W.B. Tegetmeier

WB Tegetmeier
W.B. Tegetmeier (1816–1912).

For every giant that strides the scientific world like a colossus, there are many thousands more mini-heroes of science whose contributions are sometimes overlooked or forgotten. One of my particular favourite mini-heroes is William Bernhardt Tegetmeier.

Tegetmeier was born in Colnbrook, Buckinghamshire on 4th November 1816. His father was a surgeon who had emigrated from America. After the family had relocated to London, the teenage Tegetmeier became his father’s apprentice. His medical training continued at University College, London, and in its hospital. But Tegetmeier was bored by the work and eventually left to become, briefly, a ‘mesmeric healer’. It takes all sorts. A few years later, in 1845, he became a lecturer in ‘domestic economy’ at the Home and Colonial Society’s training college. It was here that he met his future wife, a teacher at the adjoining infants’ school. They were both fired on the announcement of their marriage, but Tegetmeier was later reinstated.

It was while he was at the training college that Tegetmeier began what was to become a long writing career. His 1858 book A Manual of Domestic Economy was particularly successful, going through 14 editions. Amongst his many subsequent books were Bees, Hives and Honey (1865), The Poultry Book (1867), and Pigeons: Their Structure, Varieties, Habits, and Management (1868).

Tegetmeier as a pigeon
Cartoon of Tegetmeier as a pigeon

Tegetmeier had been interested in pigeons and domestic fowl since his youth. In adulthood, he was recognised as an authority on both subjects. It was in this capacity that, in 1855, he found himself being introduced to another gentleman who had recently begun to show an interest in pigeons. Many years later, in an article for Tatler, Tegetmeier described the encounter:

Continuing my love for pigeons, I became the secretary of the most exclusive pigeon association, the Philoperisteron Society, which held its annual meetings in the great hall of the Freemasons’ Tavern. At one of these exhibitions I heard a voice which said, ‘Oh, here’s Tegetmeier ; he will tell you all about these birds better than I can’. I turned round, and saw [my friend William] Yarrell with a stranger, whom he introduced as Mr. Darwin.

Tegetmeier almost certainly misremembered the location of his first encounter with Charles Darwin—correspondence and diary entries indicate it is more likely that they first met at the Anerley Show in August 1855—but their meeting sparked a friendship which was to last until Darwin’s death 27 years later. Within days, Darwin was writing to Tegetmeier, pumping him for information:

Dear Sir

I have been thinking over your offer of helping me to the dead bodies of some of the good birds of Poultry.— Really considering how complete a stranger I am to you, I think it one of the most goodnatured offers ever made to me.— I have hardly the means to keep all the kinds of poultry, & to buy first-rate birds, merely to make skeletons of them, I should think too great an outlay. Therefore if you can help me even to a few it would be a very great assistance. […]

I published some years since a Natural History Journal of my Travels, which has been liked by some naturalists: if you should feel the least interest in seeing it, I shd. be proud to present you with a copy.—

Tegetmeier’s signature
Tegetmeier’s signature.

Tegetmeier was ever eager to oblige, as Darwin continued to pump him for information on poultry, pigeons, and many other animals, gathering evidence in support of his theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection. Of particular interest to Darwin was Tegetmeier’s expertise in honeybees (Tegetmeier was the Founder and President of the Apiarian Society).

Tegetmeier, 1879.
Tegetmeier, 1879.

The intricate, hexagonal honeycomb of the honeybee was seen as a classic example of divine design; Darwin believed the instinct to build them had evolved from one to build far cruder, circular wax cells, which is still exhibited by other species of bees. Tegetmeier was soon experimenting on Darwin’s behalf, and providing Darwin with hives of bees to enable him to perform his own experiments. Tegetmeier’s finding that honeybees actually construct simple, cylindrical cells, which only become hexagonal when they come into contact with adjacent cells was announced at the 1858 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The following year, Darwin also described their experiments in chapter 7 of ‘On the Origin of Species’:

Following the example of Mr Tegetmeier, I separated two combs, and put between them a long, thick, square strip of wax: the bees instantly began to excavate minute circular pits in it; and as they deepened these little pits, they made them wider and wider until they were converted into shallow basins, appearing to the eye perfectly true or parts of a sphere, and of about the diameter of a cell. It was most interesting to me to observe that wherever several bees had begun to excavate these basins near together, they had begun their work at such a distance from each other, that by the time the basins had acquired the above stated width (i.e. about the width of an ordinary cell), and were in depth about one sixth of the diameter of the sphere of which they formed a part, the rims of the basins intersected or broke into each other. As soon as this occurred, the bees ceased to excavate, and began to build up flat walls of wax on the lines of intersection between the basins, so that each hexagonal prism was built upon the festooned edge of a smooth basin, instead of on the straight edges of a three-sided pyramid as in the case of ordinary cells.

By way of a thank you for all his support, Darwin wrote to Tegetmeier on 9th April 1859, stating:

I shall go next month to press with an abstract of my general views on the origin of species, & it will make a volume of about 500 pages, & I shall have much pleasure in sending you a copy when it is published.— I shall give abstract of conclusions at which I have arrived on Bees cells.—

Believe me with many thanks

Yours very sincerely

C. Darwin

Tegetmeier, age 62.
Tegetmeier, age 62.

Tegetmeier was immensely (and justifiably) proud of the assistance he had been able to give Darwin, and kept the above letter tucked safely inside his presentation copy of the first edition of On the Origin of Species. If ever you need an example of the contribution gifted amateurs can make to our scientific knowledge, look no further than William Bernhardt Tegetmeier—and, of course, his friend Charles Robert Darwin.

Until I began researching Tegetmeier for this article, I had no idea just how many books he had written; nor was I aware of his long career as a journalist; nor did I know that he was a founder and highly active member of the bohemian Savage Club, which is still going strong today. You tend to forget that minor scientific figures such as Tegetmeier live full and colourful lives outside the references and footnotes of science publications.

Tegetmeier as Damio
A colourful character: Tegetmeier as Damio.

In Tegetmeier’s case, it was indeed a very full life: he lived to a ripe old age, dying a fortnight after his 96th birthday, on 19th November 1912. He was buried in Marylebone cemetery, Finchley. In September 2008, a commemorative plaque in his honour was unveiled at his former home: 101, St James’ Lane, Muswell Hill, London.

Sources for this article:

Richard Carter, FCD

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteNewsletterMastodonetc…

One comment

  1. Hi
    We have been researching our family tree after finding some photos and letters since my Nan died in 1990 we found letters and photos of William and have discovered his my great great grand father .
    We have a some photos and letters and found it all very interesting

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