Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Great observers - Ernest Hanbury Hankin

Never heard of E H Hankin? You can be excused, for neither had I, until this morning when Colonel Ashwin Baindur dropped his name. Searching around, looking up some bits and pieces at the end of the day I have to decided that he belongs on a pedestal along with so many other lesser known greats.

To start with Ernest Hanbury Hankin (February 4, 1865 – March 29, 1939) studied medicine and came to India to work in the United Provinces (now still UP) and was perhaps among the first to detect the activity of bacteriophages - he noted (in 1896) that there was something in the river waters of the Ganges and Jamuna that passed through filters but was destroyed by boiling and seemed to kill Vibrio cholerae . He suggested that these may have been responsible in reducing the ravages of Cholera in that area. Phages were finally "officially" discovered by Felix D'Herelle in 1917.

Anyway, Hankin did not work further on that front and phages continue to be a field that has a lot of promise but is perhaps supressed by legal frameworks which in turn are perhaps supported by the pharmaceutical industry. Imagine having a drop of water with a few viruses instead of buying antibiotics ! If you have heard about the practice of adding Potassium permanaganate into wells, that was a technique popularized by Hankin to manage cholera and typhoid.This practice led to the emergence of an Anglo-Indian term of everyday usage "pinky pani".

Around 1911 Hankin took an interest in observing birds and the detail of his observation can be found in his careful illustrations. These were first published in Flight - the first aviation magazine and in 1914 he published a book on Animal Flight. He restricted himself to making insightful observations and comparing notes with what he knew on anatomy and noted that he was handicapped by his lack of knowledge on various aspects. He looked up specimens at the Bombay Natural History Society (that was in an era when that organization did allow interested people to study their collections!)

He begins his 1914 book with a quotation from someone who signs as A.O.H. (easily determined as A O Hume - and this was perhaps at a time when he was under the sway of the theosophists - although later separating himself after exposing Madame Blavatsky)

A writer who signs himself A. O. H. watched vultures in Simla at a height of about 7000ft. in the Himalaya Mountains. He states that these birds start their flight in summer between six and seven o'clock in the morning, but in winter not till nearly nine o'clock. Their usual speed of flight he estimates to be from twelve to fifteen  miles  an   hour, the  lowest speed of gliding to be seven to eight miles an hour, and the highest twenty-six to twenty-seven miles an hour. The species observed was Gyps himalayensis, a vulture of 9ft span. When gliding in a straight line for miles the only movement shown by this vulture was an occasional and gradual "shift " of the tail. He says that crows can soar rising in circles without flapping, but that they do so only when the air is quite calm. He states that soaring flight is due to "levitation." This is a miracle or conjuring trick in virtue of which a man can remain unsupported in the air. He says that it consists in "so altering the magnetic polarity of the physical frame that in lieu of being attracted it is repelled by the earth." This power is achieved by "living an absolutely pure life and intense religious concentration." Birds are endowed with this power, apart from such mental exercises, unless, it may be suggested, the hill crow finds it helpful to indulge in irreligious sentiments when trying to descend to earth without  the help of gravity.

Others, having a clearer idea of causation, have attempted to show mathematically how soaring flight could he explained if the wind has a certain upward trend, or if the air is subject to horizontal pulsations. Such theories have been put forward as possibilities. They are admittedly not based on facts of observation, although, by some, they have been mistaken for established doctrines. But, as will be seen, the study of soaring flight brings us face to face with an extremely complicated series of phenomena, and there it room for doubt how far these simple mathematical conceptions carry us towards an explanation.
A selection of illustrations
What captures ones attention is the careful attention, observation and illustrations that he made of soaring birds. He then goes on to compare certain actions and postures with the musculature involved. He notes for instance that there are no muscles in birds that allow the phalanges to be pressed down to enhance the camber. He notes that this is present in flying foxes. His area of research seems to be the exploration of what is today called dynamic soaring and is presumably much better understood. Indeed hang-gliding enthusiasts today have a feel for the subject that would be have been much the envy of Dr. Hankin. In March 1923 Time magazine noted:
People on a London common saw a strange sight—an elderly gentleman playing with a toy aeroplane. He was Dr. E. H. Hankin, M. A., D. Sc., author of Animal Flight (a book dealing with the science of living flight), and he was experimenting with a model glider.
A vulture coming in for landing - at the final stage the flapping is directed forward to brake

When Hankin returned to England, he was also amusing himself with geometrical patterns. He was especially interested in the patterns in the trellis work of Fatehpur-Sikri and Sikandra. And so this multifaceted doctor turned his attention to tesselations comparing Mughal, Arab and Saracen patterns. He especially seems to have taken an interest in non-repeating tile patterns (Penrose tilings) !

Hankin's works are not very well known, but it is clear that he had a lot of time to think. He seems to have spent a lot of time on thinking about education. In one study he noted the upbringing of Quakers and suggested that their emphasis on intuition rather than excessive conscious logic helped them in making scientific advances. His statistics for that time period indicated that one had a 46 times greater chance of being elected Fellow of the Royal Society if one came from a Quaker upbringing ! He later wrote several books :
The first I can only find a reference to (PS July 2014: now online and linked above) is referred to in a 1926 issue of the "Proceedings of the Stanford Conference on Business Education" where the author notes:
There is a little book which I think every business teacher ought to read, by a man named Hankin, in England. It is entitled The Mental Limitations of the Expert. A revision and enlargement of this book has just been published by E. P. Dutton, with the title Common Sense and Its Cultivation. Mr. Hankin is an expert himself, an expert chemist in the British foreign service in India. To have a thinking Englishman live in India is significant. He has time to sit down and think, and some excellent work by Englishmen has come out of India. Among the illustrations that Mr. Hankin gives of expert limitations is this.

He says that, in a certain section of India, a certain caste had developed a high degree of financial ability. The people of this caste had handled banking and financial affairs of that region continuously and almost exclusively. For many years it had been one of the standards of this caste that their children should not attend school. They learned the multiplication tables by units and quarters up to 50—as 49% times 23%. They had most accurate memories for this most complicated of multiplication tables. Everything else they got by intuition and apprenticeship.

Then the English came in, and English education became the vogue. About fifty years ago this tribe began to take to English education, formal education.  Today, Mr. Hankin says. they have almost entirely lost their place of dominance in finance, and it has been taken by another caste, which adheres to the old type of education. By their English education the former controllers of the financial situation lost their intimate contact with things, the intimate try-outs of experience, through which they had been getting something which had made them dominant; and when they lost it they lost their dominance.
Fortunately for us, Hankin died more than 70 years ago and so his works are now in public domain under most jurisdictions.

  • Alexander Sulakvelidze, Zemphira Alavidze, and J. Glenn Morris, Jr. (2001) Bacteriophage Therapy. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy. 45(3): 649–659. doi: 10.1128/AAC.45.3.649-659.2001.
Anyone lucky enough to have access to the Cambridge archives might be able to find a portrait of the man  (H62) and perhaps someone will be able to persuade them to release at least a low resolution version into the public domain.
Hankin aged 35

February 2014 - an email to the Cambridge Antiquarian Society received a very prompt response and thanks to Dr John D. Pickles, Honorary Librarian, we now have a copy of perhaps the only portrait of the man. Here it is in full glory. A crop is available on the Wikipedia article.

Apparently some people make use of this bacteriophage story to add "scientific" weight to the idea of the purity of the Ganga. This, naturally is a bit of a misrepresentation, and it may dismay them to note that  most bacteriophage hunters today find the choicest phages in hospital sewage (often including phages that kill antiobiotic resistant bacteria). This inappropriate understanding of research findings encourages the status quo attitude of governments and people to assume that it is fine to dump garbage and sewage into these undoubtedly wonderful rivers because of their "miraculous" ability to recover from such abuse.


  1. Amazing post, Shyamal, you really brought the man to life. He is the pioneer of high-speed photography to examine avian flight. I am deeply grateful to Dr Satish Pande for informing me about him.

  2. Thank you for getting me to look up the man. The tools he mentions are a range-finder (="Telemeter"), notes, eyes, binoculars and a strange flight tracking device - using a mirror and a pen to trace the flight path of a bird while wathing with one eye ! He mentions photographs by a certain F W Headley but I am yet to find any evidence that he pioneered any form of photography.

  3. Wonderful, Shyamal, on many counts. One, the man himself...so versatile....brought to a living presence here.

    Your discovery of the man. Thank you for bringing such people to light.

    Your appreciation of the different kinds of work he did, which argues similar interests in you.

    Your writing, which is excellent.

    So...several thank you's, not just one!


  4. Hey Shyamal - Excellent post! Enjoyed every bit of it!


  5. The people of those times had such intriguing and intellectual hobbies! You are a true inheritor of Hankin's legacy, Shyamal. Very interesting post indeed!

  6. Nice look into the pursuits of scientists those days... enjoyed reading it. I found his theory about quakers also fascinating, google books seems to have a full copy of the book "common sense and its cultivation". hope to go through it some time.