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Edinburgh University Library Special Collections Division

Papers of James Cossar Ewart

Collection Summary

Reference Code

GB 0237 James Cossar Ewart



Extent and medium of the unit of description

1 metre

(8 boxes, 17 medals)

Existence and Location of Originals

This material is original.

Name of creator

Ewart | James Cossar | 1851-1933 | zoologist and professor of natural history, University of Edinburgh

Biographical History

Biographical History

James Cossar Ewart (1851-1933) was a zoologist. A fellow of the Royal Society, he carried out experimental work on the embryonic development of the horse and conducted numerous experiments on his estate - the so called Penicuick Experiments - on the hybridisation of zebras and horses. He was a pioneer in domestic animal improvement by selective breeding and in the study of animal reproduction. It was largely due to his presence in Edinburgh that the University was chosen as the site for an institute of Animal Genetics, one of the first such in the world. This decision was later to have a major impact on the development of Edinburgh as a major centre of biological research and teaching.

Ewart was born in Penicuik, Midlothian, 26 November 1851. He was educated in Penicuik and entered the University of Edinburgh as a medical student in 1871, graduating as a Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery in 1874. Until 1878 he was Curator of the Zoological Museum at University College, London. While in London he published a number of papers on the structure of the retina and lens, the sexual organs of the lamprey, and the placentation of the Shanghai River deer. His research on Bacillus anthracites was presented as a thesis for the degree of Doctor of Medicine at Edinburgh. After a brief spell in Edinburgh as Lecturer in Anatomy in the Extra-Mural School, at the end of 1878 he was appointed to the Chair of Natural History in the University of Aberdeen. While in Aberdeen Ewart became interested in marine biological investigation and established an experimental station on the coast in the area. There he worked in his spare time on issues relating to fishery, and, with George John Romanes (1848-1894), on the locomotor system of echinoderms. In 1882, Ewart became Regius Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh and held this position for forty-five years, retiring in 1927.

Also in 1882, Ewart joined the Fishery Board of Scotland as scientific adviser, publishing several papers on the fertilisation of herring ova and the natural history of the herring, cod, and other fish. He also carried out some work on the electric organ in the skate. Ewart had also given some attention to the development of the horse, particularly to the bones of the limbs. Around 1894, he had started investigations into experimental breeding, and much of this work was done before the rediscovery of Johann Gregor Mendel's (1822-1884) laws of heredity. Rather than the classical experiment using an Arab mare and quagga, and then an Arab stallion with the progeny, Ewart's experiments used Burchell's zebra. The results of his work were published in The Penycuik Experiments, (1899) . As a result of Ewart's knowledge and experience, the Board of Agriculture for Scotland formed a special committee on animal breeding in 1913. After the First World War, this scheme was enlarged and a new Department of Genetics was formed at the University of Edinburgh. Meanwhile, Ewart had turned his attention to the origin and history of feathers in birds and their relation to scales in reptiles. The rearing of penguins at the then fairly new Edinburgh Zoo provided him with the relevant material.

Scope and Content

Scope and Content

The papers of James Cossar Ewart consist of:

  • lecture notes, lecture courses, press-cutting books, personal notebooks, and correspondence (1870-1935)
  • biographical notes (1875-1934)
  • certificates, diplomas and letters of appointment (1870-1927)
  • a collection of medals and badges, which includes those presented at school in Penicuik and at The University of Edinburgh (1866-1931)
  • photographs include those of Professor Ewart himself, staff, and zebra hybrids.
  • items presented to Ewart for prize animals (St. Kilda ewe, Libyan stallion, Celtic mare and foal, Arab Highland pony etc.) at various shows.

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