Some Things Never Change

One of the enjoyable consequences of carrying out reading tasks for publishers, is that often one can be paid ‘in kind’ with a miscellaneous collection of books up to some market value considerably more than any cheque they might otherwise put in the post. I recently had the pleasure of receiving a motley (but carefully selected) collection of books from Princeton Press, having just completed such a task of reviewing a synopsis for a proposed book  (and a very good book this particular outline has the potential to be).  I have just finished reading the first item from this parcel of goodies. It is a rather old book, having been written in 1976, with the title The Naturalist in Britain: A Social History by David Elliston Allen.  It’s a wonderful mix of historical tidbits, a serious study of how the different component parts of natural history developed in their own distinct ways and a description of the increasing tension between professionals and amateurs over the past 150 or so years. I have no intention of providing a serious review – after all I’m 35 years too late, although I’d certainly recommend the book  – but I just wanted to tease out some strands which may resonate with the modern reader.

There are intriguing remarks dotted throughout the book which illustrate that, whatever we may currently feel about funding crises, the heavy-handed policies of our funders or partiality for a particular (sub-)discipline or individuals, these are nothing new. I’ll pull out some quotes to try to cheer us all up that the present period may actually be no worse than many others for those pursuing scientific endeavours.  On the other hand, some things are very different! Of the Rev John Mitchell, who retired from the Woodwardian Chair of Geology in Cambridge in 1764 because he wanted to marry (impermissible for college fellows at the time) it is said that thereafter

Unfortunately, due to modesty or mere inertia he published next to nothing; and these invaluable results [on stratigraphy], for all the arduous work he put into them, were lost to the generation that particularly needed them – a story, alas, which in the history of science is only too familiar!

Publish or perish had not yet entered the lexicon and, as Mitchell had left academia, even if the RAE/REF had been invented, he could have cocked a snook at it.

A later Woodwardian Professor, Adam Sedgwick, appointed in 1818, had no experience of geology when he took up the post (he had been trained as a mathematician and theologian) and is reported to have said

Hitherto I have never turned a stone; now I will leave no stone unturned.

which seems a rather neat epithet.  He made good on this promise, as he went on to become one of the founding fathers of modern geology. In this case, the faith of the ‘funders’ – in the form of the electors to the Chair – in an individual, regardless of his CV, seems to have been amply justified. However the reality was the Chair had, up until then, been regarded as a sinecure, so they probably hadn’t in actual fact worried overmuch whether or not he knew any geology, or had any intention of doing any in the future, when they appointed him.  A modern CV would have to show at least a nodding acquaintance with the subject.

During the Victorian era naturalists developed an acute desire to collect data in all its forms. Allen is hard on these guys, seeing them as mere functionaries, strong on staying power, weak in ‘speculation and insight’ and in general, as Darwin’s ideas started to spread, not very keen on the idea of evolution rather than stability.

Not very surprisingly, a noticeably high proportion of the key people of this period – Dawson Turner, JE Bowman, Edward Forster, GS Gibson, William Brand, even Yarrell in his early years – earned their daily bread by working in a bank.

Now here’s a new way to abuse bankers I haven’t seen in the modern press; Allen added that

there was something about the counting house mentality, with its punctilious sense of order and its skill in executing business with complete correctness and despatch, that made it well suited to the ceaseless roster of minor, yet demanding and sometimes back-breaking tasks in the intellectual housekeeping that forms so large a part of the work of natural history.

These people, if Allen is to be believed, were however swayed by the idea that bigger is better, with, for instance,

the general swing among botanists to a much larger type for vasculum [for holding their plants] for ordinary, everyday purposes

They were also concerned about their dress being appropriately standardised

In place of the frock coat in the field came the shooting-jacket popularised by sportsmen


 ample cross pockets outside, on the hip; also several breast pockets, particularly two (at least) very small ones, for glass vials containing spirits to stand upright in.

As Allen notes, the forerunner of the anorak (and all that that word implies) was created.

The unimaginative Bankers with their tickbox mentality and suitably attired in anoraks, was shaken up not only by the new ideas about evolution, but by one of its chief exponents in the form of Thomas Huxley, a professional scientist, in the sense that eventually he received a stipend. Stipends were a bone of contention in the Victorian era, paltry because they weren’t really meant to keep body and soul together. Posts that sounded really grand appear actually to have meant (as the Woodwardian Professorship of Geology was when Sedgwick was appointed to it) simply to provide a formal title for gentleman rather than be serious academic research and teaching posts and paid accordingly. So Edward Forbes, a leading naturalist who was Professor of Botany (although really a zoologist) at King’s College London with the princely salary of £100, combined this role with simultaneously being Curator to the Geological Society so that he could earn a further £150. He ended up saying

Both offices are hard work, no play and little pay.

So maybe things haven’t changed that greatly in academia, although we have to be content with only one (paid) post in general.

Huxley was the absolute antithesis of the amateur banker-cum-naturalists whose love was collecting things. He specifically said

I never collected anything and species work was always a burden to me; what I cared for was the architectural and engineering part of the business.

He worked tirelessly to improve the nation’s science education at all stages (a battle, some might say, that has still not been won despite the headlines this year about the surge in numbers doing sciences at both GCSE and A level). The Natural Sciences degree, that excellent training ground for scientists which is still going strong in Cambridge, was instigated in 1851; my very own Cavendish Laboratory was founded in 1874, also as testament to the push to improve scientific training. Nevertheless, the language Allen uses about Huxley should make us realise that things could be worse:

Year after year he spoke and wrote and lobbied to secure for science a greater share of the country’s educational resources and, as a minimal measure, some instruction in at least its rudiments as a standard item in the school curricula. The lethargy that confronted him, however, was great and there were numerous entrenched positions to overcome. Science and scientists were distrusted…

Plus ça change?




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5 Responses to Some Things Never Change

  1. cromercrox says:

    Wonderful post. I enjoy that payment-in-kind (avoids tedious admin and tax calculation for the donor, I suspect?) I did a job like that once. I can’t remember what the job was – the synopsis I read – but I do remember that my payment was a copy of Anglo-Saxon England by Peter Hunter Blair.

  2. rpg says:

    “glass vials containing spirits to stand upright in.”

    When was the last time you heard of a scientist carrying bottles of gin or whisky around with them?

    Shame, eh?

  3. ricardipus says:

    Let me re-use Henry’s word and agree – wonderful post. Rather fun finding so many statements from the past that still hold true, at least in some ways.

    I rather enjoyed Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter, for some of the same reasons – the battles Galileo had to fight in order to secure publication of his ideas have some interesting parallels with modern-day science, too, although in his case the reasoning (and I use that word advisedly) of his adversaries had different motivations.

  4. Frank says:

    Love it!

    I agree, Richard; it is very satisfying to find quotes from yesteryear that exactly match present-day concerns or thinking.