Obituary: Anita McConnell 1936-2016

By Jane Insley and A.D. Morrison-Low

Historians of oceanography were saddened to hear of the death of Dr Anita McConnell, FRGS, FRSA, FRMetS, in April 2016. For many of us, her scholarship had shown what could be done to great effect with the material culture of museums in relation to particular sciences, which had its beginnings in her ground-breaking doctoral thesis on the history of oceanographic instruments. She was born on 22 January 1936, her Italian parents both working in the catering trade, her father at one point on the staff of the Café Royal in Piccadilly. According to a memoir she was persuaded to write by a friend a few weeks before she died, her childhood appears to have been a somewhat solitary one. Her parents worked late shifts; with the outbreak of war she was sent to live with her grandmother, then was evacuated and subsequently sent to boarding school. Her primary education was sketchy, but she left school aged 16, with a School Certificate in English Language, French, Mathematics and General Science (failing Latin, which she would later study at evening classes) and a life-long hunger for further learning.

She combined a variety of low-paid jobs with academic training for a number of years, gaining a Diploma in Archaeology, learning to drive, and even cooking for the film crew on the film Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), for which she travelled to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). A driving job for a laundry back in London gave her the opportunity to pursue a new interest in archaeology – two years of a four-year evening course were tough going, but changing to a job at the Science Museum in 1964 (entry level qualifications being four O-levels) allowed more time for study, and she gained her Diploma in Archaeology from the University of London in 1967. Further foreign travel followed.

Through the laundry work she met Dennis McConnell, ex-Army, son of a Scot but brought up in Uruguay. Both were interested in furthering themselves through education, so they saved money by moving in together, marrying in 1963 to ease the burden of income tax, supporting each other’s studies, but also managing cheap travel on the continent. Both became mature students; Anita joined University College London, to read physical geography, relevant to her Science Museum work. The Museum gave her three years unpaid study leave; her husband returned to lorry driving. Anita got an Upper Second Class degree in August 1971, returned to the Science Museum and began a part-time MSc in the History of Technology at Imperial College.

At work, her task was to move collections from London to York for the future National Railway Museum; after two more years at the Museum’s stores at Hayes, she returned to South Kensington to be the Curator of Oceanography and Geophysics, charged with extracting both collections from deep storage and preparing an exhibition gallery, which opened in 1977. At this point, she parted company with her husband in a difficult divorce. Plunging into work, she realised that the oceanography collection could form the basis of a thesis, enrolled at the University of Leicester under Dr Alex Keller, and gained her doctorate in July 1979. Publications followed, on both topics, including catalogues and general histories.

She worked for the Science Museum until 1987, leaving after 23 years through frustration at the lack of opportunities for research. Freelance work followed, notably drafting a catalogue of the instruments belonging to the Ordnance Survey. Not all her ventures came to anything, but one of the more successful was a trading business in historic barometers with Patrick Marney (a barometer specialist) which ran for 22 years. This resulted in papers and visits to places such as the Mariners Museum in Virginia, to produce a catalogue. She also worked on the history of Cooke, Troughton and Simms for Vickers Instruments and the University of York, and was commissioned by the late Gerry Martin to write a survey of the networks bringing knowledge of glass-working for optical uses to the London Trade 1500–1900. This was not published at the time, but is currently in press. She also worked at the Royal Institution, the National Museum of Scotland, the Museé Oceanographique in Monaco, and the Whipple Museum of the History of Science at Cambridge, in a variety of capacities. She combined this with ten years of voluntary work as a magistrate for the City of London.

In 1993 Oxford University Press proposed a revision of the Dictionary of National Biography. One of the first blocks was business history, with a section for instrument and clock makers, and Anita was invited to become the Research Editor for that block. Her work involved finding suitable authors for updated and new entries, by default writing them herself. She went on to work on the blocks for science, medicine and art (engravers), as her research skills made her particularly useful in searching specialist London libraries. She provided more entries than any other single contributor, some 600 articles, before retiring in 2004.

In 2005 aged 69, she decided living in London was too expensive, and moved to a converted farm labourer’s cottage in a small village outside Stowmarket, but convenient for trains to London and to Cambridge, where she became an affiliated research scholar at the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science. Further travel took her to Brazil, Puntas Arenas, Tahiti, Easter Island, Ethiopia, Syria, Mauritius, Uzbekistan, the Galapagos and elsewhere. She stayed at Monaco and Genoa with friends, and worked on seismological history with Graziano Ferrari, and oceanographic history with Giorgio Dragoni, both based in Italy.

However, when life in the country became more difficult, she eventually moved to Girton, north of Cambridge. Shorter trips abroad were made with friends, one of the last being to Dresden. This was to receive the Paul Bunge Prize on behalf of the Scientific Instrument Society, for the late Brian Gee’s book Francis Watkins and the Dollond Telescope Patent Controversy, for which she was joint editor. The prize money went to the student fund of the Society, supporting young academics in museum projects.

Her published output was prodigious; we list some of the more significant works below, but her own favourite publication was her edition of Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli, Histoire physique de la mer, originally published in 1725 and is the reason that Marsigli is regarded by some authorities as the founder of modern oceanography. She travelled extensively to history of science conferences, as a means of networking: the International Congress on the History of Oceanography meetings are held every four or five years, and she went to Woods Hole, Massachusetts (1980), Hamburg (1987), Scripps (1993), Kaliningrad (2003), and Naples (2008). An Egyptian colleague who was employed at UNESCO in Paris obtained funding for her to compile a catalogue of worldwide oceanographic institutions, listing their holdings in archives, apparatus, and samples. Her compilation, Directory of Source Materials for the History of Oceanography was published by UNESCO in 1990.

Among her most important works were Geomagnetic Instruments before 1900: An Illustrated Account of their Construction and Use (London: Harriet Wynter Ltd, 1980); Historical Instruments in Oceanography: Background to the Oceanography Collection at the Science Museum (London: HMSO, 1981); No Sea Too Deep: The History of Oceanographic Instruments (Bristol: Adam Hilger Ltd., 1982); Geophysics & Geomagnetism: Catalogue of the Science Museum Collection (London: HMSO, 1986); Instrument Makers to the World: A History of Cooke, Troughton & Simms (York: William Sessions and the University  of York, 1992); R B Bate of the Poultry 1782-1847; the Life and Times of a Scientific instrument Maker (Pershore: SIS Monograph No 1, 1993); King of the Clinicals, The Life and Times of J J Hicks (York: William Sessions, 1998); a modern edition of Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli, Histoire physique de la mer (Bologna: Museo di Fisica dell’Universita di Bologna, 1999); Jesse Ramsden 1735 to 1800, London’s leading Scientific Instrument Maker (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007); Francis Watkins and the Dollond Telescope Patent Controversy by Brian Gee, co-edited with A D Morrison-Low (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).

Of her many other publications the following are of particular note:

‘The Scientific Life of William Scoresby Jnr., with a Catalogue of his Instruments and Apparatus in the Whitby Museum’, Annals of Science 43 (1986), 257-86; ‘Aluminium and its alloys for scientific instruments, 1855-1900’, Annals of Science  46 (1989), 611-620; and ‘From Craft Workshop  to Big Business – the  London Scientific Instrument Trade’s Response to Increasing Demand,  1750-1820’, London Journal 19, No 1 (1994), 36-53.

Authors’ addresses:

Jane Insley, 142 Thomas More House, Barbican, London EC2Y  8BU

A.D. Morrison-Low, Research Associate, National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh, EH1 1JF

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