Page 1 of 4 | 2005 Interview by Michael Jacobi
Michael Jacobi: Thanks for doing this, Andrew. I appreciate it very much, especially since I know you are extremely busy with the Poecilotheria book many of us are eagerly awaiting. You have said that an ideal day for you inVolves immersing yourself in documents and specimen jars in the depths of the British Museum. What originally drew you to the microscope and drawing pen?
Andrew M. Smith: There was something very special in the act of stepping in and then switching on the lights of the old—and now long gone—BMNH arachnid spirit room [British Museum of Natural History; now known as The Natural History Museum, London; www.nhm.ac.uk]. The antique fluorescent tubes would fire up with a bang and a flash and I would then enter a silent world of cast iron spiral staircases, steel shelves and thousands of bottles of alcohol, each one containing spiders and, I would like to also believe, a story. One would begin the day by reading the copperplate writing on the labels and then reverently take down a glass-stoppered jar and examine a specimen that like good claret was first laid down a century before. In one jar I found a monocle and in another a hair from a long dead arachnologist's moustache, which of course raises the question: do we have the technology to clone Reginald Pocock? The mind boggles! I experience a similar feeling when I open and read the letters of the long dead arachnologists that are held in the archives of such institutions as Cambridge University and the Royal Entomological Society. In the diary of Colonel Yerbury (a collector of Sri Lankan Poecilotheria specimens for Pocock) the old soldier complained that the day had indeed gone badly when bad weather came in suddenly on him at Nuwara Eliya. Late that day, on a bitterly cold hillside he lost one of his field workers to exposure and noted with obvious irritation that somebody had failed to pack his brandy flask. The trials of the Edwardian collector!
On a summer's day some twenty odd years ago, I insanely vowed—my mind possibly addled by the fumes of the hundreds of gallons of alcohol that surrounded me—to draw every theraphosid type specimen in the BMNH, European and North American collections. This is a task that I have now almost completed. It has also now been expanded upon by including all of the type material in the Indian collections. Sadly, I have concluded that the task of drawing the South American collections is now beyond me and Rogerio Bertáni has taken up the torch to produce the Bird Eating Spider Volume of the Fitzgerald theraphosid taxonomy series. Richard Gallon is now revising and rewriting "Baboon Spiders" [Smith, A.M. 1990. Baboon Spiders: Tarantulas of Africa and the Middle East. Fitzgerald, London] and I will begin compiling Tarantulas of India and the Far East Ð after, of course, I have completed the Poecilotheria book. It should also be noted that my publisher is exploring the idea of a Brachypelma book similar to the Poecilotheria book. This will probably inVolve scouring Mexico for three years with an astonishingly able team of young Mexican arachnologists, with the added joy of being accompanied by my old friend Professor George Odell Ð bliss, and who knows what we will find! I believe that Fitzgerald hopes to have a Brachypelma book packed with coloured location photographs with an accompanying DVD of an updated "Tarantulas of the USA & Mexico" [Smith, A.M. 1994. Tarantula Spiders: Tarantulas of the U.S.A. and Mexico. Fitzgerald, London].
But why draw them? Well it immediately gives the hobby and researchers access to the original type material and that means that we have an accurate database to build upon.
MJ: You primarily earn your living as a teacher and lecturer inVolved with science workshops, not as an arachnologist. Tell us about the long tradition of amateur arachnologists, particularly in England, and how you became one of them.
AMS: I think that in Britain the term amateur is perceived in a very different light than in both Europe and the USA. Science in Britain, since the very early days of the Royal Society, was seen as the preserve of the gentleman scientist, which was to only slowly change in the Victorian era with the establishment of a professional academia in the new university and museum departments, and the rise of the state Grammar school system in the early part of the last century. Nevertheless, paid scientific posts were few and far between and many academically gifted people in the professions continued to pursue their scientific interests, particularly natural history, as a hobby. This has over the centuries inevitably been undertaken with gusto and amateurs such as Blackwall, Pickard-Cambridge, Hogg, Savory, Bristowe, Locket and Millidge and even the great Hudson have been responsible for many of the classic Victorian and twentieth century arachnological/natural history publications Ð a tradition that has continued to this day with John Murphy, Michael Roberts and in other fields of zoology, David Attenborough and Desmond Morris. Far behind this hallowed throng trot I! The key link between the professional scientist and the amateur has always been the British love of societies and the role of the Associate in our academic system, which we Brits revel in. I, for example, am a freelance lecturer/researcher, an elected scientific fellow of the Zoological Society of London and Chairman of the British Tarantula Society, which with my Research Associate and IUCN [The World Conservation Union, www.iucn.org] hat on means that I act as the theraphosid advisor for H.M. Customs. Another example would be Paul Brock who is a college bursar and Chairman of the Phasmid Society. He is also a Research Associate of the BMNH and elected fellow of the Royal Entomological Society. The great Reginald Pocock retired from London Zoo in 1923 and then became a Research Associate of the BMNH and continued as an amateur until he dropped dead at 81. I too hope to become an eccentric, gloriously irritating old fart in the great British amateur tradition Ð hopefully dropping dead at my microscope or being found mummified in a dark corner of a dry and dusty basement archive. I would argue that a professional arachnologist has a Master's or Ph.D. and usually has tenure with a scientific institution. Generally an amateur in the UK is defined as a professional who has been educated to university standard and pursues arachnology as a hobby outside of his profession. Like the professional the amateur will be attached to a scientific institution and have direct access to type material. All will have peer-reviewed publications under their belts. If we work on the conservative assumption of say 2000 tarantula enthusiasts worldwide, professional and amateur arachnologists make up less than two percent of the total. For the serious hobbyist we can now use a marvelous term, first coined by the American arachnologist Sam Marshall Ð "arachnoculturist". This is a term that covers probably forty-five percent of the members of our hobby and even includes that somewhat exclusive body Ð the European collector-trader-breeders. Many arachnoculturists have no college background, but in reality are some of the most knowledgeable people in the hobby today. These are the breeders, collectors, travelers and specialist keepers and are the people that I call upon when I need information. We then have the enthusiast/hobbyist who makes up the bulk of the hobby and given time, many of these will become the breeders, committee members and arachnoculturists of the future.