Fonds ONSL - Papers of Huia Onslow

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Papers of Huia Onslow


  • 1896-1924 (Creation)

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4 boxes

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Name of creator


Biographical history

Huia Onslow was born on 13 November 1890, the second son of William Hillier Onslow, 4th Earl of Onslow (1853-1911), and his wife the Hon. Florence Coulston Gardner (d. 1934). His father was governor of New Zealand from 1898 to 1992[?], and he was born at Government House, Wellington: the first vice-regal child to be born in the country, and a subject of considerable popular interest. There was a public petition for Queen Victoria to be his godmother, which she accepted, giving him the names Victor Alexander; it was also suggested that the child should be given a Māori name and many ideas were put forward. The eventual choice, Huia (from the huia bird, much revered by the Māori), was suggested by the Ngati Huia hapu (sub-tribe) of the Ngāti Ruakawa in Otaki, and he was always known by that name; a few months later he was taken to the marae (meeting ground) of the Ngāti Ruakawa and welcomed with great ceremony. Huia returned to New Zealand in 1904-1905 with his sister Dorothy, and was again welcomed at the marae.

He was educated at Eton and then Trinity College, Cambridge (admitted 1908), where he read natural science for a year before studying mechanical science: he intended to qualify for the Parliamentary Bar and expected this to be useful. However on an expedition in the Tyrol in August 1911 with mountaineer Charles Meade he dived into a mountain lake, struck his head on a submerged rock and suffered severe damage to the spinal cord, leading to lifelong paralysis from the waist down, with the use of his arms and hands also affected.

He continued with his studies, however; in the first few years after his accident, living in London, he did some work in experimental psychology and began the genetic studies on mice and rabbits which would continue throughout his life; he also began microscopic and chemical investigations of hair structure and pigments, with an assistant under his close supervision performing some of the chemical work, but carrying out all the microscopic observations himself. He collaborated with S. W. Cole on investigations into the chemical properties of urobilin and allied pigments, and worked on the causes of dominant and recessive whiteness in animals. In addition, he contributed several literary articles and poems to the Spectator and other journals.

In 1915 he returned to live in Cambridge, with a room in his house being fitted out as a laboratory into which his couch could be wheeled. It was here he began his work on Lepidoptera and other insects, which led to several important papers in the Journal of Genetics, as well as working further with S. W. Cole on the metabolism of bacteria. Around 1917 he became interested in protein chemistry and amino acids, in particular tryptophan. At about the same time he began working closely with Muriel Wheldale (1880-1932), then an assistant in the University physiological laboratory (and later one of the first women appointed to a University lectureship) on colour and iridescence in insect scales. They were married on 3 February 1919.

Huia Onslow died on 27 Jun 1922, at the age of thirty-one.

Archival history

Immediate source of acquisition or transfer

Gift from William Onslow, 6th Earl of Onslow, in March 1971.

Content and structure area

Scope and content

This collection does not contain a great quantity of personal material: there is no correspondence with family and friends, for example; there is however a manuscript account of a tour by yacht on the Norfolk Broads in 1903, perhaps by Huia Onslow's governess Helen Moodie as well as creative work by Huia Onslow, such as poetry and a short story, and his translations of poems from Joachim du Bellay's Amours. There is also a group of letters relating to Onslow's stay for health reasons at Banchory, Scotland, in 1913, mainly concerning the choice of house and payment of rent. Financial and legal material includes correspondence between Onslow and his solicitors regarding duties payable on the death of his father William, 4th Earl of Onslow, in 1911, statements of rent received from properties in London account books (including a record of laboratory expenses, 1918-1922), and an inventory and valuation of furniture at Onslow's house made after his death.

Despite the lack of personal correspondence, the papers include a large number of letters. Significant groups include: Onslow's correspondence with J. Donovan, sparked by Donovan's advert in the Athenaeum magazine asking for a physicist to provide him with help on 'an original line of inquiry bearing on the explanation of Life and Mind in exclusively physical terms'; correspondence with various members connected to the Eugenics Education Society (1914-1920) relating to Onslow's work for them; and letters relating to Onslow's work as secretary for the Anaesthetics Emergency Fund of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Families Association (1915-1916), particularly over-seeing contributions from New Zealand.

Correspondence relating to Onslow's own work includes: letters to and from George MacElwee and Frederick Fletcher in response to Onslow's advertisement in the Times as 'A Struggling Scientist' seeking funds for his research (1914-1915); letters between Onslow, William Auton, and Helen Moodie regarding the breeding of rabbits and mice (1914-1915), as well as letters from H. W. Blake, Mabel Illingworth, and W. S. Singleton on the same subject. There is however no correspondence with Sydney Cole (except for a 1914 bill from Cole for private tution), Muriel Wheldale or other scientists.

Onslow's scientific research is well represented in the form of notes: most of the material in this category is in the form of notebooks recording record his investigations into genetics and biochemistry from 1912 onwards, such as three large books on Onslow's programme of breeding rabbits for colour, and books concering his research into pigmentation in insects (butterflies and beetles) and birds. Also present is a fair quantity of loose material on experiments relating to trytophan, probably the work which led to his (posthumously published) paper on the subject. Onslow's interest in hypnosis is also reflected in his loose notes, which include observations from a series of hypnosis sessions in 1912.

There are also drafts of several of Onslow's articles, some later published, others seemingly unpublished, and offprints of the majority of his published articles. Finally, there are a few textbooks, presumably used by Onslow as an undergraduate.

Appraisal, destruction and scheduling

Multiple copies of offprints had been preserved; duplicates have now been removed.


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