15th Aug 1836-5th Aug 1916
Robert Lechmere Guppy
T+T Icons In Science & Technology Volume II
Robert Lechmere Guppy had no formal scientific training but his meticulous approach to research, coupled with his love of invertebrate palaeontology1 and geology, allowed him to publish many papers of professional quality. His best known contribution to science was the popularisation of the Guppy fish that bears his name. Before Guppy, W.C.H. Peters originally discovered this species and catalogued it in Berlin, where it was overlooked. It was Guppy, however, who sent specimens to London, making the fish known to the English-speaking world.
Robert John Lechmere Guppy was born on 15th August, 1836 in London, England. A prodigy from the beginning, he practically taught himself to read at the age of three. As a young man, Guppy wanted to explore the world as a scientist but his uncle wanted him to manage his family’s estate in England. At the age of 18, he entered Oxford University but on receiving letters from his uncle begging him to return home, he ran off to Tasmania. He was shipwrecked on the coast of New Zealand in 1856, where he remained among the indigenous Māori people who had rescued him. During that time, he explored the island, mapping the area and collecting specimens. After two years, he joined his parents and brother who had migrated to Trinidad.
Although his family lived in San Fernando, Guppy’s job in the government service compelled him to stay in Port-of-Spain. Eventually, his zeal for education led him to being appointed to help organise the education system as the island’s first Superintendent of Schools.
His earliest published scientific papers can be dated back to 1863, when he conducted geological surveys of Trinidad. Guppy collected samples, made notes and wrote papers in Trinidad and presented his findings in England, North America and in the proceedings of The Trinidad Scientific Association. His 1963 paper of Trinidad fossil foraminifera2 was one of the earliest such publications in the Western Hemisphere. This, and his subsequent papers on Trinidad’s fossil foraminifera were the standard references for the later 20th century micropalaentological3 studies which established the value of this group of fossils for dating and correlating petroleum deposits in Trinidad.
During his surveys, he noticed a fish, which was called the “millions fish” at the time, but would later be named the “guppy’”. Intrigued by the small creature, he sent samples in 1866 to the curator of the British Museum, the legendary ichthyologist4, Dr Albert Carl Ludwig Gotthilf Guenther. In that same year, Guppy and his brother, Francis founded the Trinidad Almanack – a reference book that was eventually taken over by the government as the official yearbook. Guppy was also the founder of the Victoria Institute (now renamed the National Museum) in Port-of-Spain at the time of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, and he served as the Institute’s president for years.
Guppy continued publishing up until his last years. He produced over 30 papers in his lifetime and his scientific work was so in demand that A reprint of the more inaccessible palaeontological writings of Robert John Lechmere Guppy was published in the Bulletins of American Palaeontology after his death on 5th August, 1916.
- Invertebrate palaeontology is the study of the history and development of spineless multi-cellular animals, conducted by recovering, identifying and studying their fossils
- Foraminifera are marine micro-organisms with a high rate of reproduction and a detailed fossil record
- The palaeontology of microscopic organisms
- Ichthyology is the scientific study of fish