Collecting on the move: T.T. Macan’s on-board ship collection (1933-34)

Thomas T. Macan (1910-1985) had a distinguished career as an entomologist, focusing on aquatic insects, which he studied for most of his life at the Freshwater Biological Association. Yet, before joining the FBA at Wray Castle on Windermere in 1935, Macan’s first job was in marine, not freshwater biology, when he joined the 1933-34 John Murray Expedition to the Indian Ocean, then one of the least studied oceanic area on earth.


T.T. Macan

This expedition, financed by a bequest made by British oceanographer Sir John Murray, was an Anglo-Egyptian collaboration: an Egyptian trawler, the Mabahiss, was transformed into a vessel adequate for scientific research and included a chemical laboratory; the captain, K.N. MacKenzie, and the scientific leader, Lt. Col. R.B. Seymour Sewell, were both British; the scientific crew was comprised of New Zealand-born chemist Bill Thompson and two young British Cambridge graduates, Hugh Gilson (future FBA director from 1946 to 1973) and Macan, along with two Egyptians, Abdel Fateh Mohamed, a chemist, and Hussein Faouzi, a zoologist who had originally qualified in medicine and therefore also acted as the ship’s doctor; the crew was mostly Egyptian.

The Mabahiss left Alexandria on 3 September 1933 for a nine-month cruise which took her 22,000 miles through the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the north-western Indian Ocean, and the Gulf of Oman. During the Cruise the ship worked 209 scientific stations and collected data and material which formed the basis of a long series of reports published by the British Museum (Natural History) over a period of more than 30 years. The Expedition greatly enhanced the knowledge of the Indian Ocean, in particular concerning sea-bed topography and geology, sea-water physics and chemistry, and deep-sea fauna.

Macan was amongst the three zoologists taxed with trawling and dredging the bottom fauna to compare deep and shallow fauna, as well as compare the fauna of the three different areas of the Gulfs of Aden and Oman and off the East African coast. These collections are preserved in the Natural History Museum in London. An entomologist and a keen observer, Macan also kept a record of the insects he encountered. This included ‘ship-inhabiting species’ but also insects which landed on the ship. Macan subsequently published his catalogue in Proceedings of the Royal Entomological Society of London, and his meticulous list included ‘the date, the ship’s position at the time [of capture], her previous movements, and the wind force and direction’.

Some of the insects that Macan collected on-board the Mabahiss found their way into the FBA insect store box collection and were examined by Honorary Research Fellow Dr Ian Wallace when he was checking on the collection’s condition. The particular box had deteriorated a little so Ian re-housed them into one of better quality. Macan’s characteristically scrupulous labels mirror the level of detail in the published list.

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On 18 November 1933, upon leaving Karachi, the wind North-East and 20 m.p.h., Macan collected five insects, including a praying mantis (Mantis religiosa L.), an African mole cricket (Gryllotalpa africana Beauv.), and an Egyptian locust (Anacridium aegyptium L.).

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Amongst other insects are several vagrant emperors (Hemianax ephippiger, Burmeist.), a species of dragonfly, caught ‘steaming along [the] coast’ of Balochistan in November 1933, and the ship’s ‘Permanent Inhabitants’, three specimens of German cockroaches (Blatella germanica L.).

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A scorpion from the Maldives ‘brought aboard & later found in Major Glennie’s gear’ was also added to the collection.

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The box might seem a bit of an oddity in the midst of freshwater insects held by the FBA, but it illustrates how a great observational scientist like Macan saw opportunities for research, even if a bit off-beat, others might miss.

Isabelle Charmantier, FBA Information Scientist



Seymour Sewell and J. Stanley Gardiner, ‘The John Murray Expedition to the Indian Ocean, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 83, No. 2, 1934, pp. 135-139.

T.T. Macan, ‘A Collection of Insects and Arachnids Made on Board H.E.M.S. “Mabahiss” during the John Murray Expedition, 1933-1934’, Proceedings of the Royal Entomological Society of London, vol. 12, issue 4-6, 1937, pp. 77-80.

Further reading:

A.L.Rice (ed.), Deep-Sea Challenge. The John Murray/Mabahiss Expedition to the Indian Ocean, 1933-34. Unesco, 1986, 336pp.