazil, and August Weismann, at the University of Freiburg. Meldola was responsible at the end of the 1870s for making known in Britain Müller's work on mimicry, and undertook the English translation of Weismann's Studies in the Theory of Descent (1882). A close colleague, and fellow Darwinian, was the evolutionary biologist Edward Bagnall Poulton, from 1893 Hope Professor of Zoology at Oxford.

Meldola's involvement in the Essex Field Club arose from his friendship with William Cole. The inaugural meeting took place on 10 January 1880. Meldola was elected president (1880-1883), Cole honorary secretary, and Argent librarian. In Meldola's inaugural address on 28 February 1880, he emphasised the importance of publication of papers "which fell within the sphere of operation of this and similar societies." In this he set an outstanding example. In 1883 he read before the club and reprinted in Nature "The conservation of Epping Forest from the naturalists' standpoint." In 1885, he co-authored with William White a comprehensive report on the East Anglian earthquake of 22 April 1884, published as Essex Field Club's "Special Memoir, No. 1". Meldola devoted much time to the affairs of Epping Forest, particularly during 1894-1895 when supporting the thinning operations of the management. He investigated Loughton Camp, and participated in the move to replace the eastern boundary stones of the Forest of Waltham. Other issues included the role of local science societies and the need to record and conserve minor prehistoric remains. He was president of the Essex Field Club for a second time during 1901-1902.

In 1882, Darwin proposed Meldola's fellowship of the Royal Society, which was rejected. He was elected a fellow in 1886, in which year he married Ella Frederica Davis, and moved to Brunswick Square, near his father in law, the physician Maurice Davis. In 1886, also, he gave a lecture before the Society of Arts in London in which he warned of the dangers of neglect of scientific education, giving as an example the decline of Britain's synthetic dye industry, and the massive growth of the same industry in Germany. Thereafter he lobbied continuously for improved scientific education. At the outbreak of World War I he was appointed a member of the Board of Trade Committee on the Supply of Chemical Products, and in 1915 he chaired the predecessor of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.

In 1906 Meldola, as president of the Chemical Society (1905-1907), headed the executive committee that organised the 50th anniversary celebration for the discovery of the first synthetic dye, called mauve, discovered by the teenaged William Henry Perkin in 1856 at his home in east London. Meldola was awarded the D.Sc. by Oxford University in 1910. He was a fellow of the Institute of Chemistry, a body that at its foundation he did not consider worthwhile, and its president in 1912-1915. In 1913, he received the Royal Society's Davy Medal. He was a founder member, and later president (1911-1912), of the Society of Maccabaeans, a Jewish organisation for professional men. After his death in 1915, the society sponsored the Meldola Medal of the Institute of Chemistry, first awarded in 1921. He was also appointed president of the Entomological Society (1895-1896), the Society of Dyers & Colourists (1907-1909), and the Society of Chemical Industry (1907-1908).

J. Marchant, ed. 1916. Raphael Meldola. London: Williams & Norgate.

H. McEwan. 2003-2004. Raphael Meldola. The Essex Field Club Papers at Imperial College, Essex Naturalist Vol. 21 (NS) pp. 19-26.

A. S. Travis (revised by). 2004. Raphael Meldola (1849-1915). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

This article written by Anthony S. Travis

Account provided by Dr Anthony Travis
page last edited on Wed Jan 21st 2009 by site user 293