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.
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:
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 :
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.
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.
|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.