Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The strange case of Middendorff's eyeball, revisited

Over the last year, the blog post of mine that has received the most attention has been one entitled "A very brief history of plagiarism" from March 2009. Every couple weeks, someone links to it and I get a tiny burst of new traffic. That post was really nothing more than the answer to a question asked by Coturnix in the comments on an earlier post about one specific case of apparent plagiarism that I had uncovered. I've recently come across some new information on that case that I think continues the story very nicely.

It began on a Friday night in February, last year. I was using Google Books in an attempt to track down the first appearance of the Benkendorff mammoth, a fictitious discovery that had somehow found its way into standard mammoth literature and that refused to go away (I eventually wrote up that story here). Searching a couple of keywords I came across this this phrase in two different books: "Again, in 1843, M. Middendorff found a mammoth on the Taz, between the Obi and the ... ." I've discovered plagiarisms before, so this coincidence set off familiar alarms. From there, my reaction follows a predictable pattern; curiosity is followed by disgust which gives way to compulsion and finally obsession. I looked at both books to make sure there were more than a few words shared between them. When I saw that there really were identical passages in both books, I tried to toss them both aside and continue my Benkendorff research. It was a waste of time; I couldn't stop thinking it. An hour later I looked at the books again. I followed the passages backwards and forwards and discovered that the borrowing went on for paragraphs with no end in sight. I determined which book had been published first and went to bed. The next morning I was up early, determined to nail down the extent of the crime.

The two books in question were Through Siberia, published in 1881 by Henry Lansdell, and Russian Nihilism and Exile Life in Siberia, published in 1882 by James William Buel. Both books were accounts of the authors' journeys across Siberia, from west to east, with special attention paid to the condition of prisoners and exiles. The two authors followed more or less the same itinerary. The paragraphs that caught my eye appeared in both books as part of an extended digression on the history and resources of the Lena River valley.

In Lansdell the paragraph that originally caught my eye appeared at the end of a three paragraph footnote on pages 289-90:
Again, in 1843, M. Middendorff found a mammoth on the Taz, between the Obi and the Yenesei, with some of the flesh in so perfect a condition that it was found possible to remove the ball of the eye, which is preserved in the Museum at Moscow.

In Buel it appeared in the main text on 420:
Again, in 1843, M. Middendorff found a mammoth on the Taz, between the Obi and the Yenesei, with some of the flesh in so perfect condition that it was found possible to remove the ball of the eye, which is preserved in the Museum at Moscow.

My first glance the night before had shown that Buel copied all three paragraphs of Lansdell's footnote as well as the paragraphs that appeared before and after the point where Landsdell inserted his footnote. That following morning, working backward and forward from those paragraphs, I figured out that the copying amounted to an entire chapter (13 pages in Lansdell) with only minor differences, mostly additions. Unfortunately, I did the backward comparison before the forward comparison. At the end of Buel's version of the chapter, I found a found a footnote that could have saved me a sleepless night: " For much of the information here given concerning the Lena, I am indebted to Mr. Lansdell's 'Through Siberia.'"

Okay, I thought, Buel isn't the jerk I thought he was. But, the footnote got me wondering how much of Buel's book was original. I searched the text of his book to see if he was indebted to Lansdell anywhere else. The only other place where Lansdell's name appeared in the book was in the introduction.
Several books on life in Russia and Siberia have appeared since the Turko-Russian war, but few that I have read treat the subject in a manner that suggests a personal visit to those countries by the authors. ... During the present year a work has appeared from the pen of Henry Lansdell, entitled "Through Siberia," that has met with much favor because it treats of a country about which so little is known, and because the author claims to have been a missionary and philanthropist. The facts are, however, that this work, I know, from observations made while in Siberia, to be a pure fiction so far as it relates to convict life; its statements concerning the prisons of Siberia are almost as wide of the truth as any of Munchausen's choice yarns. ... The London Graphic, reviewing the book, pronounces it an aggregated canard throughout. ... I was told by many prominent persons in Russia that the Government purchased several thousand copies of Mr. Lansdell's book and has been active in circulating it through several countries, because it represents convict life in Siberia as an existence of elegant ease and epicurean luxury... .

While Buel thought Lansdell's work was good enough that he borrowed an entire chapter from it, when he got around to writing the introduction, Buel damned Lansdell as a liar and a naive, if unwitting, propagandist for the Russian government. Buel wasn't the jerk that I originally thought he was; he was a different type jerk.

This should have been the end of the story, but something still bothered me about the paragraph that first caught my attention. It seemed too familiar. There are only so many ways to tell the same story and I have read about the fresh eyeball in many places. Was it the story that seemed familiar to me or were the actual words rattling around in my memory. I decided to run the first sentence of the paragraph through another search. What I found was page 54 of Mastodon, Mammoth, and Man published in 1878 by John Patterson MacLean, three years before Lansdell's book. It's a book that I had read a month earlier.
In 1843, Middendorff, a distinguished Russian naturalist, discovered a mammoth on the Tas, between the Obi and Yenesei, near the Arctic Circle, latitude 66° 30' North, with some parts of the flesh in a perfect state of preservation. The ball of the eye is in the Museum at Moscow.

In all three books the paragraph before the mention of Middendorff was a description of the famous Adams mammoth, discovered in 1799 (Which I blogged about here). Though different from the MacLean paragraph in wording and length (MacLean's was longer and more detailed), the juxtaposition of the two discoveries looked bad for Lansdell. Lansdell gave no credit to MacLean or anyone else for his mammoth information.

At that point in the game, the score appeared to be: Buel was an ungracious jerk, Lansdell was minor plagiarist, and MacLean... I decided one more search was in order. This time I used the last sentence of the paragraph. This is what I found:
The most recent discoveries made in 1843 by Mr. Middendorff, a distinguished Russian naturalist, and which he communicated to me in September 1846, afford more precise information as to the climate of the Siberian Lowlands, at the period when the extinct quadrupeds were entombed. One elephant was found on the Tas, between the Obi and Yenesei, near the Arctic circle, about lat. 66° 30' N., with some parts of the flesh in so perfect a state that the ball of the eye is now preserved in the Museum at Moscow.

That paragraph appears in Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, the 1847 and all later editions. Principles of Geology was Lyell's best known and most important book. It was enormously influential (Darwin read it during his voyage on the Beagle) and most educated Englishmen of the mid-nineteenth would have been familiar with it. It went through eleven editions between 1830 and Lyell's death in 1875. Lyell updated the book in most editions as new data came in. The next few paragraphs in the final (1873) edition of Lyell looked bad for MacLean.

In MacLean, one paragraph after the Middendorff eyeball:
In 1866 many skeletons were found retaining the skin and hair, in the flat country near the mouth of the Yenesei, between lat. 70° and 75° N. The heads of most of them were turned towards the south.

The Academy of St. Petersburg, in 1869-70, sent out an exploring expedition under Herr Von Maydell, to the river Indigiska, to examine some remains said to have been discovered there. The exploring party found the skin and hair as well as the bones of the mammoth at two points on the river, about thirty miles distant from each other, and sixty-six miles from the Arctic Sea.

In the Lyell, two paragraphs after the Middendorff eyeball (p. 183):
In 1866, in the flat country near the mouths of the Yenesei, between lat. 70° and 75° N., many skeletons of mammoths were found retaining the skin and hair. The heads of most of them are said to have been turned towards the south. So late as 1869-70, an exploring expedition was made by Herr von Maydell, under the direction of the Academy of St. Petersburg, to the river Indigiska, to examine some remains said to have been discovered there. We learn from M. Brandt that the travellers found the skin and hair as well as the bones of the Elphas primigenius at two points on the river, about thirty miles distant from each other, and sixty-six miles from the Arctic Sea.

The case against MacLean looks strong, that same order of narrative, similar or exact words. If the prosecution needed more evidence to sew up the case, there is the "river Indigiska," mentioned by both Lyell and MacLean. Indigiska is a misspelling of Indigirka. Lyell footnotes his source for information about the Maydell expedition as an 1871 article by Johann Freidrich von Brandt. I have been unable to lay my hands on a copy of that article, so I can't say whether or not Brandt also misspelled the name of the river. However, it's unlikely that both Maclean and Lyell both stole from Brandt. Brandt wrote in German and for Maclean and Lyell to both use the same words would require them to independently come up with the same translations. That is, as they say, not damn likely.

Unlike politicians, most writers lack underlings to take the blame for their malfeasance and so must find a way to accept responsibility while minimizing the crime. This brings us to the "oops defense" wherein the writer says they meant to credit the original author, but forgot. Nothing to see here, move along. Accepting responsibility for a little incompetence is better than admitting intellectual crimes. Of course, sometimes writers really do forget to insert the footnotes. Which was it with Maclean? I'm inclined to give the benefit of the doubt and say it was the latter. MacLean was very careful in his description of the Adams mammoth use quote marks and give credit to Richard Owen for the six sentences he used. MacLean also gave credit to Lyell for quotes in two other places in the book.

At the end of my investigation last year, the score was: Buel was an ungracious jerk, Lansdell was minor plagiarist, and MacLean (or his editor) was, at best, very sloppy in his work. Only Lyell came out of it looking good. At the time, I had yet to lay my hands on a copy of Middendorff's work on mammoths to see what he had to say and how he said it. Since then, I've acquired some new sources, including Middendorff, that carry the story a little further. I've identified a dozen writers who mention Middendorff's eyeball in more or less the same wording as Lyell used. All but two gave credit to Lyell.

Lyell mentioned the eyeball outside his Principles of Geology. In A Second Visit to the United States of North America (1850) he described the discovery this way:
I refer to the preservation in ice of the carcasses of extinct species of quadrupeds in Siberia; not only the rhinoceros originally discovered, with part of its flesh, by Pallas, and the mammoth afterwards met with on the Lena by Adams, but still more recently the elephant dug up by Middendorff, September, 1846, which retained even the bulb of the eye in a perfect state, and which is now to be seen in the museum at Moscow.

In a widely reprinted speech he gave before the 34th annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Lyell described the discovery in this manner:
Middendorff, in 1843, after digging through some thickness of frozen soil in Siberia, came down upon an icy mass, in which the carcase of a mammoth was imbedded, so perfect that, among other parts, the pupil of its eye was taken out, and is now preserved in the Museum of Moscow.

There are significant differences in the three accounts Lyell gave of the discovery. In Principles (1847), he says that Middendorff made the discovery in 1843 and reported it to Lyell in 1846. In Second Visit (1850), he says the discovery was in 1846. In his speech before the British Association, the date is again 1843. The simple conclusion is that the date given in Second Visit is a mistake, being the date of Middendorff's letter, not the date of the discovery. Unfortunately, that mistake remained uncorrected in later editions of Second Visit which might have caused some confusion to other scientists trying to follow the progress of mammoth discoveries.

A second discrepancy between the three accounts is Lyell's description of the state of preservation of the mammoth. In Principles, he describes "some parts of the flesh in a perfect state of preservation." In Second Visit, it is "the elephant ... which retained even the bulb of the eye in a perfect state...." In his speech before the British Association, he describes "the carcase of a mammoth was imbedded, so perfect that, among other parts, the pupil of its eye was taken out...." In the first two, he clearly stated that only part of the mammoth was perfectly preserved. In the third case, his implication was that the whole mammoth was perfectly preserved.

From many perspectives, these are both minor details that shouldn't undermine the core dependability of Lyell's work on geology. However, they do render Middendorff's discovery somewhat out of focus. Middendorff's reports on his expedition have never been translated out of German, as far as I can tell. There certainly has never been an English edition published. This means that unless readers have the time to track down the original editions of his work and the ability to translate them, they have had to depend on writers like Lyell to inform them about Middendorff's contribution to understanding mammoths and the Arctic.

Alexander Theodor von Middendorff (1815-1894)

I revisited Middendorff and his mammoth last year while creating a database of all the discoveries of mammoth carcasses. For each discovery, I tried to gather the name of the discoverer, the location, the date of discovery, and some details about each discovery. What I found out about Middendorff's mammoth was that he did not recover his on the Taz River, his wasn't very complete, he did not bring back an eyeball, and what he did bring back went to the St. Petersburg Academy not to the Moscow Museum.

Middendorff left St. Petersburg for Siberia on 26 November 1842. His formal instructions from the Academy of Sciences were investigate the phenomena of permafrost and conduct a survey of the flora and fauna of the Taymyr Peninsula, the northernmost extension of the Eurasian landmass. His tiny expedition included three other scientists, four Cossacks, and a Nenets interpreter. The expedition was brutal--Middendorff suffered freezing, starving, and severe depression--but ultimately was successful. He returned to the capital in 1845 as something of a scientific celebrity. His letters from the field had been published in the journal of the Academy and a short report was published soon after his return. The Emperor found the report quite interesting and gave all of four he scientists medals and pensions. There is no word whether the Cossacks or the interpreter received any reward for their parts. Middendorff then settled down to write the formal analysis of the data they had gathered. It took him thirty years. I'm sure any graduate student will empathize.

Middendorff found the remains of his mammoth while he was on the Taymyr Peninsula. After a series of frustrating delays, the expedition managed to cross the peninsula from southeast to northwest and reached the Arctic Ocean by sailing down the Taymyr River. On 21 August 1843, Middendorff found what he believed were the remains of camp left by Dmitry Laptev a century earlier. Nearby he found the skeletons of two mammoths. The smaller of the two was covered with soil impregnated with a fatty, oily residue, the last remains of its decomposing flesh. Middendorff's reports make no mention of a perfectly preserved eyeball. Just the opposite, in the section of his final write-up dedicated to mammoths, Middendorff expressly denies having found such a thing and expresses some confusion that it had been reported so in Mary Somerville's Physical Geography. Sommerville does not mention Lyell as the source of the information and Middendorff gives no indication of being aware that Lyell was the ultimate source of the rumor. Middendorff refers to Sommerville and the rumor in the context of discussing the Adams mammoth. That animal was recovered in 1806 near the delta of the Lena River, well over a thousand miles east of the Taz. While a desiccated eye was one of the parts recovered by Adams, nothing else about that mammoth matches the mammoth discovery Lyell described. However, there is one mammoth discovery that matches almost it in almost every detail.

In 1840, an entomologist named Mochulsky, who was a member of the Moscow Society of Naturalists, was visiting the Spring market in Tobolsk when he heard about the discovery of a mammoth carcass by a group of Samoyeds. They told him that during the previous year, spring floods had uncovered the front part of a mammoth on the banks of the Taz River. They described the animal as having a black tongue, as long as a month-old reindeer calf (3 to 3 1/2 feet). This was probably a description of the trunk. Because no one had recovered or even seen a mammoth's trunk, Mochulsky was eager to recover the mammoth. Unfortunately, this being Imperial Russia, it took well over a year for Mochulsky to arrange permission and funding. At the beginning of 1842, a merchant named Trofimov headed north to gather the remains.

Another year passed before he appeared in Moscow with a bill for 4690 silver rubles. Trofimov justified the cost by claiming he had traveled over 2000 kilometers before finding the place where the carcass rested. His itinerary seemed to lead to a place far to the northwest of the one the Samoyeds had described to Mochulsky. Karl von Baer, Middendorff's patron at the St. Petersburg Academy, speculated that there might have been two fairly complete mammoths discovered in the region between the Ob and Yenisei Rivers, but did not rule out the possibility that Trofimov was simply padding the bill. The mammoth parts remained in a warehouse in Siberia for another three years while Trofimov and the Moscow Society argued about payment.

The inventory provided by Trofimov listed roughly a half ton of bones, skin, meat, and fat. Most of the skeleton is there, though cut up for easy transport. The soft parts were primarily dried scraps attached to the bones, though about six pounds of unidentified mammoth jerky had also been collected. The receipt mentions "signs of the right eye" being present on the skull. The ivory had been cut off and sold before the Russians were told of the discovery. The government encouraged this practice in the forlorn hope that the locals would be more inclined to report discoveries if they were allowed to keep the most valuable part. It wasn't until sometime in 1846 that the mammoth remains arrived in Moscow.

Middendorff was on his way into Siberia when Trofimov's bill and itinerary arrived in Moscow. He made some enquiries about the location of the find but was unable to shed any light on the question. He completed his expedition to the Taimyr, made a trip to the Pacific Coast, ascended the Amur River, and returned to St. Petersburg all before the mammoth parts made their way to Moscow. Considering the 1846 date, Middendorff's communication with Lyell was probably prompted by news of the Moscow naturalists finally getting their hands on their mammoth.

from my perspective, two mysteries remain. What exactly did Middendorff communicate to Lyell? Lyell's published letters do not include and anything from Middendorff. Has a letter or not survived among Lyell's papers? Maybe there is a Lyell expert out there who can answer that one for me. The other mystery regards the actual remains. What is stored in the Moscow museum? In the annual Bulletin for 1846 of the Moscow Society of Naturalists, Prof. Gleboff published a report on his microscopic examination of the soft tissues of their new mammoth. The paper mentions muscles, tendons, fat, periosteum, and brains, but not the eye. When Middendorff published his own monograph on mammoths in 1860, his expressed annoyance that nothing else had been published about the Moscow mammoth after Gleboff's paper. To my knowledge, nothing ever was.

The story of Middendorff's eyeball persisted among English-language science writers for over a half century after Lyell first mentioned it in 1847. Lyell's prestige, no doubt, lent authority to the anecdote, which was a very colorful illustration of the state of preservation of Siberian mammoth carcasses. The error was not just in attributing the mammoth to the wrong person; Lyell's retelling greatly exagerated the condition of the mammoth. The eye of Mochulsky mammoth was not in a perfect state of preservation. The museum receipt describes it mearly as "signs of the right eye." Lyell's memorable anecdote helped establish in the public mind an image of perfectly preserved mammoths scattered all over Siberia. The truth is that in the last three hundred years, only about a dozen relatively complete mammoths have been found in Siberia and only two of those could really be called perfect.

Even though Middendorff's monograph on mammoths with his clear repudiation of the story was available after 1860, none of the writers thought to check up on the great Lyell. The fact that Middendorff was published in German in Russia made it even less likely that English-language writers would go to the original source. For historians, scientists, and even journalists, the morals of the story should be clear: Check the original data; even the most prestigious authorities make mistakes. The other moral is that plagiarism is bad and will eventually be discovered by OCD insomniacs. But, I'm sure, dear readers, that you already knew that.

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