S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science




Duerden, Prof James Edwin (zoology, animal science)

Born: 7 April 1865, Burnley, Lancashire, England.
Died: 4 September 1937, Nottingham, England.

James E. Duerden, zoologist, was the eldest son of John Duerden and his wife Margaret Simpson. From the age of twelve he worked in the Burnley cotton mills, attending evening lectures at the local Mechanics' Institute (an organisation providing informal adult education to the working classes). From 1885 to 1889 he attended the Normal School of Science (later the Royal College of Science) in London, and became an associate of the college (ARCS) in zoology. His first appointment was as demonstrator in biology and palaeontology at the Royal School of Science in Dublin, Ireland, where he made valuable published contributions to knowledge of the Hydroids and Polyzoa of the Irish coast. During this time he was appointed a member of the Irish Fisheries Survey.

In 1895 he married Margaret J. Howarth. That same year he was appointed curator of the Science Museum of the Institute of Jamaica at Kingston. In addition to his work on the museum's collections he studied the Actinaria and corals of the West Indies. His results were published in The marine resources of the British West Indies (Bridgetown, Barbados, 1901, 39p), The coral Siderostrea radians and its postlarval development (Washington, 1904, 130p) and a dozen or so papers in the Journal of the Institute of Jamaica. He also described the native remains of the island in "Aboriginal Indian remains in Jamaica" (Ibid, 1897, 51p). He continued his studies of corals at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, United States, where he was appointed Bruce Fellow in 1901. The value of his work led to his selection as leader of the Carnegie Institute's Expedition to the Hawaiian Islands to study their corals. He became recognised internationally as an authority on the structure and development of corals and was awarded the PhD degree by Johns Hopkins University. During 1902-1903 he was acting professor of biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and then became assistant professor of zoology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

In 1905 Duerden was appointed as the first professor of zoology at the newly established Rhodes University College in Grahamstown, and keeper of the zoological collections at the Albany Museum. There he continued to publish papers in overseas journals based on his earlier work, but soon turned his attention to the distribution and evolution of South African tortoises. At the annual congress of the South African Associations for the Advancement of Science in 1906 he presented a paper on "Variation in the Geometrica Group of South African tortoises", which was published in the association's Report for that year. Other papers on the local tortoises soon followed: "The South African tortoises of the genus Homopus with description of a new species" (Records of the Albany Museum, 1906, Vol. 1), and "Genetics of the colour pattern in tortoises of the genus Homopus and its allies" (Ibid, 1907, Vol. 2).

Duerden soon also started a study of the ostrich, and in due course became an authority on these birds. His work led to papers describing "Death-feigning instinct in the ostrich" (1906), "The domesticated ostrich in South Africa (1908), and "Some results of ostrich investigations" (1918), all three in the Report of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science; and "The waltzing instinct in ostriches" in the Journal of the South African Ornithologists' Union (1907). However, his research was mainly aimed at finding the cause of the discontinuous growth of ostrich plumes that resulted in flaws in the vane of the feather. Much of this work was published in the Agricultural Journal of the Cape of Good Hope, in a paper on "Bars in ostrich feathers" (1906) and a series of 22 papers under the general title "Experiments with ostriches" (1906-1910); continued in the Agricultural Journal of the Union of South Africa, 1911-1913). His research showed that the defects in the feathers were caused by a reduction in blood pressure during the night period. He also discovered the stalked parapineal (or parietal) organ in the ostrich brain, until then unknown in any other bird. This discovery was published in "A new adaptive callosity in the orstrich" (Record of the Albany Museum, 1919, Vol. 3). He strongly advocated the establishment of an agricultural college in Grahamstown under the aegis of Rhodes University College, but to no avail. Instead he was appointed officer in charge of ostrich investigations at the Grootfontein School of Agriculture in Middelburg, Cape Province, in addition to his Grahamstown appointments.

After the collapse of the ostrich feather industry from about 1913 Duerden began a study of merino sheep and the scientific aspects of wool production, particularly the embryology of wool and the assessment of wool quality. He was appointed Director of Wool Research for South Africa in addition to his Grahamstown appointments, and was regarded as a leading authority in this field - as he had been on corals and ostriches. His research was published in, among others, the following papers in the South African Journal of Science: "Kemp fibres in the merino sheep" (1923), "Development of the Merino wool fibre" (1924), "A biometrical analysis of wool fibres" (1925), "Evolution in the fleece of sheep" (1927), "Standardisation of quality numbers of grease wool" (1928), "Crimps and quality estimation of grease wool" (1928), "The zoology of the fleece of sheep" (1929), "Density variation in the fleece of the merino" (1930, with P.S. Botha), and "Progress of sheep and wool research in South Africa" (1931). Some additional papers by him on this topic appeared in the 17th and 18th Annual Report of the Director of Veterinary Services (1931-1932). A number of his approximately 120 papers dealt with a variety of other zoological topics.

Duerden became a member of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science in 1906, served on its council from 1907, later as vice-president, and as president in 1921. His presidential address was entitled "Social anthropology in South Africa: problems of race and nationality". This topic related to a paper he had delivered shortly after his arrival in the country before the Grahamstown Social Welfare League, on "The betterment of the human race". In 1906 he became a member of the South African Philosophical Society, remaining a member when it became the Royal Society of South Africa in 1908. He also joined the South African Ornithologists' Union in 1905, serving as joint vice-president (1905-1907, 1908-1913) and as president (1907-1908). When the union amalgamated with the Transvaal Biological Society in 1916 to form the South African Bioloical Society he became a foundation member of the latter. From 1905 to 1916 he was an examiner in zoology for the University of the Cape of Good Hope.

Duerden retired from Rhodes in March 1932 and settled in Leeds, England, where he continued his studies on wool as an honorary Fellow of the Department of Zoology at the University of Leeds and an honorary member of the Wool Research Laboratory at Torridon, Leeds. His work involved embryological studies on the coats of British sheep. He died as a result of a fall while on his way to attend the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Nottingham in 1937.


List of sources:
Agricultural Journal (Union of South Africa), 1911-1913, Vol. 1-6.

Agricultural Journal of the Cape of Good Hope, 1906-1910, Vol. 28-37.

Annual Report of the Director of Veterinary Services, 17th Report (1931) and 18th Report (1932), papers by Duerden.

Ashton, E.H. Southern African Ornithological Society. Bokmakierie, 1980, Vol. 32(2), pp. 26-76 (whole number).

Cape of Good Hope. Report of the committee of the Albany Museum, 1904, 1905, 1906, 1908.

Currey, R.F. Rhodes University, 1904-1970. Grahamstown, 1970.

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 2, 1972.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Obituary: Prof. J.E. Duerden. Nature, 1937, Vol. 140, p. 576.

Records of the Albany Museum, 1903-1919, Vol. 1-3.

Rhodes University College. Calendar, 1906-1911, 1924, 1930, 1936.

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of scientific papers [1800-1900]. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.

Royal Society of South Africa. Transactions, 1908-1910, Vol. 1, list of members.

South African Association for the Advancement of Science. Report, 1906-1908, 1910 and 1918; and South African Journal of Science, 1922-1930.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979.

South African Journal of Natural History, 1918, Vol. 1(1): Roll of Foundation Members [of the SA Biological Society]; 1920, Vol. 2(2), Roll of members.

South African Ornithologists' Union. Journal, 1906-1913, Vol. 2-6, 9.

South African Philosophical Society. Transactions, 1907, Vol. 17, list of members.

South African who's who, 1919/20.

Standard encyclopaedia of southern Africa (SESA). Cape Town: NASOU, 1970-1976.

University of the Cape of Good Hope. Calendar, 1906/7-1917/8.


Compiled by: C. Plug


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