Auctions | June 4, 2013

War Hero’s Ornithology Collection at Bonhams

Highlights of an important collection of books on ornithology assembled over many years by the well known Sussex doctor and war hero, Dr Nowell Peach, is to be sold at Bonhams Books, Maps, Manuscripts and Photographs sale in Knightsbridge London on 19 June. The 45 volumes, which are being sold individually, have a combined estimated value of £43,300-62,600. 

Nowell Peach, who died in 2012 at the age of 98, was training to be a surgeon when World War II broke out. He joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and after service in Malaya was taken prisoner by the Japanese on Sumatra in 1942.  There, and in subsequent camps, he used his medical knowledge and ingenuity to devise walking aids for prisoners with beriberi and to recycle the small stock of barium to provide x rays for soldiers with gastric ulceration.

He also carried out important neurological research into a prison camp condition known as ‘burning feet’, a complaint caused by nerve damage linked to malnutrition and vitamin deficiency.

During this time he memorised the entire, 1,300 page long, medical text book, Grey’s Anatomy, a copy of which he had been given by his commanding officer shortly after capture.  As a result, he was able to pass his medical exams in double quick time following his release and return to the United Kingdom after the war.

Throughout the years of his imprisonment, Nowell Peach pursued his passion for ornithology. He kept meticulous notes of the nesting habits of the native birds and made drawings using crayons given to him by a fellow prisoner. 

Over his long life he put together an impressive library of books on birds, a selection of which is being offered in this sale.  Among the star items are:

  • Lot 85 A first edition of A monograph of the Coraciidae or the family of the Rollers by Henry Dresser estimated at £3,000-5,000

  • Lot 86 A signed edition of Dresser’s A monograph of the Meropidae or the family of the Bee-Eaters estimated at £6,000-8,000

  • Lot 78 A numbered first edition of Harmonica Ruralis or An Essay Towards a Natural History of British Song Birds by James Bolton estimated at £3,000-5,000

Bonhams specialist Simon Roberts said, “Nowell Leach was a remarkable man who achieved much over a long and varied life.  Ornithology was one of his major interests — pursued with characteristic determination and eye for detail — and this selection from his library is a treasure trove of rare and important books on birds and bird life.”