I had a coup today. Sort of. There are several people I’d like to talk to who were at the Natural History Museum when Chi Chi the giant panda arrived from London Zoo in the summer of 1972. I have the archival material from the museum that is helping me piece together how the museum came to its decision to taxidermise this famous panda and the media’s interest in the process. But there is nothing to beat talking to the people who were really there.

Unfortunately then director Frank Claringbull died in 1990. One tier beneath him was the Keeper of Zoology Gordon Sheals, though he also took his version of events with him when he passed away in 1989. One rung further down the hierarchy was Gordon Corbet, the Curator of Mammals.

In Dry Store Room No. 1 (a very reader-friendly institutional history of the Natural History Museum), former museum paleontologist Richard Fortey describes Corbet as “a diminutive Scotsman with a hesitant manner and a nervous way of speaking” who reminded him of a vole “the way these animals pause momentarily, whiskers twitching.”

I pulled up British Telecom’s online telephone directory on the computer and plugged in Corbet. You need to specify a town before it’ll search. His most recent scientific publications give an indication of where he retired to, so I added a likely town. Hey presto, there was a Corbet with the relevant initials so I phoned the number.

A quiet and possibly elderly voice answered the phone, which sounded promising.

“Gordon?” I asked. It was most impolite of me but seemed the best way to establish whether I’d found my man.
“Yes,” he said.
“Gordon the mammalologist,” I suggested.
“Yes?” came the reply.

I explained my predicament and Dr Corbet was most willing to help, though as I had not really expected to succeed so quickly I had to ring off, think through everything I wanted to ask him and call back.

We talked for half an hour about the way the museum was organised back then, his responsibilities (over and above his own research interests) and of course what he remembered about Chi Chi.

I said at the outset of this post that I had a sort of coup. The reason being, Dr Corbet couldn’t provide me with the detailed first-hand recollection I’d been hoping for. What did I expect? After all, he’d just received a call from a complete stranger asking about a relatively minor episode that took place over 35 years ago.

Nevertheless, I’m pleased I found him. If I hadn’t I’d have been left with a niggling feeling that I should have done more to track him down. And he did have – apparently just beside the telephone – a dossier on a controversy about the Loch Ness Monster that erupted in 1975. It sounded most interesting and maybe I’ll look into it one day. If I do, I’ll be calling on Dr Corbet again.

Gordon the mammalologist