If you’re a keen climber or mountaineer, you have something in common with several Fellows of the Royal Society.

I’m more of a stroll-up-a-hill type, but my interest in the history of climbing in Britain was piqued recently when I found a series of letters in the Society’s archives. The letters concerned one Fellow’s 1942 climbing adventure in the Lake District, and the catastrophic events that ensued for him and his wife.

Climbing was a pursuit of earlier Fellows of the Society too. The physicist John Tyndall (1820-93) became a pioneering mountaineer after he first visited the Alps in 1856 to research glacial motion. The growing popularity of mountaineering at this time has been attributed to a number of factors, including transport innovations across Europe that allowed freer movement between town and countryside, and romantic sensibilities about masculinity and exploration. But for Tyndall and many of his contemporaries in the physical sciences, it was also a way to observe in the field the extremes of nature that informed their research in the laboratory. Tyndall went on to conquer the Weisshorn in the Swiss Alps in 1861, and led one of the early teams to the summit of the Matterhorn in 1868. He was able to combine his love of climbing with his study of the origin and continued existence of glaciers; during his lifetime he published around twenty papers in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions on this and other topics.


Portrait of John Tyndall, by John McClure Hamilton, 1893-94 © The Royal Society


As climbing became popular in the mid to late nineteenth century, private clubs formed to allow climbers to socialise and pursue their hobby together. The Alpine Club was the first mountaineering club in the world, formed in 1857 in London; Tyndall became a member in 1858. Climbing clubs in the nineteenth century were attended mainly by middle- and upper-class men who had sufficient money and leisure time on their hands. Women were generally not admitted: the Alpine Club was strictly for men, at least until 1975. This did not inhibit keen female climbers, however, and the Ladies’ Alpine Club was established in 1907 by Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed.


The Weisshorn (photo by Jeff Pang, http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffpang/4135301354/, via Wikimedia Commons)


It was after World War II that climbing became more accessible as a working-class pastime, with clubs proliferating as more and more people took up the challenge, helped by higher wages and shorter working hours. The equipment and clothing available included more waterproof and comfortable alternatives, informed by developments in science such as the commercialisation of nylon.

It was around this time that physiologist Edgar Douglas Adrian FRS (1899-1977; President 1950-55), together with his wife Hester (1899-1966), frequented the Lake District to indulge their passion for climbing. This was slightly less ambitious than the mountaineering Tyndall had undertaken in the Alps, but although Edgar was not pursuing research during the trip, the Adrians’ leisurely climb took a turn that made it more pertinent to Edgar’s work than he could have anticipated.


Portrait of Edgar Adrian, by Middleton Todd, 1955 © The Royal Society


Edgar and Hester had met at Cambridge, where Hester was pursuing a career in psychiatry and Edgar was studying nerve impulses at Trinity College, having gained a natural history degree at Cambridge and later a medical degree in London. He is renowned most for his Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1932, which he shared with Charles Scott Sherrington for their work on the function of neurons.

The interest that both Edgar and Hester Adrian had in nerve behaviour and health care, respectively, makes the story of their climbing experience in 1942 all the more poignant. The couple were enjoying a climbing and walking break in the Lake District in September, and as Edgar later recounted to his friend, the Finnish-Swedish physiologist Ragnar Granit, they were coming down from an ‘extremely easy climb’ with ‘no difficulty of any kind’ when disaster struck: ‘a large rock, about 5 ft. high, suddenly broke away when I took hold of it. It fell some way but landed on a slope of grass & rocks & came to a standstill after rolling down the slope’ (MM/18/107). The worst of Edgar’s story was yet to come: ‘Hester, though not directly below me, was in the way of the falling rock which crushed her leg both above and below the knee’.

Edgar Adrian does not reveal exactly how they arrived at the nearest hospital, but it is likely they made their way to the bottom of the slope, rather than wait for any rescue operation; he goes on to state that they reached Keswick Hospital with ‘not too long a delay (about 10 hours from the accident)’. Edgar’s recall of the story is thus surprisingly positive. He reported to his friend Granit how Hester had very little shock despite the fact that ‘they could only amputate for the bone was too badly crushed to be saved’. ‘There is even a chance that she will be able to walk well with an artificial leg.’ His optimism may well have been a tactful way to avoid reflecting on the fact that the amputation was caused by a rock he loosened. As he reported to Granit, ‘Hester insists that I must not think of it as my fault and I am trying to obey her’.

To make things worse, as a result of his ongoing research into nerve behaviour, Edgar would have been highly aware of the nerve damage and referred pain that Hester would face, but in January 1943 he again wrote to Granit and informed him that ‘all the doctors and limb fitters who see it admire the stump as just the right length and shape’ (MM/18/108). By October 1943, it seems Hester was able to walk effectively with a prosthetic leg, even as far as eight miles during a summer holiday in Yorkshire (MM/18/109). Hester’s ordeal seemed to hinder her little, and much that she achieved in her career in health and penal work she completed after the amputation. As for Edgar, the accident must have led to a more experiential (albeit by proxy) understanding of nerve impulses pertaining to pain.


  • Gabriel Finkelstein

    A horrible and fascinating story.