Lives of the fellows

Vincent Brian (Sir) Wigglesworth

b.17 April 1899 d.12 February 1994
Kt(1964) CBE(1951) MA Cantab(1925) BCh(1926) MD(1929) FRS(1939) Hon FRCP(1989) FRES Hon Dphil Berne Hon DSc Paris Hon DSc Newcastle Hon DSc Cantab

Sir Vincent Wigglesworth was an outstanding biologist who transformed the study of entomology from an observational to an experimental science. His father was a general practitioner in Kirkham, Lancashire, and Vincent became fascinated with insects very early in life. By the age of five he was already keeping a large collection of caterpillars and other insects which he watched for hours on end and as a schoolboy at Repton he became an avid collector of butterflies and moths. After serving in the Royal Field Artillery during the First World War Vincent entered Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, to read medicine. At Cambridge he achieved first class honours in both parts of the tripos and spent two years conducting research in biochemistry under Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV, p.535]. This research, when subsequently presented as a MD thesis, gained him the Raymond Horton Smith prize as best Cambridge MD thesis of the year. In 1924 Wigglesworth went up to St Thomas’s to complete his medical training.

In 1926 the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine advertised for someone who was medically qualified, who was an entomologist who had done research in physiology or biochemistry and who had experience of the tropics. Patrick Buxton, the head of the new department of medical entomology at the School had conceived the idea that advances in tropical medicine were being held up by a lack of knowledge of the physiology of the insect carriers of tropical diseases. Wigglesworth, who had by this time obtained the signatures needed for proceeding to the final MB, and was able to get a short leave of absence from his duties as a surgical dresser, went to Cambridge and took all parts of the final, thus enabling him to apply for the lecturer post. On his return, when he appeared in the operating theatre, the house surgeon said to the consultant, Sir Cuthbert Wallace, "Do you realize Sir that we have a qualified dresser on our firm?" "What! Wigglesworth qualified? He had better do the operation." So Sir Cuthbert downed tools, leaving Wigglesworth to remove a large fatty tumour from the neck of a young woman. Wigglesworth later said that thinking of the vital contents of the anterior triangle made this a frightening experience, causing the sweat to pour into his eyes! It seems to have been his only practical experience as a qualified doctor as, shortly afterwards, he was appointed to the new lectureship in Buxton’s department. In this post Vincent Wigglesworth was undoubtedly the right man at the right time.

Soon after his appointment he was able to obtain the necessary tropical experience, spending six months working in northern Nigeria on sleeping sickness, malaria and the insect vector of loa-loa. In Africa he travelled in state with a cook, a steward and twenty headloads containing his travelling laboratory complete with microscopes, cameras and equipment for experimental work, as well as his bed, bath and furniture.

At the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Vincent Wigglesworth commenced a systematic study of all aspects of insect physiology, work that continued for almost the rest of his life. Much of his most famous work was conducted on the South American blood-sucking insect Rhodnius prolixus, the vector of Chagas disease. This proved particularly useful for insect research as its development in an unlit incubator could be predicted with total accuracy following a necessary feed of blood (usually the researcher’s own).

During an enormously productive life Wigglesworth investigated the physiology of virtually every insect system, including digestion, respiration, the spiracles and air sacs, egg hatching, excretion, functions of the rectal glands and anal papillae, the cuticle, adhesive organs, moulting and metamorphosis, cell differentiation, muscle development, haemocytes, the fat body, the nervous system and the sense organs and behaviour.

Wiggleworth’s most outstanding work was the series of experiments that demonstrated the endocrine control of insect metamorphosis by a ‘juvenile hormone’ from the corpus allatum. This work resulted in his election to the Royal Society in 1939. He was a master of microsurgical techniques using simple apparatus that he designed himself. During a Rockefeller fellowship in Krogh’s laboratory in Copenhagen in the late 1930s, Wigglesworth delighted August Krogh by devising a micro-titration method for measuring the chloride content in 0.3ul fluid, thus allowing assessment of the chloride content of a single mosquito larva.

In 1943 he was invited by the Agricultural Research Council to set up and direct a unit of insect physiology to study factors that might have a bearing on insect control. This unit was transferred to Cambridge in 1945 when Wigglesworth became a reader and head of the sub-department of entomology at the department of zoology. In 1952 he became Quick professor of biology.

In addition to his scientific papers Wigglesworth wrote a number of books, of which the most famous was The principles of insect physiology (London, Methuen & Co), first published in 1939 and printed in eight editions. This book enhanced the reputation obtained from his papers and ensured that the top floor of the Cambridge zoology department became an essential training ground for insect physiologists from all over the world.

Academic honours included the presidency of the Royal Entomological Society, from 1950 to 1952, the award of the Royal medal of the Royal Society in 1955, the Dutch Swammerdam medal in 1966 and the Czech Gregor Mendel gold medal in 1967. He was an honorary member of the Royal Danish Academy of Science and of the entomological societies of America, Egypt, India, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Vincent Wigglesworth was a shy, reserved and quietly religious man who did not spend much of his time indulging in social activities. For many years he enjoyed walking with his family in the Lake District where he rented a cottage. He would often climb his favourite mountain and sit, wrapped in an old oilskin coat, reading a book. It was always easiest to engage his attention through discussion of a scientific problem, preferably of a biological nature. Ordinary domestic problems were less readily responded to.

In 1928 Wigglesworth married Mabel Katherine Semple, daughter of Sir David Semple, a pathologist of the Indian Medical Service. She died in 1986. They had three sons (one the author of this memoir) and one daughter.

J S Wigglesworth

[The Daily Telegraph, 12 Mar 1994]

(Volume X, page 519)

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