The New York Times Magazine, December 25, 2005
Miriam Rothschild lived the 96 years of her life by the minute, and in the minutiae. ”Fleas are nearly always in a hurry,” she wrote, and she was, too, in their pursuit.
Rothschild was the world’s expert on fleas. She loved them, lived for them — a passion acquired from her father, Charles Rothschild, a banker who collected and discovered some 30,000 species of flea in his lifetime, including the chief carrier of bubonic plague. The Rothschild fleas (some million-plus specimens, now housed in the British Natural History Museum) represent more than 90 percent of all known fleas.
But a collection means nothing if nobody studies and interprets it. The daughter spent more than 30 years painstakingly examining the fleas under magnification, eventually producing a multivolume illustrated catalog of the collection, a sort of Who’s Who for flea-ologists.
She herself also eagerly collected fleas: bartered for them in New Guinea, smuggled them out of Australia on flea-ridden mice. She peered at them through a microscope she’d set up in the bedroom of her baronial estate in Northamptonshire; she kept them in plastic bags so that her children — two adopted, four from her 14-year marriage to an English-Hungarian spy — wouldn’t disturb them. If we were fleas, our hips would contain a rubber-like fluid enabling us to leap a height equivalent to the Empire State Building — a fact Rothschild discovered by photographing fleas at high speeds, then dissecting their motion moment by moment.
All parasites fascinated her: bird lice, feather mites, ticks, flukes. She liked that history could be shaped by unseen agents. ”It was possible to see Hitler and Goebbels,” she wrote, ”but it is impossible to perceive the plague bacillus spreading poison or the malaria Plasmodium bursting open red blood corpuscles.” She liked that every organism is a kind of weedy lot, open ground for secondary growth. Owls are infested with rodent fleas; fleas carry worms that infect dogs and would infect us too, had we no hands to pluck them off with. ”Parasites are, perhaps, the organisms in which evolution is most obvious,” she wrote. Each is a small, shining example of natural selection at work in a crowd.
Rothschild had no formal education. Instead, she was raised in a Doctor Doolittle setting dominated by her famously eccentric uncle, Walter, the second Lord Rothschild, whose animal collection came to include (in addition to fleas) some 250,000 butterflies and moths, 300,000 bird skins, 200,000 birds’ eggs and 144 giant tortoises, which he housed in his own museum. He rode on the back of his giant tortoise Rotumah, drove to Piccadilly in a zebra-drawn carriage and helped 4-year-old Miriam raise ladybugs. Natural history ”wasn’t a subject,” she later recalled. ”We just lived it.” She was recipient of six honorary doctorate degrees (including one from Oxford). She worked on the Enigma project to break German codes during World War II. She played cricket for the national team, under a pseudonym she kept secret.
Rothschild sought the ecological ties that bind. She studied biochemical codes shared by insects and plants. Butterflies are poisonous to predators, she found, because of a toxin they get from their milkweed diet. She felt that most land management was ruinous to the intricate web of biological diversity and successfully persuaded Ladybird Johnson and Prince Charles to grow wildflowers wherever possible. She fired her groundskeepers and let her prim gardens devolve into a Rousseauvian free-for-all. Butterfly bushes sprouted from cracks in her former swimming pool. The house itself was half-encased in brambles and vines and ivies. ”The battle with weeds, the conquest of Nature, is a thing of the past,” she wrote.
”I’m a good example of thinking small,” she said once. ”My scientific work is all bits and pieces that may or may not add up to something.
I’ve never had a master plan.” Marcel Proust, by contrast, was ”a person who thought big.” She admired Proust deeply; she could no longer count how many times she’d read him. She lamented that no one had ever subjected his madeleine to a gas chromatogram, to decipher the aromatic chemistry of memory. Then again, she said, any entomologist could guess the agent: vanillin, one of those creamy scents concocted by weeds to attract pollinating butterflies. In her opinion, Proust was ”the first and greatest urban naturalist the world has ever known.” Perhaps she should be remembered as his inverse — a natural urbanist, that rare species of observer able to conjure the entire world of nature from the 60,000 microscope slides by her bedside.