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George Montagu, 1751-1815


Biologist, one of earliest members of Linnean Society .

Captain in British Army at young age, served with 15th regiment of foot in American revolution; lieutenant-colonel in English militia; devoted himself to science, particularly biology:

`I have delighted in being an ornithologist from infancy, and, was I not bound by conjugal attachement, should like to ride my hobby to distant parts.', 1789;

Among the earliest member of the Linnean Society , 1788; wrote many papers on birds and shells of southern England; he maintained a large collection of coins and animals, his collections were purchased by the British Museum;

His The Sportsman's Directory (1792) was popular. His greatest work was the scientifically well-received Ornithological Dictionary or Alphabetical Synopsis of British Birds (1802).

Died of lockjaw from stepping on a rusty nail.


George played a not insignificant role in the development of modern biology. David Allen, describing early development of the field in The Naturalist in Britain: A Social History, writes in a chapter entitled The Fruits of Efficiency:

"... Their prototype was George Montagu, the methodical, vigorous, immensely painstaking lieutenant-colonel in the Wiltshire Militia who fought as a young man in the war with the American colonies and was later court-martialled and drummed out of his profession for causing trouble among his brother officers with some provocative marital skirmishing. When a long list of eager, searching questions from this unknown ornithologist arrived on the table of Gilbert White, ... the old spirit of restless, probing field inquiry, ... was reborn in British natural history. Montagu's Ornithological Dictionary, published just within the new century, in 1802, transformed the scientific study of birds in Britain. ... Montagu injected into the subject a brisk efficiency and a down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach that verged on the graceless and chilly. He was immune to the usual distractions and biases of fashion and, like any experienced officer, well trained in assessing intelligence, aggressively distrustful of all unsupported allegations and hearsay. His great contribution was to establish scrupulous standards in the acceptance of evidence which for many years were not to be surpassed. This was precisely what such a subject needed at that particular stage in its history: a man without blinkers, prepared to charge about the country making certain of his facts by looking at them with his own eyes." (Allen)
Allen also notes activity regarding sea-shells:
"Around 1800 there was a further flurry of interest. Remarkably, three of the authors of the learned tomes that resulted were all at some time colonels in the militia: George Montague (who, while best known for his work on birds was also an expert on shells), ... " (Allen)
And finally, long publication time is certainly not a recent phenomena!
"The Linnean Society was the brainchild pricinpally of Smith... he provided natural history as a whole with a central platform of respect and a formal medium, at long last, for the regular publishing of scientific discoveries (although, as George Montagu was heard to grumble, it could take at times four years or even more to get into print... )" (Allen)

Charles Darwin, in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1896, cites George four times (this is a bit amusing - extracts of Darwin containing extracts of George):

" Montagu and Selby speak of the Black Grouse as polygamous and of the Red Grouse as monogamous. ...

... Lesson says that birds of paradise, so remarkable for their sexual differences, are polygamous, but Mr. Wallace doubts whether he had sufficient evidence. ... With the Grallatores, extremely few species differ sexually, but the ruff ( Machetes pugnax) affords a marked exception, and this species is believed by Montagu to be a polygamist. Hence it appears that amongst birds there often exists a close relation between polygamy and the development of strongly-marked sexual differences. I asked Mr. Bartlett, of the Zoological Gardens, who has had very large experience with birds, whether the male tragopan ... was polygamous, and I was struck by his answering, `I do not know, but should think so from his splendid colours.'

The polygamous ruff ( Machetes pugnar, fig. 37) is notorious for his extreme pugnacity; and in the spring, the males, which are considerably larger than the females, congregate day after day at a particular spot, where the females propose to lay their eggs. ... Here they fight very much like gamecocks, seizing each other with their beaks and striking with their wings. The great ruff of feathers round the neck is then erected, and according to Col. Montagu `sweeps the ground as a shield to defend the more tender parts;' and this is the only instance known to me in the case of birds, of any structure serving as a shield. The ruff of feathers, however, from its varied and rich colours probably serves in chief part as an ornament. Like most pugnacious birds, they seem always ready to fight, and when closely confined often kill each other; but Montagu observed that their pugnacity becomes greater during the spring, when the long feathers on their necks are fully developed; and at this period the least movement by any one bird provokes a general battle.

Naturalists are much divided with respect to the object of the singing of birds. Few more careful observers ever lived than Montagu, and he maintained that the `males of song-birds and of many others do not in general search for the female, but, on the contrary, their business in the spring is to perch on some conspicuous spot, breathing out their full and amorous notes, which, by instinct, the female knows, and repairs to the spot to choose her mate.' (Darwin cites via footnote the `Ornithological Dictionary', 1833, p. 475, ed.)

The common drake ... after the breeding season is well known to lose his male plumage for a period of three months, during which time he assumes that of the female. The male pintail-duck ... looses his plumage for the shorter period of six weeks or two months; and Montagu remarks that `this double moult within so short a time is a most extraordinary circumstance, that seems to bid defiance to all human reasoning.' But the believer in the gradual modification of species will be far from feeling surprise at finding gradations of all kinds. ..." (Darwin)


In Charles Darwin's Natural Selection, being the Second Part of his big Species Book written from 1856 to 1858, R. C. Stauffer, editor, Darwin references George as follows:

"There can be no doubt that carnivorous animals keep down the numbers of the animals on which they prey. .... I will give a few other instances of checks to increase from apparently trivial causes. ... This subject is so important for us, that I must be excused for making a few more remarks... (Darwin notes in a footnote, ed.): In Montagu's Ornith. Dict. [p. 217] it is said that a Goldfinch lived in confinement for 23 years.

I will now discuss in some detail the degree of fertility of certain hybrids in successive generations.

... We have, also, indirect evidence on this... the kind of pheasant, called the ring-necked is not uncommon in some parts of England, & is stated by Selby to have spread within a comparatively short time over the whole of Northumberland. ( Montagu's Ornitholog. Dict. Rennies Edit. p 370).

We will now consider the variability of the nesting instinct. The cases no doubt would have been far more numerous, had the subject been attended to in other countries with the same care as in Great Britain & the United States. ... The sparrow builds in the holes in walls, on high branches, in ivy, under rook's nests, in the holes made by the sand-martin & often seizes on the nest made by the house martin: `the nest also varies greatly according to the place'. ( Montagu Ornith. Dict: Rennie p. 482) ...

Parasitism. The incalculable host of parasites which pass their whole lives on or in the bodies of other animals do not here especially concern us. But ever since classical days, the instinct which leads the Cuckoo to lay its eggs in other birds' nests, has excited much surprise. ... Hence it might well be a great advantage to a Cuckoo to lay her eggs in other birds nests. ... Now, according to our theory if a greater number of young were reared in consequence of such aberrant habits, then, it being probable that the propensity would sometimes be inherited, the habit might be rendered through natural selection more & more common, till it became characteristic of the species.

When a Cuckoo has laid an egg in another birds nest, it is not surprising that it should be hatched by the foster-parent, even if the period of incubation were different; for it is experimentally known that birds do not instinctively know the duration of their own incubation. (Darwin here cites via footnote, ed.): Montagu Ornith. Dict. Rennie Edit. p. 161)" (Darwin)


I should mention that Natural Selection and The Descent of Man are effectively huge survey works, in which it appears Darwin mentions any work that has a bearing on the biology of the day, and remarks on numerous verbal discussions and `personal communications'.

Some of Darwin's notebooks are online (you will have to search for Montagu).

Also, Darwin's voyage of exploration may have cost him his life, as it is possible that he had acquired Chaga's disease (American sleeping sickness) in South America. Chaga's disease, in which parasites often infiltrate the central nervous system, has no effective treatment, is eventually fatal, and is quite widespread. Stillwaggon, who observes that Darwin may have recorded his own infection by insect bite in one of the entries in his journal (this remains controversial) notes:

"... Darwin suffered from debilitating physical disorders that his contemporaries considered psychosomatic. Chagas' is a disease of the Western Hemisphere, unknown in Darwin's England and at that time unidentified even in its endemic zone.

... The World Health Organization estimates that ninety million people are at risk... and that the prevalence ... is no fewer than sixteen million to eighteen million people. ...

... the disease... prevalence ranges as high as 30 percent (Argentina, Bolivia, Columbia, and Honduras) and 83 percent (Paraguay). Mexico has... over 4 percent of the population. ... In valley communities, where Chagas' disease is prevalent, few people are over fifty years old." (Eileen Stillwaggon)

Latin Americans most at risk are often unaware of Chagas' disease. Bastien notes, in The Kiss of Death:

T.Cruzi infects 18 million people in Latin America and is the major public health problem for development in Latin America, because it debilitates and kills adults during their prime... The Pan American Health organization has identified Chagas' disease as the most important parasitic disease in Latin America... Currently there is no cure for the chronic stage of Chaga's disease... Chaga's disease has spread throughput Latin America and the Southwestern United States...

Chagas' disease has received little attention and funding of research... Frequently T. cruzi lies dormant for years until manifesting itself in the critically debilitating chronic state. ... Chagas' disease is ancient.

... Even today Chagas' disease remains unknown to many educated people and doctors throughout the world. ...

... The involvement of autoimmune mechanisms in the pathogenesis of Chaga's disease compares it in some ways with AIDS... ... There is no quick fix, such as spraying with insecticides or employing vaccinations. ...

The suspicion that Darwin had Chaga's disease is not proven and controversial. In To be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin, Colp points out that Darwin came from a family of doctors and that Darwin had been exposed, and perhaps traumatized by, what Darwin called "very bad surgery" at an early age (16).


George apparently named many species, for instance, the sea slug Thecacera pennigera .


Sources:
[DNB].
The Descent of Man, Darwin.
Charles Darwin's Natural Selection, Stauffer, ed..
Stunted Lives, Stagnant Economies, Stillwaggon.
To be an Invalid, Colp.
The Kiss of Death: Chagas' Disease in the Americas, Joseph William Bastien.

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