Go back to article: Obituary: Brian Bracegirdle (1933–2015) at the Science Museum

Personal reflection

To a young museum assistant Dr B was a formidable persona even before I met him. This was partly due to me having a copy of his Atlas of Plant Structure at home (the then standard text for all A-level biology and undergraduate botany students) and partly departmental mythology. I was warned that he was a 'stickler'. I finally met him some three months after my appointment in January 1983 – he had been off work recuperating from his heart surgery. At that meeting he warned me that the Museum was a bit of a swamp and that there were a lot of crocodiles out there. Over time I came to understand something of the 'stickler' descriptor: he was a stickler for the use of academic titles; he was a stickler for punctuality; and he was a stickler for doing things properly. It was not so much that he did not suffer fools gladly, it was more that he did not suffer fools at all and he would be forthright in telling you so. But, if you met his exacting standards, responded intelligently and with respectful confidence, then occasionally you would catch a twinkle in his blue eyes and the hint of a smile.

I was allocated day-to-day care for a number of collections for which he had a specific responsibility and, more importantly, collections that held strong personal interests for him. His interest was frequently hands-on, which meant not just a prompt retrieval of items from store but there were times when I had to remember how to use a microtome and even how to mix formalin.

There were certain things, as Dr B’s museum assistant, you learnt very quickly not to mention. One was that if you could not find a microscope he had asked for then check ‘his’ cupboard in the Lower Wellcome Gallery but never mention that’s where you’d found it. Another unmentionable was the ‘other’ cupboard, the one that contained a remarkable number of bottles of port.

His interest in ‘his’ collections was in the spirit of the Museum at that time in that the objects would be used for purposes of demonstration and research. Dr B’s entry in his Brighton run was not an early Benz but photomicrographs of images gleaned from specimens in the histology collection, or from original microscopes. He never said much about this work but I knew he was utterly meticulous. The challenges of taking photographs of images produced by historic microscopes are considerable. I remember being staggered when I was helping him with the Leeuwenhoek exhibition that he had managed to get photographic images from Leeuwenhoek’s original microscopes. He was a teacher and the point of these images was not just the personal satisfaction of getting the shots but that they could then show everyone exactly what it was that Leeuwenhoek saw some 300 years earlier through his little beads of glass. I think he took a quiet pleasure and pride in presenting these images for the Museum’s visitors.

One of my other strong memories of that time came from my cataloging duties in the Fellow’s Room. Dr B would acquire books by the box load but cataloging the Wellcome objects had taken precedence over the books, several thousands of them. My job was to sort and catalogue them. In the process of doing this I came across a beautiful tome bound in white vellum, with text in Latin and glorious woodblock images. At first I thought it was a facsimile as it was in such pristine condition. Further exploration revealed a title page and a date: 1543, De humani corporis fabrica, Andreas Vesalius. My jaw dropped. I took the book over to Dr Bracegirdle’s office, with a pair of clean white cotton gloves. Sometime later he chuckled at my suggestion I take the book over to the Library for safe storage with the other rare books. And, as I went out of the door, he told me I’d better go and check all the other shelves in the Fellow’s Room. In all, about a week later, I took about a dozen pre-1800 books over to the Library for safe keeping.

Sandra Bicknell

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160610/004