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

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

James Cossar Ewart dedicated more than half a century of his life to the field of zoology. He was also a pioneer in the study of hybridization and other issues surrounding animal breeding.

Cossar Ewart entered the University of Edinburgh as a medical student in 1871. After graduating three years later he acted as a demonstrator of anatomy under William Turner and was then appointed Curator of the Zoological Museum at University College, London. His main contribution to the department, which was run at the time by professor Ray Lankester, was to help organise the first course of practical zoology in the College. Between 1874-1878 he published several papers on subjects ranging from the structure of the lens and retina and the life history of lower organisms, including Bacillus anthracis, and for this last work, presented as thesis for the degree of Doctor of Medicine (MD) in 1878, he was awarded a gold medal.

At the end of the Summer term in 1878 he returned to Edinburgh and became a lecturer in Anatomy in the extra-academical School of Medicine. Two months later he was appointed Professor of Natural History at the University of Aberdeen. In the same year he founded a small marine zoological station near Aberdeen - the first of its kind in Great Britain. After three years in Aberdeen (1879-1882), Cossar Ewart was appointed to the Chair of Natural History at Edinburgh (1882-1927), where he carried out notable experiments in animal breeding and hybridization, disproving the theory of telegony (the supposed influence of a previous sire on the progeny of the same mother born to other sires). The period he spent at Edinburgh was a period of great expansion both in the teaching of zoology and in the range of research in the subject. Cossar Ewart was instrumental in reorganising the class of practical zoology, and further developed teaching and research in his Department by introducing lectureships in the core subjects of embryology (1885), invertebrate zoology (1901), and heredity and genetics (1910), to which Arthur Darbishire was appointed.

In 1882 Cossar Ewart became Scientific Member of the Fishery Board for Scotland, and over the next seven years he wrote several reports and papers on fisheries, including the natural history of the herring. During the period 1888-1895 he then wrote the series of well-known papers on the electric organ of the skate. From his research he proved that the electric organ of the skate was a developing not a degenerating structure.

In about 1895 Cossar Ewart began his work in animal breeding in which he devised experiments to explore some of the problems of cross breeding and inbreeding, on reversion and on telegony. The best known of these were those in which mares of various breeds were crossed with a Burchell's zebra stallion. Cossar Ewart then presented the results of his investigations in the volume entitled the Penycuick Experiments (1899), which garnered much critical acclaim. The zebra hybrids also received a lot of attention when they were exhibited at the Royal Agricultural Society's Show in York in 1900.

A few years later Cossar Ewart turned his attention to the study of the sequence and structure of different types of penguin feathers which he was able to undertake at the Royal Zoological Park in Edinburgh, the results of which he published in a paper in 1921.

The (Royal) Zoological Society of Scotland was founded in 1909 and from its inception the University of Edinburgh had close ties with the Society and one of its first vice-presidents was Cossar Ewart. These strong links have been maintained to the present day, with staff at the University serving on several of the Royal Zoological Society's committees.


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Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

Manual of Practical Anatomy, (1879)

Dissection of the Frog, (1887)

The Electric Organ of the Skate, ( 1888-1889)

The Cranial Nerves and Lateral Sense Organs of Elasmobranchs, (1889-1891)

The Development of the Limbs of the Horse, ( 1894)

A Critical Period in the Development of the Horse, (1899)

The Multiple Origin of Horses and Ponies, ( 1904)

On a Prejvalsky Hybrid, (1907)

Domestic Sheep and Their Wild Ancestors, ( 1913)

Moulting of the King Penguin, (1917)

The Nestling Feathers of the Mallard, ( 1921)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1893: Elected Fellow, Royal Society (FRS)

1898: Awarded Neill Medal

1898: Awarded Royal Society Prize

1928: Awarded Honorary Doctorate (LLD), University of Edinburgh


List of sources for the biographical information:

Begg, Michael J, The Natural History Collections of the University of Edinburgh, 1988, (http://helios.bto.ed.ac.uk/icapb/collection/collection_7.html, University of Edinburgh, 1997)

Gillispie, Charles C(ed), Dictionary of Scientific Biography, (United States of America1972)

Birse, Ronald M, Science at the University of Edinburgh 1583-1993, (Edinburgh, University of Edinburgh, 1994)

Turner, A Logan (ed) History of the University of Edinburgh 1833-1933, ( London, Oliver and Boyd, 1933)

Howard, AV, Chambers' s Dictionary of Scientists, (London and Edinburgh, W and R Chambers Ltd, 1951)

Obituary: James Cossar Ewart, (Edinburgh, University of Edinburgh Journal ,Volume six, 1933-1934)