Ernest Hanbury Hankin

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A portrait photograph from the Cambridge Antiquarian Society (CAS H62) taken around 1900

Ernest Hanbury Hankin (4 February 1865 – 29 March 1939), was a British bacteriologist, aeronautical theorist and naturalist. Working mainly in India, he studied malaria, cholera and other diseases. He was among the first to detect bacteriophage activity and suggested that their presence in the waters of the Ganga and Jamuna may have had a role in restricting the outbreaks of cholera. Apart from his professional studies, he took considerable interest in the geometric patterns in Mughal architecture ("Saracenic art" in the language of his day) as well as the soaring flight of birds, culture and its impact on education.[1]

Early life[edit]

Ernest was born at Ware, his father Rev. D. B. Hankin was later a Vicar of St Jude's, Mildmay Grove in North London. He was educated at Merchant Taylors' School from 1875 to 1882 and went to study medicine at St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical School and matriculated from St John's College, Cambridge in 1886. He was a Hutchinson Student and Scholar who passed with first class in both parts of the Natural Science Tripos in 1888 and 1889.[2] He took a keen interest in bacteriology and decided against a career in medicine. In 1890 he was elected Hutchinson Student in Pathology and by the end of the year, he was admitted as a Fellow in November. He obtained the degree of MA in 1893 and Sc.D. in 1905 before working under Professor Charles Roy at his Pathological Laboratory in Trinity College London. His early studies in bacteriology included a new staining technique using aniline dyes (1886), some studies on anthrax in collaboration with F.F. Wesbrook, immunity and the role of "alexins". He worked under Robert Koch for some time in Berlin and under Louis Pasteur in Paris before he accepted a position in India as Chemical Examiner, Government Analyst and Bacteriologist for the United Provinces, Punjab and the Central Provinces and was posted at a laboratory in Agra in 1892.[1]

Even early in his undergraduate years, he gained a reputation for applying scientific enquiry often to himself. He often considered himself an experimental animal and was known for overdosing himself with medication and attempting such experiments as rolling a heated cannonball over himself to help speed up digestion.[1] While on a beach at Dunwich in 1885, he saved a girl from drowning and the local newspaper reporting it hoped that he would be awarded a gallantry medal by the Royal Humane society.[3]


Arriving in India, he worked on the frequent outbreaks of cholera, challenging the prevalent view that "miasmas" were responsible for them. He demonstrated to the public and the officials that micro-organisms were the cause and published his notes and opinions translated into Indian languages.[1] In 1896 he published, through the Pasteur Institute, "L'action bactericide des eaux de la Jumna et du Gange sur le vibrion du cholera",[4] a paper in which he described the antibacterial activity of a then unknown source in the Ganges and Jumna Rivers in India. He suggested that it was responsible for limiting the spread of cholera. While Hankin did not study this phenomenon further, his work was nonetheless recognized a generation later as being among the first observations of bacteriophage activity which Félix d'Herelle later described at the Pasteur Institute.[5][6][7] This observation on the water of the Ganges became quite famous and even found mention in Mark Twain's More Tramps Abroad.[8]

Hankin was responsible through his letters to officials in prompting the establishment of the Pasteur Institute of India at Kasauli in 1904.[9] One of Hankin's duties as a Chemical Examiner was to attend to court cases that required the analysis of scientific forensic evidence. He notes that about 700 to 1000 cases of supposed poisoning required tests for poisons to be conducted.[10]

A study of the hovering of Pied Kingfisher

He moved to Bombay following an outbreak of plague in 1905. During this period he took some interest in vultures at the Towers of Silence, which had apparently increased in numbers.[1] Hankin wrote "On the Epidemiology of Plague" in the Journal of Hygiene in 1905, but his interests also drifted towards the subject of flight, possibly through his observations on vultures. In 1914 he published Animal Flight about soaring flight in birds, based on observations he made, particularly of gulls and vultures, in Agra. He introduced a technique to plot the flight path of soaring birds by tracing their movements on a horizontal mirror. He identified thermals and currents as a requirement for soaring and dynamic soaring.[11][12] With D. M. S. Watson, at the time a Lecturer in Vertebrate Palaeontology at University College London, he also published a pioneering paper on the flight of Pterodactyls in the Aeronautical Journal (1914).[13]

Profile variation in soaring birds

Hankin studied immune responses and conducted experiments where he injected rabbits with tetanus to induce immunity in them. He took their serum and injected them in rats to demonstrate how the immunity could be transferred.[14] Hankin started the practice of using potassium permanganate in wells as a means for controlling cholera. His theory was that the germs needed organic matter to survive and that permanganate would oxidize it and make it unavailable.[15] The editors of the journal Science Progress lamented that Hankin had been largely unrecognized for his contributions to human health and hygiene: "Hankin's work has been of greater importance to India than the work or no-work of many persons who have received more honours and acknowledgements. Really, in some respects the British remain barbarians to the present day, and he should write an article on the mental ability of the Indian Powers-that-Be !"[16] The efficacy of this method of disinfecting wells was however questioned in later studies.[17] When he retired in 1922, he was awarded a Kaiser-i-Hind Medal of the first class.[1]

During the thirty years that he spent in India, he took not just in tropical diseases but also the effects of opium, the action of cobra venom, working sometimes in collaboration with Albert Calmette and Waldemar Haffkine. Outside of his health related research he took an interest in such diverse topics as the fauna inhabiting the dome of the Taj Mahal, insect camouflage and its military application,[18] native folklore and art.[1]

Return to England[edit]

The decorations of Itmad-Ud-Daulah that he studied in The Drawing of Geometric Patterns in Saracenic Art

He returned to England in the early 1920s, living for awhile in the Norfolk Broads and spending winters at Torquay or Newquay before finally moving to Brighton. He took a great interest in sailing. He experimented with new designs of sails and methods to combat sea-sickness. Together with his old pathologist colleagues include Professor Roy, he built a prototype raft he dubbed The Bacillus, made of kerosene tins and metal rods with an "umbrella sail" based on an idea from Percy Pilcher. Unfortunately, the maiden test at Colwyn Bay ended with the boat sinking, while the crew had to be rescued by onlookers.[1]

He also continued his research in the dynamics of animal flight. He was an Associate Fellow of the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain.[19] In 1923, Time magazine carried a short notice on his exploits: "Much interest is taken in England in the problems of air gliding. People on a London Common saw a strange sight—an elderly gentleman playing with a toy aeroplane. He was Dr. E. H. Hankin ... and he was experimenting with a model glider."[20]

Octagonal Mughal patterns

Hankin took a special interest in education and the role of intuition. He believed that modern methods of education tended to damage innate intuition. In 1922 he made a study of Quakers and their education. He calculated, based on statistics for the years between 1851 and 1900, that a man had 46 times greater chance of being elected to the Royal Society if he was a Quaker or of Quaker descent.[21] He attributed this to the superior mental ability that came out of enhancing intuition rather than the development of conscious reasoning that certain educational systems imposed.[22] In 1920, he published a book on the subject The Mental Limitations of the Expert in which he considered examples of where intuition was correct, despite failing rational explanation. He also considered how certain castes in India, such as the money-lending Baniyas, received a training in mental arithmetic that was superior to the system of education imposed by the English in India. He suggested that logical reasoning actually comes in the way of business instinct.[23] He expanded on this work which was published with a foreword by C. S. Myers, co-founder of the British Psychological society, and titled it Common Sense and its Cultivation (1926). The book was reprinted as recently as 2002 by Routledge. A reviewer compared it with Francis Galton's Inquiry Into Human Faculty.[24]

In his 1928 book, The Cave Man's Legacy, Hankin compares the behaviour of apes and primitive man and how they persist and play a role in the life of modern humans.[25] In a later book, he explored the same influences in the outbreaks of violence in his Nationalism and the Communal Mind (1937).[26]

While in India, Hankin made some notes on Islamic star patterns that he had observed, but his findings only found publication in 1925. "The Drawing of Geometric Patterns in Saracenic Art" finally appeared in Memoirs of the Archaeological Survey of India, under the editorship of J. F. Blakiston. Many of these patterns are aperiodic penrose tilings.[27][28][29][30][31] This and later writings have influenced computer scientists and mathematicians in recent years.[32][33][34][35]


A partial list of Hankin's publications include:

  • Animal Flight: a record of observation (1914)
  • The Mental Limitations of the Expert (1920)
  • Common Sense and its Cultivation (1925)
  • The Cave Man's Legacy (1928)
  • Nationalism and the Communal Mind (1937)
  • (1885) 'Some new methods of using aniline dyes for staining bacteria', Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science (new series) xxvii: 401.
  • (1889–92), 'A new result of the injection of ferments', Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society vii: 16.
  • (1889) 'Immunity produced by an Albumose isolated from Anthrax cultures", BMJ ii: 810.
  • (1890) 'Report on the Conflict between the Organism and the Microbe', BMJ ii: 65.
  • (1890) 'Indications for the cure of Infectious Diseases', Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1890: 856.
  • (1890) 'On a Bacteria-killing Globulin", Proceedings of the Royal Society B 48:93.
  • (1891) 'On Immunity (read before the Congress of Hygiene and Demography, London, August 1891)', Lancet ii: 339.
  • (1892), 'Remarks on Haffkine's method of Protective Inoculation against Cholera', BMJ ii: 569.
  • (1905) On some discoveries of the methods of design employed in the Mohammedan art, J. Soc. Arts. 53:461–477.
  • (1930/31) The pied piper of Hamlyn and the coming of the Black Death. Torquay nat. hist Soc. Trans. & Proc. 6:23-31.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h (H.H.B.) (1939). "Obituary. Ernest Hanbury Hankin". The Eagle 51 (223): 181–183. 
  2. ^ "University Intelligence. Cambridge.". Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser (British Newspaper Archive). 4 November 1890. p. 5. Retrieved 9 July 2014. (subscription required (help)). 
  3. ^ "Dunwich". The Ipswich Journal (British Newspaper Archive). 22 August 1885. p. 5. Retrieved 9 July 2014. (subscription required (help)). 
  4. ^ Hankin E H. (1896). "L'action bactericide des eaux de la Jumna et du Gange sur le vibrion du cholera". Annales de l'Institut Pasteur (in French) 10: 511–523. 
  5. ^ Sulakvelidze, Alexander; Zemphira Alavidze, and J. Glenn Morris, Jr. (2001). "Bacteriophage Therapy". Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy 45 (3): 649–659. doi:10.1128/AAC.45.3.649-659.2001. PMC 90351. PMID 11181338. 
  6. ^ Rao, C Hayavadana, ed. (1915). The Indian Biographical Dictionary. Madras: Pillar and Co. pp. 176–177. 
  7. ^ Anonymous (1939). "Obituary: Dr. E. H. Hankin". Nature 143 (3626): 711–712. Bibcode:1939Natur.143..711H. doi:10.1038/143711b0. 
  8. ^ Twain, Mark (1897). More Tramps abroad. London: Chatto & Windus. pp. 343–345. 
  9. ^ Christophers, S.R., ed. (1927). Souvenir. The Indian Empire; being a brief description of the chief features of India and its medical and sanitary problems.. Government Press, Calcutta. p. 99. 
  10. ^ Hankin, E.H. (1920). The Mental Limitations of the Expert.. Calcutta.: Butterworth and Co. p. 71. 
  11. ^ WS (1915). "Review: Hankin on Animal Flight". Auk 32 (2): 245–247. doi:10.2307/4072454. 
  12. ^ Hankin EH & J. D. North (1924). "On the Angle of Incidence in Soaring Flight". Mathematical Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society 22 (2): 186–188. Bibcode:1924PCPS...22..186H. doi:10.1017/S0305004100002929. 
  13. ^ Octave Levenspeil, "Atmospheric Pressure at the Time of Dinosaurs" Chemical Engineering Department, Oregon State University, n. d.
  14. ^ Hankin, E.H. (1891). "A cure for Tetanus and Diphtheria". Science 17 (413): 1–3. Bibcode:1891Sci....17....1H. doi:10.1126/science.ns-17.413.1. 
  15. ^ Hankin, EH (1898). "A simple method of checking Cholera in Indian villages". British Medical Journal 1 (1934): 205–207. doi:10.1136/bmj.1.1934.205. PMC 2410828. 
  16. ^ Anonymous (1923). "Notes". Science Progress 17: 301. 
  17. ^ Dhingra, M. L. (1901). "The Fallacy Of The Permanganate Disinfection Of Wells (Hankin's Method)". The British Medical Journal 2 (2120): 414–415. 
  18. ^ Hankin, E. H. (1920). "The comparative invisibility of Papilio demoleus during flight". In Fletcher, T. Bainbrigge. Report of the Proceedings of the Third Entomological Meeting held at Pusa on the 3rd to 15th February 1919. Volume 3. Calcutta: Government of India. pp. 900–903. 
  19. ^ Anonymous (1939). "E. Hanbury Hankin, Sc. D". The British Medical Journal 1 (4085): 850–851. PMC 2209548. 
  20. ^ Time Magazine, 10 March 1923
  21. ^ Hankin, EH (1922). "The mental ability of the Quakers". Science Progress 16: 654–664. 
  22. ^ Hankin, EH. "The mental ability of the Quakers". Science Progress 17: 304–307. 
  23. ^ Hankin, EH (1920). The Mental Limitations of the Expert. Calcutta: Butterworth and Co. p. 112. 
  24. ^ English, Horace B. (1927). "Review of Common Sense and Its Cultivation.". Psychological Bulletin 24 (4): 245–247. doi:10.1037/h0069358. 
  25. ^ Conklin, Edmund S. (1929). "[Review] The Cave Man's Legacy by E. Hanbury Hankin". The American Journal of Psychology 41 (2): 320. doi:10.2307/1415259. 
  26. ^ Anonymous (1938). "Nationalism and the Communal Mind". Nature 142: 776–776. Bibcode:1938Natur.142T.776.. doi:10.1038/142776e0. 
  27. ^ Hankin, EH (1905). "On some discoveries of the methods of design employed in Mohammedan art". J. Society of Arts 53: 461–477. 
  28. ^ Hankin, EH (1925). "The Drawing of Geometric Patterns in Saracenic Art". Memoirs of the Archaeological Survey of India 15. 
  29. ^ Hankin, EH (1925). "Examples of methods of drawing geometrical arabesque patterns". Mathematical Gazette 12 (176): 370–373. doi:10.2307/3604213. 
  30. ^ Hankin, EH (1934). "Some difficult Saracenic designs II". Mathematical Gazette 18 (229): 165–168. doi:10.2307/3606813. 
  31. ^ Hankin, EH (1936). "Some difficult Saracenic designs III". Mathematical Gazette 20 (241): 318–319. doi:10.2307/3607312. 
  32. ^ Paper on Computer-based Islamic Star Patterns
  33. ^ Kaplan C. (2005). "Islamic Star Patterns from Polygons in Contact". In Kori Inkpen and Michiel van de Panne. Proceedings of Graphics Interface 2005 (Victoria, Canada, 9-11 May 2005). A K Peters. pp. 177–185. 
  34. ^ Taprats, Islamic Star Patterns (Computer generated)
  35. ^ B. Lynn Bodner - Hankin’s ‘Polygons in Contact’ Grid Method for Recreating a Decagonal Star Polygon Design

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