Following Donkin’s trail to Sunderland

Details of Arthur Scott Donkin are annoyingly scant.   Maybe a trained historian would have a better idea of how to search local archives but that would have taken more time than I have available. His life is a curiously silent episode between that of his father (see previous post and reference below) and his son, John, who went to Canada and wrote a memoir of his time in the North West Mounted Police.

Though Donkin taught Medical Jurisprudence at King’s College, Newcastle (now Newcastle University), I could find no publications by him that were relevant to this topic. The catalogue at the Newcastle University records two medical publications suggesting an interest in obstetrics and gynaecology, along with two publications on diatoms. The latter, I presume, represent his hobby rather than his professional output (see “”In Our Time” looks at the history of the microscope”) though there were, at the same time, medics wondering whether there was a link between freshwater life (including algae) and public health (see “Little bugs have littler bugs upon their backs to bite ‘em …”).

The final stage of my journey in pursuit of Arthur Scott Donkin brought me to a street close to the docks in Sunderland, about 15 km from Newcastle, on a summer’s evening. The North Sea was visible in the gaps between houses whilst seagulls circled overhead.   Now the street includes motor repair shops, hand car washes, a dance workshop, a graphic design studio and a martial arts centre but it is easy to imagine the houses here (dating from the turn of the 19th century) as respectable town houses befitting an experienced doctor. Quite how Donkin had ended up in Sunderland, rather than in Newcastle or closer to his family in Northumberland remains a mystery but it was at 30 Villiers Street, opposite a Presbyterian Church and a synagogue, that Donkin was living at the time of his death.

Maybe there are more details of Donkin’s life out there waiting to be discovered. His collections went to the Natural History Museum in London, so it may be worth searching there for hints of the man who collected the samples. I suspect that, at best, we’ll come up with the administrative outlines of a middle-class life, leaving much of his character to be coloured in by conjecture.   He has a fame, of sorts, as his name is the taxonomic authority that should be quoted every time one of the most common diatoms in Europe is reported in a scientific paper. Yet, beyond this, his life remains an enigma, a flame that flickered briefly through the late nineteenth century and then faded and died.


30 Villiers Street, Sunderland: the last home of Arthur Scott Donkin.


Donkin, A.S. (1863). The pathological relation between albuminuria and puerperal mania. Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh

Donkin, A.S. (1863). On the physiological action of the uterus in parturition : read before the physiological section of the British Association at Newcastle, 31st August, 1863 … Publisher unknown.

Donkin, J.G. (1889). Trooper and Redskin in the Far North West. Recollections of Life in the North-West Mounted Police, Canada, 1884-1888.  Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, London.

Donkin, S. (1886). Reminiscences of Samuel Donkin ; of Northumbrian & Border Character, and of Local and General Topics, Social and Political, Since the Dawn of the Present Century. Newcastle.

On the trail of Arthur Scott Donkin …

I was back at the River Team yesterday, pushing my way past Himalayan balsam, in order to collect some of the brown biofilm from the tops of some stones.   There was one species that I was particularly interested in finding, because of a strong historical link with north-east England. The species I was looking for was a small diatom called Navicula gregaria. “Navicula” is a Latin word which means “small ship”, an apt description as these small boat-shaped organisms were serenely gliding around the field of my microscope (see an earlier post “Coxhoe” for a short video of some close relatives in action).   Look out, too, for the two parallel chloroplasts which, in the case of N. gregaria, are slightly offset in respect to one another.   When the sample is digested to remove organic matter and a permanent slide is prepared, we can see more detail of the ornamentation on the silica cell wall (“valve”).


Navicula gregaria, from the River Team at Causey Arch (approximately 50 m downstream from the location photographed in my post of 31 July.   Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100th of a millimetre).


Navicula gregaria, cleaned valves from Bradgate Brook, Newton Linford, Nottinghamshire, October 2011.   Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100th of a millimetre).

Navicula gregaria is one of the most common freshwater diatoms in Britain, with a range that extends from very clean rivers to highly polluted streams such as the River Team.   It does not like very soft water or water that is acidic but, otherwise, is almost cosmopolitan, particularly in spring, though it can be found all year round.

I wanted to write about Navicula gregaria today partly because it gives me an opportunity to tell you about what we know about Arthur Scott Donkin, the Victorian microscopist who we met briefly in earlier posts (see “In the footsteps of a Victorian microscopist”, “Prime time diatoms”, “Sampling the surf at Alnmouth”). I mentioned in the last of these that we knew little about his life; however, along with colleagues at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, I have managed to unearth a few more details. As try to limit my posts to about 500 words, I’ll spread these across two posts.

The main source of information about his early life comes from a publication called “Men of Mark ‘Twixt Tweed and Tyne”, published in 1895, which has a chapter about his father, Samuel Donkin (1801-1888), a farmer and auctioneer based ,for most of his adult life at Felton, a village between Morpeth and Alnwick in Northumberland.   Arthur, the eldest of two sons and a daughter, chose a career in medicine whilst his younger brother continued the family business. The family farm at Felton is only about 10 kilometres from Druridge Bay, where he collected many of his specimens, as I mentioned in earlier posts. Towards the north end of Druridge Bay a small stream, Chevington Burn, flows through the sand dunes and into the Bay at Chibburn Mouth.   It was from here that Arthur Scott Donkin first recorded Navicula gregaria in 1861, describing it as “very abundant in localities where small streams pass over the sandy beach into the sea below the high-water level. Donkin pointed out that these localities would have wide daily fluctuations in salinity as the tide ebbed and flowed, and also commented that it was “the species which occurred in most abundance on our coasts.”   We now also know that it is very common in freshwaters as well, although there is a strong suspicion that that marine and freshwater forms may be different species (see Cox, 1987, listed below).   He described Navicula gregaria as “exceedingly minute”, though now, with the advances in optics, we now know that there are many species that are much smaller than N. gregaria but which Donkin, with his primitive equipment, could not see.


Cox, E.J. (1987). Studies of the diatom genus Navicula Bory. VI. the identity, structure and ecology of some freshwater species. Diatom Research 2: 159-174.

Donkin, A.S. (1861) On the marine diatomaceae of Northumberland, with a description of several new species. Quarterly Journal of the Microscopical Society 1: 1-15.

Welford, R. (1895). Men of Mark ‘Twixt Tweed and Tyne. Volume 2. Walter Scott, London