“One of the last, and one of the greatest, was the shell collection amassed by the English conchologist Hugh Cuming (1791-1865)….No sooner had the collection been moved to the British Museum than Mrs J.E. Gray, wife of the Keeper of Zoology, carried the open drawers of shells across a courtyard in a howling gale and all the labels blew away. The Cuming collection has been a source of vexation and controversy to conchologists ever since.”
(Lynn Barber, The Heydey of Natural History, 1820-1870 (New York: Doubleday, 1980), p. 160)
I came across Mrs. J. E. Gray several years ago, in the course of my dissertation research. I followed her trail as far as it would go—as far as I let myself go, in one of those delightful dead-ends that are the moments we all hope for and dream of in scholarly work: the glimpses, again, and ever-so-briefly, of the pure thrill that is knowledge, and knowledge for its own sake. I didn’t need to know about Mrs. Gray, but I wanted to.
And so I wondered—
Was Mrs. Gray foolhardy in her decision to carry the trays of shells across that courtyard—No, no, I can manage, she might have protested, pushing her bustles through a narrow doorway, the demure heels of her pearl-buttoned leather boots tapping on the polished floor tiles. And as she exited the cool, calm sanctuary of the museum—a great whoosh and all those years of labor—all those tiny handwritten labels, yellowing and beginning to crumble just a bit around the edges—were gone in an instant. Poor Mrs. Gray—why did she not allow her husband to carry one of the drawers for her? Why did she not simply wait until the winds had calmed?
Or was she far more capable—far less capricious—than Barber’s brief description seems to allow? Perhaps that morning, she twisted and pinned her hair to keep it from falling in her face. At the museum, she smoothed a dusty smock over her dark silk skirts and set about her tasks—nothing much to do, just a few last drawers to carry over. Stacking her arms high with those carefully cataloged specimens, her mind swirled in a gale of Latin—Mitra Aurora, Mitra Adamsi, Mitra Arabica. And when she tried to chase those scraps of paper across the courtyard—the branches snagging her hair and the gravel slicing her hands as she bent to gather the lost labels in handfuls, she knew exactly what knowledge had been lost.
Mrs. Gray is but a footnote in the history of nineteenth-century museum culture. We could talk instead, as many do, of someone like Mary Anning (who is famous for giving names to specimens and not for losing them on a blustery day). But I have wondered about her. And now that I’ve found her, I’m delighted to know that she worked alongside her husband and gained notoriety in her own right—and that she endures today, as a genus of algae: Grayemma. How strange. How wonderful.
What do you think the dinner conversation was like at the Gray household that fateful evening? This is my elegy for her—for Maria Emma Gray.