Ivan T. Sanderson — Chapter 2 — Birth, Parents and Education

Ivan Sanderson always kept a three-page biography on hand for publicity purposes. Entitled Biographical Notes, it's a reasonably good outline of his life, so I will reproduce small sections of it and similar biographical material in a large bold font as we go along, sometimes correcting it and augmenting it with both my own comments and a transcription of my interview with him, along with some text I extracted from a biography I wrote about him when I was 15 years old. (Plus recent research for this website.)

In the transcription, "ITS" stands for "Ivan T. Sanderson", and "RG" is "Richard Grigonis."


Born:    Edinburgh, Scotland; 30 January, 1911.


Ivan Sanderson used to joke that although he first poked his head out in the presence of a doctor and midwife in a room in Edinburgh, Scotland on January 30, 1911, he apparently didn't like conditions in general, and so he popped back in! Sometime after midnight, the doctor’s impatience grew to overpowering proportions, and Ivan was duly hauled out with forcepts. Thus, his “genuine” birthday is January 31, 1911.

Ivan was half Scot, half Pict. As he said in a 1961 interview: "The Picts, the Scots and the Welsh, you know, were the original inhabitants of Britain. They were there long before the Romans, the Angles, the Saxons, the Danes and the Normans came. The Picts are the Black Irish of Scotland." [Ben Gross. "Scotch was the Poor Man's Drink," New York Sunday News. 26 November 1961. pp. 15, 18.]

I'm sure many of Ivan's "fans" will be surprised to learn that he had three kidneys and some other unusual physical characteristics. Ivan explained that tests conducted when he was younger indicated that he was a "mosaic twin" and that he had twice as many chromosomes as a normal person!

Ordinarily, when an egg and a sperm are joined at conception, a single cell is created with a total of 46 chromosomes. The cell then divides to create two identical “daughter” cells, each having copies of the original 46 chromosomes. The chromosomes in these two cells are again copied, the copies divide and four cells are created. These four cells become eight cells, then 16 cells, and so on.

As we know now, the term "mosaicism" denotes a situation where an error in cell division occurs very early in the development of an unborn baby (embryo). Both the normal and mutated cells continue to multiply, leading to a person having two populations of cells in his or her body, each cell population having different numbers or arrangements of chromosomes (that is, different genotypes). This situation is called "mosaicism" because, as the The Chromosome 18 Registry & Research Society beautifully describes it, "...in a way, the cells of the body are similar to the tiles of a mosaic. In a mosaic piece of art, each tile is different. They have different shapes and colors. The tiles are fitted together to make a whole picture. If a person has mosaicism, their cells are like the tiles of a mosaic. Taken together, the different tiles of the mosaic form the whole picture, similar to the way the cells form the whole body. Just as the tiles of a mosaic have different shapes and colors, the cells of the body have different numbers or arrangements of chromosomes. For example, if an individual has mosaic trisomy 18, this means that some of the cells have three copies of chromosome 18 while other cells have two copies of chromosome 18."

There are many forms of mosaicism and Ivan was fortunate that he apparently wasn't too adversely affected, and lived to be 62 years old. Normally, a mutation leads to any number of genetic diseases, but in a mosaic individual, the bad cells are "diluted" to various degrees by good cells, so the person may not be as severely affected. Depending on where the mutated cells are and how many of them exist, effects can be attenuated or even hidden. For example, people with Down syndrome (which leads to mental retardation) have an extra copy chromosome #21 that was present in the egg or the sperm at the time of conception. However, a later "error" in chromosome replication (actually a fortuitous correction in this case) may lead to a line of cells created without the extra copy of chromosome #21, which means the person will have "mosaic Down syndrome" with a population of good cells that may assuage the effects of the disease. If the error happens at the 4 cell stage, 1/4 of the cells would have 46 chromosomes and 3/4 would have 47 chromosomes (with the extra chromosome #21). If the error occurrs at the 8 cell stage, 1/8 of the resulting cells would have 46 chromosomes and 7/8 would have 47. Of course, it may be that a person with mosaic Down syndrome actually inherited the correct number (46) of chromosomes at the time of conception, but the error in chromosomal replication and separation occurred later, after several cell divisions.

Certain types of mosaicism can affect reproductive ability. Ivan and his first wife Alma never had any children, though that may have been because of their globe-trotting lifestyle.

Father:  Arthur Buchanan Sanderson, Whiskey Manufacturer; later founded first Game Reserve, Kenya, East Africa. Died there 1925; killed by rhinoceros making film with Martin Johnson.

Mother:  Stella W. W. (Robertson) Sanderson

RG: Seated next to me is one of the very few people in the world who leaves no stone unturned when it comes to seeking the truth. This man is Ivan T. Sanderson...

Mr. Sanderson has led a most colorful life. He was originally a Scot, born in Edinburgh in 1911.

Your father, as I understand, Mr. Sanderson, was a very keen amateur naturalist, and one of the first conservationists in East Africa.

ITS: That’s true. He also manufactured a libation, commonly known in America as scotch, which we call whisky, or ‘whosky’. He devoted most of his life to sports. Originally, he was a very keen sportsman, but then he gave up sports because he didn’t like killing animals. He was a crack rifle shot, and he wasn’t allowed to shoot in the international tournaments any longer after three years because he used to hit the bull’s-eye every time.

RG: Really!

ITS: There was just no competition for him. He then went to Kenya, East Africa, after World War I, and he got a farm there. The British government would give a farm to those who were wounded during the war in those days. He set up the first private game reserve in Africa, even before the governments did it.

RG: You mean he really just converted his farm into a reserve?

ITS: Yes he did. Call me Ivan, will you, and not “Mr. Sanderson.”

RG: Yes, that sort of saves tape.

ITS: Also it’s a little less pompous.

Sanderson VAT 69  labelIvan's father, Arthur Buchanan Sanderson (22 November 1880 – 25 September 1925) , was part of the family that owned the distillery company, William Sanderson & Son Ltd. He was the eldest son of Arthur Sanderson of 25 Learmouth Terrace, Edinburgh, Scotland. Arthur attended the Rugby School as a boy, then was admitted as a "pensioner" at Cambridge's Clare College on April 21, 1899. For those unfamiliar with the term, at the University of Cambridge there were four classes of students: fellow commoners and noblemen, pensioners, sizars and sub-sizars, and the more distinguished, elected Scholars "on the foundation" of their college. The majority of Cambridge students were always pensioners, who pay for their own tuition and "commons" (dinners and rooms). Arthur was matriculated into Cambridge in 1899. Matriculation is the formal admission of a student into the University as distinguished from his admission into a college such as Clare. Matriculation occurred in each of the three terms: Lent, Easter and Michaelmas (the latter derives its name from the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, which falls on 29 September). In Arthur's case, he was matriculated for the Michaelmas term. (Today, Cambridge's Michaelmas Term begins on 1 October and runs for 80 days, ending on 19 December.) Arthur was awarded a B.A. in 1902.

Was in business in Edinburgh as a whisky manufacturer, also a Lieutenant in the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, 1903 (this was an Armoured Yeomanry Regiment of the British Territorial Army from 1793 to 1956 when it was amalgamated with the Scottish Horse). Arthur also served in World War I (1914-1918) in the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Scots (the Royal Scots, or "The Royal Regiment" existed until 2006, when it amalgamated with the King's Own Scottish Borderers to become the Royal Scots Borderers, 1st Battalion of the newly-formed Royal Regiment of Scotland); then a Lieutenant in the 1st Lovat Scouts. (The Lovat Scouts were formed during the Second Boer War as a Scottish Highland yeomanry regiment of the British Army and is the first known military unit to wear a ghillie suit. In 1916, these scouts formally became the British Army's first sniper unit, then known as sharpshooters. This was a perfect position for Arthur Sanderson, who was literally one of the world's top rifle marksmen.)

The book A Century of Sanderson (1960) is about Arthur Sanderson & Sons, Ltd. founded by another branch of the family, led by (another) Arthur Sanderson (born Kennington, Surrey, 13 April 1829; died? London, 11 March 1882). The company was (and is) a leading British importer, designer, manufacturer, and marketer of fabrics and wallcoverings. The book was written by another relative named Ivan Sanderson, the then-chairman of Arthur Sanderson & Sons Ltd.

In a 1961 interview, "our" Ivan explained how a drink that originally only cost a penny a mug became the source of his family's fortune:

"Some of my ancestors were fishermen on the West Coast of Scotland back in the 18th Century," Ivan said. "They'd go out in winter in tiny boats across the Atlantic to fish on the Newfoundland Banks. Big schooners used to come out from England to bring them water and food and to pick up their cod. These fish were then dried and salted and shipped back to be sold to the American colonies."

"But when these fishermen had nothing else to do they made whisky out of barley and burne (brook) water. This water was the color of fine sherry because it was colored by the peat bogs over which it ran.

"This whisky, manufactured only for home consumption, was kept in big vats made of the timbers of old sailing ships which had carried fish. Well, the bacteria of the dead cod had impregnated the wood. It was this, plus the peat water, which gave Scotch its original and distinctive flavor.

"Now, at this time in Scotland, only the poor people drank whisky. The wealthy confined themselves to fine wine and brandies, imported from France.

"So these fishermen, who took plentiful supplies of whisky on their long journeys, eventualy asked themselves: 'Instead of getting our food from the English schooners, why don't we buy it in the colonies?'

"And that's exactly what they did. Often they exchanged their whisky for food and other supplies in New England, whose inhabitants were able to buy the potent stuff for a penny a mug. Of course, eventually Scotch became the drink of the rich.

"My ancestors, incidentally, were the first to bottle whisky and my family once owned the company which made Vat 69. But," Ivan added with a spirited sigh, "not today." [Ben Gross. "Scotch was the Poor Man's Drink." New York Sunday News. 26 November 1961. pp. 15, 18.]

The elder Sanderson's farm that he converted into a game preserve was near Naro Moru, in central Kenya, a small market town between Nyeri and Nanyuki through which flows the Naro Moru River. Its main industry is tourism, as a base for hikers ascending Mount Kenya, to its east. As one travel guide says, Naro Moru, "is the most common starting point for trekers attempting to climb the mountain. Otherwise, Naro Moru is but a village and there’s no reason to stop here." Interestingly, the Solio Game Reserve lies near the town, perhaps a remnant of Arthur Sanderson's pioneering game preserve.

The senior Sanderson’s death came in what was then called Kenya Colony, Africa, while he was associated with the famous wildlife photographer of the 1920s, Martin Johnson. In 1924, Johnson and his wife Osa began a four-year filming expedition that would ultimately result in the famous 1928 documentary, Simba: The King of the Beasts. In December of 1924 Arthur Sanderson joined the Johnsons as they led a 30-camel safari into the N'Doto Hills to the west of Marasabit, which lasted until January 17, 1925. As for Arthur Sanderson...

He was an excellent shot, experienced in bush craft, and responsible for both running the camp and for providing cover... whenever Martin and Osa approached dangerous game. [Imperato, Pascal James and Imperato, Eleanor M. They Married Adventure: The Wandering Lives of Martin and Osa Johnson. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992. p. 128.]

It was the latter job that ultimately did in Arthur Sanderson. Ivan's version of the story is that in 1924 a rhinoceros chased and killed Arthur Sanderson, while Johnson just kept cranking away at his camera, recording the whole incident. Years later, Ivan got his hands on some of Johnson’s films that had not been released to the movie companies or to the public. Running one off at random on his projector, Ivan was horrified to find that this particular reel was the one which showed his father’s death.

What actually happened is more complicated (and Ivan once gave an incorrect date for his father's death so that the error has been perpetuated by many authors who have mentioned his father in passing). One of the investors in Johnson's motion picture corporation was the entrepreneural wizard, Percy Norman Furber, an Englishman who had mined mining quicksilver and drilled for oil in Mexico, only to arrive in America in 1918 and found what became the Trans-Lux Corporation. In 1925 his wayward son, Beverly Heckscher Furber, an alcoholic who nevertheless was a crack shot and who had a keen interest in natural history, was hired by Johnson to assist Arthur Sanderson. According to the biography of the Johnsons by Pascal and Eleanor Imperato:

On May 3, 1925, some six months after young Furber's arrival, he and Sanderson unwisely went into some thick brush a quarter of a mile from the lake to track down rhino which Martin and Osa wanted to photograph. They suddenly came onto three of them; one charged and tore into Sanderson's right thigh despite having received two shots from Furber. Martin and Osa, who were three hundred yards away on an anthill, came running to the scene and found that Sanderson was semiconscious and bleeding profusely. Sanderson made a slow but steady recovery and was ambulatory by early June, when Martin and Osa decided to go on a visit to Nairobi. [Imperato 129.]

Although the Imperatos in their biography don't mention it, the Johnsons must have been filming the rhino attack from their position 300 yards from Sanderson and Furber, otherwise there would be no reel of film for Ivan to discover years later. Also note that Arthur Sanderson was not immediately killed by the rhino. After he was "ambulatory" again in early June 1925, he wanted to return to Nairobi for rehabilitative treatment, and resigned his position, which distressed Johnson greatly. The Imperatos quote Ivan as saying that his father Arthur "later died of complications from his wounds." Martin Johnson himself gives the cause of death as pneumonia "several weeks later". The exact date of Arthur Buchanan Sanderson's death given by Cambridge University is 25 July 1925. The Rugby School, however, lists it as 25 September 1925, more than four months after his violent encounter with the rhinoceros.

Ivan's Mother, Stella

Ivan's mother, the former Stella Winifred Woodthorpe Robertson, was born in Shillong, Meghalaya, India in 1882. Her father was Major General David Robertson of Her Majesty's Indian Army (born 1840 in Bengal, India). Her mother was Annie (also listed as Amy) Somers Boileau (born 19 June 1854 in Shillong, Meghalaya, India). Her older sister (by five years) was Erica Marion Josephine Robertson, who married William Simon (pronounced "SEE-MOAN"), the branch of the family responsible for Courvousier cognac and Moet & Chandon. There was also a brother Frank who married Arthur Buchanan Sanderson's sister, Gertie Sanderson. Another sister, Mabel "Vida" Constance Elizabeth Robertson, married Keith Arbuthnot.

Stella was an international bill broker—somebody who buys and sells promissory notes and bills of exchange—and an early example of a venture capitalist, who claimed to have helped finance the work of Scottish television pioneer John Logie Baird (August 13, 1888 – June 14, 1946).

Arthur Buchanan Sanderson and Stella Winifred Woodthorpe Robertson were married 13 October 1906 (Parish: Holy Trinity, Chelsea. County: London. Borough: Kensington and Chelsea.) Arthur was 25 years old, Stella 24. Arthur is listed as a "wine merchant" instead of a whisky manufacturer. Click here to see their marriage certificate.

Arthur Sanderson brought a divorce action against Stella on 12 June 1920, on grounds of desertion. The custody agreement for their only child, Ivan Sanderson, was worked out on May 21, 1921.

Stella was a brilliant, somewhat headstrong and overbearing woman. Ivan would always acquiesce to her wishes. That didn't stop him from describing her in glowing terms...

My mother was a remarkable woman... half French... who became an orientalist; entirely self taught. She was 'a bill broker'—do you know what that is? It is somewhat like a stock broker, only involves international currencies and all that. Most unusual for a woman, especially in those days. She sat next to Stanley Baldwin, the British Prime Minister once at a dinner in London and he told someone later he wished he knew as much about the economy of Egypt as she did. [Cameron, Gledhill. "As Leader of 'Society for Investigation of Unexplained' He Probes Worldful of Unanswered Questions." The Evening Times. (Trenton, New Jersey) 10 July 1968. 13.]

No doubt Stella leveraged the prestige of the Sanderson name to enhance her international business dealings. A fabulous black Chinese wall hanging with gold dragons in Ivan's home had originally been given to his mother by the last emperor of China, Puyi. Ivan would occasionally accompany her on trips (Australia, Tangier, etc.). She apparently traveled quite a bit, probably a mix of business and sightseeing. Strangely, despite her sophisticated international business dealings, on at least one ocean liner document she lists herself as a humble "homemaker," even though her husband had been dead for years and her son was a world adventurer.

Ivan says that she was half French and that her nickname was "Goggie". Stella's grandparents on her father's side were Nobel Robertson (born 1806 in Ireland) and Elizabeth Robertson (maiden name unknown, but born in 1818 in Dublin, Ireland). This implies that Stella's mother, Annie "Amy" Somers, had French ancestry. After some research it became evident that her full name was Annie "Amy" Somers Boileau, making her a distant relative of the Lords of Castlenau in France and the long line of Baronets Boileau, of Tacolneston Hall, County Norfolk in the United Kingdom.

Stella Sanderson died in 1960.

Education:  Private schools (1916-1923) Eton College (1924-1927)

Trinity College, Cambridge University, England (1930-32)
Postgraduate studies Cambridge and University of London (1933-34)

Degrees & Credits: Higher School Certificate (5 Credits)

M.A.s (with Honors) in Zoology, Geology, and Botany; Cambridge
University, England.
Elected Fellow the Linnean Society of London
Ditto, the Royal Geographical Society of London
Ditto, the Zoological Society of London


RG: You were educated in England.

ITS: That’s right, England, France, and Switzerland.

RG: You attended Eton College and Cambridge University.

ITS: Correct.

RG: And there you obtained Bachelor of Arts Degrees?

ITS: No, what we call a Tripos, which is like three B.A.'s in one. It's actually three separate degrees. Then I proceeded and got three M.A.s in zoology, geology, and botany.

Now, you have in America a thing called a 'Minor' or 'minoring.' We call it 'reading in.' I read in Physical Anthropology and Pre-History. You don’t get a degree for them, but you do get a sort of certificate saying that you spent three years studying it in your spare time. It’s a little different over there.

I also wrote a thesis which was acceptable for a Ph.D., but I was teaching at Cambridge after I’d finished my education, and I never picked it up, because a Ph.D. in Europe does not mean a 'Doctorate.'

RG: Oh?

ITS: Anyone with a Ph.D. in this country you call a Doctor because it means 'Doctor of Philosophy.' But it’s not. A Doctorate is something quite different that takes seven years. You have to have at least one Ph.D., and two theses, I think. Then you go before a board. It’s like a medical man in this country. Anyone can get a Ph.D., which is just writing a thesis. That doesn’t make him a Doctor, though, at least not in Europe. He still has to go through the whole thing to get to another level. And don’t forget, in Europe a Professor is like a super-Doctor. He has to 'own a chair', or sit in a chair, as it's called. You have to hold this chair in things like anatomy or something. It is a higher degree than a Doctorate, you see.

This is all very interesting to young people in this country, because everybody who has got a Ph.D. is running around calling himself 'Doctor.' I’ve got a Ph.D. [Although he wrote a thesis, Ivan never actually earned a Ph.D] but I refuse to be called a Doctor because I am not a Doctor, Sir! [Note: Ivan was rather humorously vehement at this point.]

RG: Not a Doctor? Yes, yes, of course, not by European standards.

ITS: Carry on, Richard.

Actually, the Tripos consists of the multi-part examinations for the B.A. degree with honors at Cambridge University in England. The name derives from the three-legged stool candidates once used to sit on when taking oral examinations. Despite Europeans' denigration of American degrees in higher education, I would not exactly characterize the Tripos, as Ivan does, as being "like three B.A.'s in one," though the Engineering Tripos, for example, does lead to the simultaneous awarding of B.A. and M.Eng. degrees. With respect to Ivan's field of study, the Wikipedia says that, "the Natural Sciences Tripos is especially designed to allow a highly flexible curriculum across the sciences."


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