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June in the Historical Sciences

A calendar of anniversaries in the palaetiological sciences of evolutionary biology, systematics, historical linguistics, text transmission, historical geology, paleontology, genealogy, archeology, anthropology, cosmology, historical geography, and related fields, from the Darwin-L Archives on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

June 7

1811: JOHN WILLIAM DONALDSON is born at London. Donaldson will be privately educated as a child, and his skill in Greek will win him admission to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1831. At Cambridge he will devote himself to the study of philology, and he will be instrumental in bringing the new historical and comparative approaches of Franz Bopp and other Continental philologists to the attention of English-speaking scholars. Among his many publications will be the influential New Cratylus, or Contributions Towards a More Accurate Knowledge of the Greek Language, first published in 1839 and revised in 1850: “The study of language is indeed perfectly analogous to Geology; they both present us with a set of deposits in a present state of amalgamation which however may be easily discriminated, and we may by an allowable chain of reasoning in either case deduce from the present the former condition, and determine by what causes and in what manner the superposition or amalgamation has taken place.”

1894: WILLIAM DWIGHT WHITNEY dies at New Haven, Connecticut. One of the leading Sanskrit scholars of the nineteenth century, Whitney was born in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1827, and rose to become Professor of Sanskrit and Comparative Philology at Yale University. His Sanskrit Grammar (1879) was the standard work in its field, and his popular volume The Life and Growth of Language, first published in 1875, went through several editions. Whitney’s elder brother, Josiah Dwight Whitney, was an historical geologist, and served for many years as Sturgis-Hooper Professor of Geology at Harvard University.

June 8

1638: PIERRE MAGNOL is born at Montpellier, France. The son of an apothecary, Magnol will become a serious student of plants in his youth and will eventually take a degree in medicine. His growing botanical knowledge will bring him into contact with many foreign naturalists, including Ray in England, Commelin in Amsterdam, and Salvador in Barcelona, and he will assemble a devoted group of students around him in Montpellier, including Antoine and Bernard de Jussieu who will themselves become leading botanists. Magnol’s comprehensive studies of the plants of his native region will lead to the publication of Botanicum Monspeliense in 1676, and he will eventually become director of the Montpellier botanical garden, the oldest botanical garden in France, which he will describe in his Hortus regius Monspeliensis (1697). The spectacular genus of flowering trees and shrubs Magnolia will be named in his honor.

June 10

1858: ROBERT BROWN dies in London in the Soho Square house left to him by Joseph Banks, his long-time patron. One of the preeminent taxonomic botanists of the early nineteenth century, Brown had been an exceptionally industrious student of medicine and botany as a young man in his native Scotland. Following a period of naval service as a surgeon’s mate, he was appointed in 1801 as a naturalist on the Investigator, a British Admiralty ship preparing to sail around the world. The Investigator voyage gave Brown an extensive knowledge of the plants of the southern hemisphere, and he returned with specimens of nearly 4,000 species. As a leading figure in London scientific circles, Brown played an important role in the establishment of the Department of Botany in the British Museum, and served as Librarian and President of the Linnean Society. Charles Darwin in his Autobiography will recollect the many hours he spent in Brown’s company:

I saw a good deal of Robert Brown, “facile Princeps Botanicorum,” as he was called by Humboldt; and before I was married I used to go and sit with him almost every Sunday morning. He seemed to me to be chiefly remarkable for the minuteness of his observations and their perfect accuracy. He never propounded to me any large scientific views in biology. His knowledge was extraordinarily great, and much died with him, owing to his excessive fear of ever making a mistake. He poured out his knowledge to me in the most unreserved manner, yet was strangely jealous on some points.… Hooker told me that he was a complete miser, and knew himself to be a miser, about his dried plants; and he would not lend specimens to Hooker, who was describing the plants of Tierra del Fuego, although well knowing that he himself would never make any use of the collections from this country. On the other hand he was capable of the most generous actions. When old, much out of health and quite unfit for any exertion, he daily visited (as Hooker told me) an old man-servant, who lived at a distance and whom he supported, and read aloud to him. This is enough to make up for any degree of scientific penuriousness or jealousy. He was rather given to sneering at anyone who wrote about what he did not fully understand: I remember praising Whewell’s History of the Inductive Sciences to him, and he answered, “Yes, I suppose that he has read the prefaces of very many books.”

June 18

1858: CHARLES DARWIN receives a manuscript in the post from Alfred Russell Wallace, who is travelling in the Malay Archipelago, titled “On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type.” Later in the day he writes to Charles Lyell, initiating the chain of events that will lead to the publication of the Origin of Species in November of the following year:

My dear Lyell

Some year or so ago, you recommended me to read a paper by Wallace in the Annals, which had interested you & as I was writing to him, I knew this would please him much, so I told him. He has to day sent me the enclosed & asked me to forward it to you. It seems to me well worth reading. Your words have come true with a vengeance that I shd be forestalled. You said this when I explained to you here very briefly my views of “Natural Selection” depending on the Struggle for existence.—I never saw a more striking coincidence. if Wallace had my M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as Heads of my Chapters.

Please return me the M.S. which he does not say he wishes me to publish; but I shall of course at once write & offer to send to any journal. So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed. Though my Book, if it will ever have any value, will not be deteriorated; as all the labour consists in the application of the theory.

I hope you will approve of Wallace’s sketch, that I may tell him what you say.

My dear Lyell
Yours most truly

C. Darwin

June 20

1849: WILLIAM CLIFT dies in London, England, aged 74 years. The son of a miller, Clift’s artistic talent had won him an apprenticeship in his youth as an illustrator and dissection assistant to the famed anatomist John Hunter. When Hunter died in 1793 his executors appointed the young Clift as curator of Hunter’s extensive anatomical collections of more than 13,000 specimens, collections that were eventually bought by the British government and then given to the Royal College of Surgeons. Clift spent the entirety of his career as curator of the Hunterian Museum, establishing a reputation as a noted comparative anatomist, paleontologist, and illustrator.

June 22

1767: WILHELM HUMBOLDT is born at Potsdam, Prussia. Following study at Berlin, Göttingen, and Jena, Humboldt will become a leading figure in European politics, diplomacy, and intellectual life. His extensive travels will lead to wide-ranging comparative studies in language and culture, including Prüfung der Untersuchungen über die Urbewohner Hispaniens vermittelst der baskischen Sprache (Researches into the Early Inhabitants of Spain by the Help of the Basque Language, 1821), and a comprehensive study of the ancient Kawi language of Java. Humboldt’s younger brother Alexander will become equally famous as a geographer and naturalist.

June 27

1829: JAMES LOUIS MACIE SMITHSON, F.R.S., a minor chemist and mineralogist and the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson Percy, first duke of Northumberland, dies at Genoa, Italy. His will, written three years earlier, left his considerable estate to his nephew, Henry James Hungerford. However,

In the case of the death of my said Nephew without leaving a child or children, or the death of the child or children he may have had under the age of twenty-one years or intestate, I then bequeath the whole of my property subject to the Annuity of One Hundred pounds to John Fitall, & for the security & payment of which I mean Stock to remain in this Country, to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.

The Smithsonian Institution, finally established in 1846 after many years of legal and political debate, will grow to be the largest complex of science, art, and history museums in the world.

June 29

1895: THOMAS HENRY HUXLEY dies at Hodslea, Eastbourne, England. The youngest of seven children, Huxley had little formal schooling in his youth, but read widely in science and philosophy and received a scholarship to Charing Cross Hospital. After completing his medical studies he entered the Royal Navy and spent four years as a surgeon aboard H.M.S. Rattlesnake on its voyage to survey the coasts of Australia. The comparative studies of invertebrates he conducted on that voyage earned him election to the Royal Society in 1850. In 1854 he was appointed lecturer in natural history in the Government School of Mines, the primary position he held throughout his career. Huxley’s vigorous defense of evolutionary ideas immediately following the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859 earned him the nickname “Darwin’s Bulldog,” and he continued through his life to be one of Darwin’s strongest advocates. From the 1860s on, most of Huxley’s zoological work was directed at the comparative anatomy and evolution of vertebrates, and he published important papers on the avian skull (1867), the fossil fishes of the Devonian (1861), dinosaurs (1869), and mammals (1880). An indefatigable lecturer and controversialist, Huxley had an exceptionally wide impact on educational reform at all levels, publishing widely and serving on many government boards and commissions. He was elected President of the Royal Society in 1883, and will later be remembered by his student E. Ray Lankester as “the great and beloved teacher, the unequalled orator, the brilliant essayist, the unconquerable champion and literary swordsman.”

1919: KARL FRIEDRICH BRUGMANN dies at Leipzig, Germany. One of the leading members of the Neogrammarian school, Brugmann studied philology at Halle and Leipzig, and eventually became Professor of Indogermanic Linguistics at the University of Leipzig. His extensive comparative studies of Indo-European grammar led to the publication with Delbrück of the influential Grundriss der vergleichenden grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen (Berlin, 1893), and to the view that it was only by discovering shared innovations that the history of languages could be reconstructed.

June 30

1709: EDWARD LHUYD, Welsh antiquarian, philologist, and naturalist, dies in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University, after “sleeping in a damp and close room … which he chose to sleep in, for the convenience of pursuing his studies.” Born in 1660, Lhuyd studied as an undergraduate with Robert Plot at Jesus College, and he succeeded Plot as Keeper of the Ashmolean in 1690. Lhuyd traveled extensively throughout his career collecting natural history specimens and antiquities for the Museum, and gathering comparative materials on the Celtic languages. His best known work, Archaeologia Britannica: An Account of the Languages, Histories, and Customs of Great Britain, from Collections and Observations in Travels Through Wales, Cornwall, Bas-Bretagne, Ireland, and Scotland (Oxford, 1707), contained the first comparative Celtic dictionary ever published, and an earlier work on the fossils in the Ashmolean collection, Lithophylacii Britannici Iconographia (London, 1699), was one of the earliest illustrated works in paleontology. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1708, a year before his death.


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