Torkel Weis-Fogh: Scientific Papers and Correspondence

Reference and contact details: GB 12 MS.Add.8250
Title: Torkel Weis-Fogh: Scientific Papers and Correspondence
Dates of Creation: 1941-1976
Held at: Cambridge University Library, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives
Extent: 40 boxes
Name of Creator: Torkel Weis-Fogh
Level of Description: fonds
Language of Material: English

Administrative/Biographical History

Torkel Weis-Fogh (1922-1975), zoologist, was born in Aarhus, Denmark. In 1940 he became a student at Copenhagen University, where his earliest research work was in soil microbiology. In 1947 he started work as research assistant to the distinguished Danish physiologist and Nobel prizewinner August Krogh. The study of the desert locust Schistocerca Gregaria, begun in Krogh's laboratory, was to occupy Weis-Fogh for much of his life. After Krogh's death in 1949 Weish-Fogh continued as head of the laboratory until 1953, amassing a wealth of data relating to the flight mechanics of the desert locust. He spent a year at the Copenhagen Institute of Neurophysiology, before working for four years in Cambridge with a Rockefeller Fellowship, followed by a Balfour Studentship. During Weis-Fogh's last year at Cambridge he isolated a new type of rubber-like protein in insect cuticle in the course of his research into the workings of insect flight muscle. The discovery was announced at the XVth International Congress of Zoology, July 1958, and the protein was later named 'resilin'.

From 1958 to 1966 Weis-Fogh worked in Copenhagen as Professor of Zoophysiology. Most of his research during that time was concentrated on analysing resilin. In 1966 he returned to Cambridge as Professor of Zoology and Head of the Department of Zoology. This position enabled him to pursue several related research interests simultaneously. An investigation into the mode of formation of insect cuticle, mainly carried out in 1967-1969, led to a study of the molecular basis of resilin and elastin, and the discovery of a new contractile mechanism in the spasmonemes of protozoa. In connection with these studies Weis-Fogh was also instrumental in the setting up of the Biological Microprobe Laboratory, Department of Zoology, Cambridge, to develop techniques of electron-probe X-ray microanalysis on frozen-hydrated soft biological material. Weish-Fogh never lost his early interest in the problems of insect flight and he returned to them with renewed vigour during this period. In 1973 he published a paper containing a mathematical explanation for the flight of very small insects which orthodox aerodynamic theory had been unable to account for. This discovery was named by Sir James Lighthill 'the Weis-Fogh mechanism of lift generation'.

In 1971 Weis-Fogh's wife was killed in a car accident in which he himself was badly injured. Although he returned to his laboratory after only a few months, and was committed to extensive research projects, it seems unlikely that he ever recovered from the shock and bereavement, or indeed from the physical damage which he sustained. He suffered several relapses of health between 1972 and 1975, as well as from bouts of depression, and committed suicide in Cambridge on 13 November 1975.

Scope and Content

A. Biographical and personal

A.1-A.30: Material of particular interest in this section includes the correspondence conveying Weis-Fogh's decision to retain Danish citizenship after the death of his wife (A.9), and that relating to Cambridge University, 1966-1975, when Weis-Fogh was Professor of Zoology and Head of the Department of Zoology (A.10-A.22). There is very little personal material.

B. Early work and research on locust flight, 1941-1958

Material covering Weis-Fogh's research up to the discovery in 1958 of resilin (B.136). Much of the research done during this period remained an important basis for further experimental work, and Weis-Hogh used some of the hitherto unpublished results in later papers (see C.26 and D.40-D.42). The majority of the material is in Danish.

B1-B.49: Early research and work in August Krogh's laboratory.

B.50-B.66: Work on locust flight muscle.

B.67-B.143: Material relating to the 'Biology and Physics of Locust Flight'.

C. Research in Copenhagen, 1957-1966

This section corresponds roughly with the period during which Weis-Hogh was Professor of Zoophysiology at Copenhagen, 1958-1966, although there is some material that overlaps with section B. The papers include background material to the discovery of resilin (C.1-C.6), and cover the work Weis-Fogh carried out on several aspects of insect physiology while in Copenhagen, including the tracheal system and muscle action potential in locusts (C.12-C.30). A grant from the United States Air Force European Office of Aerospace Research in 1965 helped to support further investigation of resilin through different types of microscopy, and the results of some of this research appear in C.37-C.103. The work was continued in Cambridge after Weis-Fogh's appointment to the Chair of Zoology in 1966 (see D.1-D.26).

C.1-C.11: Early work on resilin.

C.12-C.30: Other research (mainly on insect physiology).

C.31-C.103: Research on the properties of resilin and elastomers in insects.

D. Research in Cambridge, 1966-1975

The record of Weish-Fogh's research work in this section is less complete than in sections B and C because material relating to research projects continuing after his death in 1975 was retained by the Department of Zoology, Cambridge. This period marked the growth and diversification of Weis-Fogh's research interests: he supervised two major research teams (see D.35 and D.36-D.38), as well as continuing research on insect flight on which he published a major paper in 1973 (D.48-D.53). The section ends with Weis-Fogh's plans for a project to study biological fluid dynamics in the University of Cambridge, which were never put into action.

D.1-D.34: Research on resilin and elastin.

D.35: Material relating to the Biological Microprobe Laboratory.

D.36-D.39: Research on 'Intracellular and extracelluar matrix proteins'.

D.40-D.57: Research on animal flight.

D.58-D.62: Project for research on 'Fluid dynamics in biology'.

E. Lectures, addresses, publications, 1948-1976

There are papers for Copenhagen (1958-1965) and Cambridge (1968-1975), and occasional brief correspondence accompanying the lectures. The subjects chosen reflect Weis-Fogh's main research interests at the given time, but talks on insect flight recur throughout the period covered. Much of the material in the first part is in typescript and was designed for distribution to students rather than as a basis for lectures delivered by Weis-Fogh. He continued to give talks in Denmark after his move to Cambridge in 1966, and much of the material is in Danish. There is some overlap with section F.

E.1-E.20: University lectures and courses delivered or attended by Weis-Fogh, 1955-1975.

E.21-E.74: Lectures and addresses, 1948-1975.

E.75: Reprints of published papers, 1949-1976.

F. Conferences, visits and lecture tours, 1955-1975

Weis-Fogh attended many conferences and symposia, in particular the regular meetings of the Society of Experimental Biology, where he frequently read papers. In 1975 he organised, with Sir James Lighthill, a small but influential symposium on the 'Biodynamics of Animal Locomotion' (F.66-F.70). The material in this section consists mainly of correspondence about arrangements for conferences, etc., but there are also some drafts of papers presented by Weis-Fogh.

G. Correspondence

The bulk of the material is scientific in content, but contains many personal and friendly references. There are letters in English, Danish, German and Swedish.

G.1-G.149: Correspondence with individuals, organisations and societies.

G.150-G.174: Correspondence with editors and publishers.

G.175-G.181: References and appointments.

G.182-G.197: Miscellaneous shorter correspondence.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Received from the Department of Zoology, 1978.

Access Conditions

Open for consultation by holders of a Reader's Ticket valid for the Manuscripts Reading Room. Not all of the material in section G is necessarily available for immediate consultation. Enquiries should be made to the Keeper of Manuscripts and University Archives, Cambridge University Library.

Finding Aids

Additional Manuscripts Catalogue.