A. E. Boycott, 1877-1938

Author & date of last revision: Pryce Buckle on 14 November 2009

By Charles Oldham

Extracted from Journal of Conchology, Volume 21, pp. 58–65
A. E. Boycott
Arthur Edwin Boycott was born 6th April, 1877, at Hereford, where his father practised as a solicitor. From the Cathedral school there he went with an open classical scholarship to Oriel College, Oxford. He won several university scholarships and in 1903, after obtaining his doctorate in medicine, was elected Fellow of Brasenose. He was also M.A., F.R.C.P., and Hon. LL.D. of McGill University, Montreal, and in 1914 was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1904 he married Constance, daughter of Colonel Agg, of Hewletts, Gloucestershire, who with two sons survives him. His early married life was spent at Carshalton and Banstead, and in 1912 he went to Manchester as Professor of Pathology in the University. In 1915 he came south again on being appointed Graham Professor of Pathology at University College Hospital Medical School, and lived at Radlett, in Hertfordshire, until 1934, when ill-health compelled him to retire from active professional work, and from 1935 he lived at Ewen, near Cirencester. Although not robust he never spared himself, and his ardent spirit often outran his physical capabilities. Even in 1934, when he developed tubercular trouble, and thereafter until the end, he still used his physical resources to the uttermost. The benefit he obtained from spending the winter of 1934–5 in a Norfolk sanatorium was only temporary, and during the last three years of his life, with his intellectual powers unimpaired, he was fighting a losing battle, and for the last seven months was confined to his bed. When they went to his room on the morning of 12th May, the long fight, waged with so much courage and patience against overwhelming odds, was over, for death had come to him in his sleep.

The story of Boycott’s distinguished career as a pathologist has been told elsewhere¹ ; we are concerned here with his contributions to the science of Conchology. These were restricted virtually to the British land and freshwater species, but within these limits his interest was deep and many-sided, and his erudition profound.

Boycott joined our Society in 1897, and from the first evinced a lively interest in its well-being. He was President in 1916–18, and his wisdom and tact have often been of service in the direction of its affairs. For nearly forty years he was a frequent contributor to the Journal of Conchology. In 1921 he brought up to date and practically re-wrote the Census of the Distribution of British Land and Freshwater Mollusca. Until his death he acted as Recorder for the Census, and made reports annually on recent additions. Although he always referred to it as “Roebuck’s Census “, it is in its present form and scope his work; it constitutes perhaps a more complete account of distribution in this country than exists for any other of the main groups of animals.

In Who’s Who Boycott’s recreations are defined as “the country” and “snails”, a description apt enough from his school days onwards. In 1892, when only 15, he wrote in Hardwicke’s Science Gossip “Contributions towards a list of the Mollusca of Hereford “. Later, in collaboration with his friend, E. W. W. Bowell, he con tributed a paper with a similar title to the Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club. This paper, of 104 pages, was nor a mere list of species; it gave much information on habits and habitats, dimensions and variation in form and colouration, an earnest of the investigations of later years. His last paper, “ Experiments on the artificial breeding of Limnaea involuta, Limnaea burnetti, and other forms of Limnaea peregra,” the record of ten years work, was finished only a few days before his death. His great and varied output in the interim will have a lasting effect on conchological studies.

His anatomical researches cleared up obscure points in the structure and function of many species, e.g. Hyalinia helvetica, Zonitoides excavatus, Helicella heripensis, H. neglecta, Helicodonta obvoluta,² Acanthinula aculeata, A. lamellata, Theba cantiana, Coch licopa lubrica, Azeca tridens, Pomatias elegans, and Limnaea peregra, established Vitrina major as a British species, and demonstrated the parthenogenetic character of Paludestrina jenkinsi.

Nearly twenty years ago Boycott became interested in the inheritance of sinistrality in Limnaea peregra, and from 1920 to 1930, in collaboration with others and with the assistance of a band of willing helpers, he conducted a vast experiment which involved some six thousand broods and approximately a million snails. Some preliminary papers and the final summary in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society are an important contribution to the science of Genetics. The question of the inheritance of involute and other unusual forms of Limnaea peregra which cropped up in the course of this huge investigation, was the subject of another big experiment in the decade 1928–38, the results of which were summarized in his last paper. He experimented too on the inheritance of shell ornament in Paludestrina jenkinsi.

Variation in the size, form, and colouration of shells always interested him, and some of his earlier papers were devoted to this subject. Among later papers one dealt with size variation in Clausilia bidentata and Ena obscura within a “locality “. A Presidential Address to this Society dealt with the local variation of Clausilia bidentata, and in a Presidential Address to the Malaco logical Society he discussed the technique of “Conchometry".

The mere fact that a snail is or is not in this place or that is the initial step in the much larger question – why is it here and not there, and, having got here, how is it able to establish itself? These considerations connote the passage from the part to the whole, from Geographical Distribution to Ecology, that is to the relation of the snail to its environment, using that term in its widest sense. Boycott used to say that properly to understand how a snail lives one must try to look at the world from the snail’s point of view, and it was undoubtedly the ecological aspect of Conchology that interested him most in his later years. Papers on the snails of Nevin, Langdale, the Scottish Highlands, and South-West Ireland abound in ecological data, as do those that deal with the strikingly different faunas of canals that connect with the great plexus of waterways in Central England, when compared with the faunas of those outside it. Presidential Addresses to the Hertford shire Natural History Society, the Malacological Society, and the Conchological Society dealt respectively with the Freshwater Mollusca of Aldenham – this was supplemented by another paper ten years afterwards – the Ecology of British Land Mollusca, with special reference to those of ill-defined habitats, and the Habitats of Freshwater Mollusca. Two exhaustive papers on the Habitats of Land and Freshwater Mollusca in Britain, based upon a Presidential Address to the British Ecological Society in 1933, represent the field work of a lifetime, coupled with very wide reading. They are models of conciseness, replete with relevant matter, and fine examples of the writer’s scholarly and lucid style. For years to come they will be a sure foundation for any ecological work on British snails.

Boycott was interested in snails themselves rather than in their names, and strict adherents to the Law of Priority were apt to look upon him as a rebel, but in a recent note he did advocate the use of the name transversum for the bivalve that was known in this country as Sphaerium ovale and later as S. pallidum.

Among many papers and short notes the following may be cited as examples of the writer’s versatility: “Occurrence of the larva of a Cestode Worm in Polita rogersi”; “A specimen of Limnaea pereger coiled on the fiat”; “A contagious disease of Helix aspersa”; “Dextral specimen of Clausilia bidentata”; The History of Helix hortensis and Helicella caperata at Aberdeen”; “Vertigo alpestris var. albina in Westmorland”; “Development of the colour of Arion ater”; “Food of Geomalacus maculosus”; Survival of Helicella virgata through the winter”; “Ena montana at Lackham” ; “ ‘Helix Tor’ and ‘Snaily House’ “; "Habits of young Helix pomatia”; and” Tolerance of hard water by Margaritana margaritifera “.

Boycott was a connoisseur in scenery and would often stop at a gate or some other vantage point that commanded a fine view; but to him a landscape meant something more than a mere content ment to the eye. He had always in mind the various potent factors that had gone to the making of the picture, ice and water, the nature of the rocks and their characteristic way of weathering, the pre vailing wind, the age, nature, and extent of the woodlands, and so on; and the suitability of varying kinds of country as habitats for snails and other creatures was surely in his thoughts. His study of molluscan habitats took him to many delectable places, with characters as diverse as the bleak austerities of the Cairngorms, the stark open spaces of Bodmin Moor and Dartrnoor, the golden sand dunes of Somerset and Donegal, the unspoiled rustic comeliness of Shropshire and the Welsh Marches, the rolling downs and beechen coombes of the Chilterns, the country of the White Horse and the South Downs, the remoter parts of Brecon and Radnor, the softer beauties of Branscombe – where so many holidays were spent – and the incomparable loveliness of the Cork and Kerry mountains. It was fitting that when he died his ashes were scattered to the four winds at Roel Gate in the Cotswolds that he loved so well.

Hunting for snails sometimes leads to queer situations. One day Boycott was grubbing in the leaves at the base of a stone wall not far from the prison on Dartmoor. Some slight movement made him look up, to find that he was covered by the rifle of an altogether unsympathetic warder. There was another story associated with a stone wall. In County Donegal some years ago, when the state of the country was less settled than it is now, Boycott was searching at the base of a 5 ft. wall on the side remote from the road whilst his companion was similarly engaged on the roadside 50 yards away. Just as a man driving a motor car along the road came level with the place where, unknown to him, Boycott was, a lean face popped up above the top of the wall. The motorist, not without reason, suspected a trap, jumped from the car, threw up his hands and exclaimed, “What’s the matter; is anything wrong?” A puzzled look and the reply, “No, I am only looking for snails,” exceeded his worst suspicions. Thinking that not only was he ambushed but ambushed by two lunatics he shouted, “Good God ! “, dashed for the car and, regardless of the risk he ran, drove off at full speed.

Most of Boycott’s snail-hunting expeditions were, until recently, made on foot or bicycle, but during the last few years he availed himself of the convenience of a motor car for getting from place to place and accommodating quantities of gear. His motoring often puzzled other users of the road. He would set out for a week’s jaunt, the car packed to repletion with dredges, nets and scoops, poles, rakes and rods, wading-boots, sacks and bags of different kinds, many – but seldom sufficient – bottles for water samples, and larger jars and canisters for water of varying degrees of hardness to be used in experiments at home. Then there was a piece of gear that served indifferently for boiling water for tea or cooking mussels and the larger snails during a halt. On the homeward journey there were in addition bags of litter, samples of rocks, canisters of weed, and extra bottles for water samples acquired during the trip; and if his companion for the time being was big man it was sometimes difficult to fit him in. But motoring was no affair of noisy haste. He used to say – half in jest – that only very exceptional circumstances could warrant a motorist in driving at a pace that made him incapable of identifying any butterfly he encountered, and more seriously, perhaps, that he could wish for no better epitaph than, “He never overtook a car”. These are trifling things, perhaps, but indicative of his independence and disregard of the lesser conventions.

In Boycott a handsome presence and great personal charm were associated with an alert, eager, and penetrating mind, quick to discern and disentangle the essentials of any problem and apt in its solution. His critical faculty was essentially constructive, and in whatever he did he was valiant – sometimes almost quixotic in his advocacy – for the truth as he saw it, implacable where any principle was involved and intolerant of shams or slipshod work. His knowledge, the outcome of unflagging industry, extensive work in the field and laboratory, and wide reading, was always at the disposal of others; and there is perhaps no one who during the past twenty years has been really interested in any way in our British snails who has not benefited by his advice, suggestion, and practical help. His death means a gap in the lives of those who knew and loved him, and his memory will long be held in respect and admiration by members of a wider public, to many of whom, unknown to him personally, his published works and his letters of advice and encouragement, expressed with great clarity and a Stevensonian nicety in the choice of words, written in a characteristic small, neat hand, and – as his conversation was too – often graced by a certain whimsical humour, have been a help and a stimulus to further effort.

¹ Times, 18th May, 1938 ; Lancet, 21st May, 1938 ; Brit. Med. Journ., 21st May, 1938 ; Nature, 2nd July, 1938; Journal of Pathology and Bacteriology, xlvii, 1938.

² Vide J. W. Taylor, Monog. Brit. Land and Freshwater Moll.. iv, 53.


[This has no claim to be exhaustive, but it includes most, at any rate, of Boycott’s more important contributions to Conchological literature. An asterisk before any title implies collaboration.]
1892. “Contributions Towards a List of the Molluscs of Herefordshire.” Hardwicke’s Science Gossip.
1896. “On Shell-Colouration in British Extra-Marine Mollusca.” Zoologist.
1897. “Colouration and Zonulation in Tachea.Science Gossip.
1897–8. “Colouration and Variation of British Extra-Marine Molluscs.” Ibid.
1900. * “Contributions Towards a Fauna of Herefordahire (Molluscs).” Trans. Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club.
1909. “Sexual Differences in the shell of Cyclostoma elegans.” Journal of Conchology
1913. “An apparent selection of forms of H. nemoralis by adverse con-ditions.” Ibid.
1914. * “Observations on the Anatomy of Helicella ‘heripensis Mabille’. Ibid.
1914–15. “The Radula of Hyalinia.” Ibid.
1915. * “A further note on pigmentation in Helicella gigaxii.” Ibid.
1915. “Dextral specimen of Clausilia bidentata.” Ibid.
1915. “Note on the duct of the spermatheca of Hyalinia excavata.Proc. Malac. Soc.
1916. “The occurrence of the larva of a Cestode Worm in Polita rogersi.” Ibid.
1916. “Note on the Genitalia of Theba cantiana Mont.” Journal of Conchology
1917. Paludestrina jenkinsi at Elstree.” Trans. Herts. Nat. Hist. Soc.
1917. “The Nerita jaculator of O. F. Muller and Paludestrina. Journal of Conchology
1917. “Preliminary note on the Genitalia of Acanthinula lamellata Jeff.” Ibid.
1917. “Where is the male of Paludestrina jenkinsi?” Ibid.
1917. "On Sexual Characters in the Shell and Radula of Pomatias elegans.” Proc. Malac. Soc.
1917. "Notes on the Anatomy of Helicella neglecta (Drap.).” Ibid.
1917. "The Genitalia of Acanthinula aculeata.” Ibid.
1918. “The Habitats of Freshwater Molluscs.” Journal of Conchology.
1919. "The Freshwater Molluscs of the Parish of Aldenham: An Introduction to the study of their Ecological Relationships.” Trans. Herts. Nat. Hist. Soc.
1919. "Observations on the local variation of Clausilia bidentata.” Journal of Conchology.
1919. “The Genitalia of Azeca tridens and Cochlicopa lubrica.” Ibid.
1919. “Parthenogenesis in Paludestrina jenkinsi.” Ibid.
1920. “On the size variation of Clausilia bidentata and Ena obscura within a ‘locality ‘.“ Proc. Malac. Soc.
1921. “Ecological Notes” (two papers). Ibid.
1921. “Notes on the Distribution of British Non-Marine Mollusca, from the point of view of Habitat and Climate.” Ibid.
1921. “The Land Mollusca of the Parish of Aldenham.” Trans. Herts. Nat. Hist. Soc.
1921. “Census of the Distribution of British Land and Freshwater Molluscs.” Journal of Conchology
1922. Vitrina major in Britain.” Proc. Malac. Soc.
1922. “A specimen of Limnaea pereger coiled on the flat.” Ibid.
1924. * “On the Inheritance of Sinistrality in Limnaea peregra.” Proc. Roy. Soc. B. Vol. 95.
1925. “Tolerance of hard water by Margaritana margaritifera.” Journal of Conchology.
1927. “Further Observations on the local variation of Clausilia bidentata.” Ibid.
1927. “The History of Helix hortensis and Helicella caperata at Aberdeen.” Ibid.
1927. “Land Snails at Nevin.” North-Western Nat.
1927. “ Further notes on Vitrina maior in Britain.” Proc. Malac. Soc.
1927. “Ecological Notes” (two papers). Ibid.
1928. “Conchometry.” Ibid.
1928. Vertigo alpestris var. albina in Westmorland.” Journal of Conchology
1928. Vitrina major in Gloucester East and its eggs.” Ibid.
1928. “The Development of the Colour of Arion ater.” Ibid.
1929. “The Habitat of Clausilia biplicata.” Ibid.
1929. “The Mollusca of Great Langdale, Weatmorland.” North-Western Nat.
1929. “The Ecology of British Land Mollusca, with special reference to those of ill defined habitat.” Proc. Malac. Soc.
1929. “The inheritance of ornamentation in var. aculeata of Hydrobia jenkinsi Smith.” Ibid.
1929. “The Twist of Snail Shells.” Proc. Roy. Inst. of Great Britain.
1930 * “The Inheritance of Sinistrality in Limnaea peregra (Mollusca Pulmonata).” Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc.
1930. “A Re-survey of the Freshwater Molluscs of the Pariah of Aldenharn after ten years, with special reference to the effect of Drought.” Trans. Herts. Nat. Hist. Soc.
1930. * “The Food of Geomalacus maculosus.Journal of Conchology.
1930. “The survival of Helicella virgata through the winter.” Ibid.
1930. "Vitrina major in Northumberland South, Gloucester East and Devon South.” Ibid.
1930. * “Abnormal forms of Limnaea peregra obtained in Artificial Breeding, and their Inheritance.” Proc. Malac. Soc.
1931. Ena montana at Lackham.” Journal of Conchology.
1932. * “Notes on the Lake Lymnaea of South-West Ireland.” Proc. Malac. Soc.
1933. “‘Helix Tor' and ‘Snaily House'.“ Journal of Conchology.
1934. “The Habitats of Land Molluscs in Britain.” Journ. Ecol.
1936. “The Habitats of Fresh-water Mollusca in Britain.” Journ. Animal Ecol.
1936. * “A Conchological Reconnaissance of the Limestone in West Sutherland and Ross.” Scot. Nat.
1936. * "The Mollusca of the Western Parts of the Shropshire Union Canal." North-Western Nat.
1936. “The Habits of young Helix pomatia.” Journal of Conchology.
1936. Neritina fluviatilis in Orkney.” Ibid.
1938. * “Sphaerium pallidum Gray and S. transversum Say.” Ibid.
1938. * “The Molluscs of the Brecon and Newport and other detached or isolated Canals.” Proc. Malac. Soc.
1938. * “A contagious disease of Helix aspersa.” Ibid.
1938. Experiments on the artificial breeding of Limnaea involuta, Limnaea burnetti, and other forms of Limnaea peregra. Ibid.