In aid of Jamoytius by Nancy P. Morris

In aid of Jamoytius – by Nancy P. Morris

Jamoytius – a simple lad-
Was primitive, but never bad.
Too frequently misunderstood,
His eyesight very far from good,
And somewhat scantily attired,
His looks left much to be desired.
Flat-headed, with enormous eyes
He’d never win a beauty prize,
And socially he’d not excel,
(Tho’ his descendants did quite well).

His home was with the bonny Scot,
Ludlovian vintage was his lot,
And, as an early vertebrate,
Was ill-equipped with armour plate,
Albeit he was quite unique
And had a very fine physique,
For, later on the experts found
That he was almost muscle-bound,
Oblivious of fame he’d win
Exhibiting his dorsal fin.

Some palaeichthyologists
Include him in much baser lists,
Mistaking his naivete
For juvenile delinquency,
But tho’ he was no socialite
His charms attracted Dr. White
Who’s brought him scientific fame
And given him a learned name.
So ponder well this fossil tale,
While sipping down the pint of ale.

Who knows in far off times to be
They’ll dig you up, or may be me,
And, fossil-famous over night,
Our Latin names will spring to light,
But complications must arise,
With modern aids to civilize,
For, can’t you hear an angry squeal-
“Well, now we’re sunk, the teeth aren’t real!”
And thereupon the wise and sage
Will introduce the Plastics Age.

Nancy P. Morris

Listen to the poem below:

In aid of Jamoytius, by Nancy P. Morris.
Recited by Brigid Christison.
Guest art by Dr. Hillary Maddin (Website: maddinlab.com; Twitter: @Evo_Deva)

Nancy P. Morris was well-known by her friends and colleagues for her scientific poetry, but almost none was published! In Aid of Jamoytius is one of two poems featured in the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology news bulletin from 1955. We don’t know if she submitted her poems to be published or if they were submitted on her behalf.


The science behind this poem

An illustration of the Jamoytius by Nancy P. Morris, that appeared with her poem in the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology News Bulletin #44 (1955)

The star of this poem is Jamoytius kerwoodi, described as “primitive” with poor eyesight, a flat head, and enormous eyes. Indeed, Jamoytius possessed these traits, alongside a prominent tail fin, only one nostril, no lower jaw, and a branchial basket (a type of respiratory organ similar to gills). These structures helped scientists identify that Jamoytius is a very early fish, part of a group named after it called the Jamoytiiformes, who were close relatives of the more well known “jawless fish” called the anaspids. Jamoytius lived during the Early Silurian period (the Llandovery Epoch, approximately 443-433 million years ago), referred to as Ludlovian in the poem as Jamoytius was found in the Ludlow group of rock formations in Scotland. Jawless fish were increasingly more common during this time in history. Indeed, Jamoytius is one of the earliest vertebrate animal fossils from Europe, and its excellent preservation of soft tissues like skin and eyes have made it ideal for understanding the evolution of common features that unite vertebrates.

Nancy also alludes to an interesting concept in the last verse of her poem. She talks about how humans may become famous fossils in the future to a yet unknown researcher and that those researchers will call the time we lived in the “Plastic Age”. This prediction is quite on point, as modern scientists often refer to the modern geologic period as the Anthropocene Epoch due to the massive influence human technology, activity and materials has or will have on the geological record.


Nancy P. Morris (later Tupholme)

Nancy Tupholme (2012-2014) by Katrin Emery kemery.ca

In 1940, 28-year-old Nancy P. Morris signed on as a part-time Clerk at the Geological Society in London. She was heavily involved in the Society from the get-go: along with her colleague Jane Eastwood, Nancy played a vital role in rescuing archival materials from bombings during WWII. Nancy and Jane worked out of Burlington House, the only Society building that remained open when war broke out. Scientific meetings were even held there, and it seems the main precaution taken by senior staff was to purchase a fire-proof cover for the author catalogue in the library. Burlington House was even bombed several times but was mostly unscathed thanks to several “fire watchers” hired to put out fires on the building.

In April 1942, Nancy arrived at Burlington House one morning to find all the windows had been shattered by bombs. The building was mostly intact however, so Nancy and Jane spent the day tossing broken glass out of the building and into the street. The windows were boarded up and were not replaced until after the war. Despite this, the building remained open and scientists were still able to borrow from the library.

Nancy started working for the Royal Society of London in 1962 until her retirement, next door to Burlington House. Throughout her career however, she remained involved with the Geological Society and conducted volunteer work for the Archives. Nancy’s personal interviews and memoirs have been a great source of historical information on the inner workings of the Societies, and during her career she was an invaluable archivist.

Further Reading

Poem source:

  • Society of Vertebrate Paleontology News Bulletin, number 44, June 1955. Sourced from the John H. Ostrom Library at the Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Natural History

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