Banner picture showing PRM Court

The Zoological Collections of the Oxford University Museum: A Historical Review and General Account, with Comprehensive Donor Index to the year 1975 Compiled by K.C. Davies and J. Hull

Section of the above report relating to Acland and Rolleston's contribution, note that a full copy of the report as a PDF is available on the Oxford University Museum of Natural History's website:

[Page 10 and onwards]

The fifth in succession of Lee's Readers, appointed in 1847, was Henry Wentworth Acland. He immediately set our to stimulate the study of Natural Science in the University, and even proposed that every undergraduate should be compelled to attend courses in Natural Science as part of a general liberal education, and in particular as a preliminary to the more specialized training in Medicine. At the time, he considered the establishment of a complete Medical School, though desirable, to be impracticable owing to the large teaching staff that would be required. It may be of interest to record that Acland was the first person to use the microscope for teaching purposes within the University. Dr. Kidd, Acland's predecessor, had made a number of gifts of zoological specimens to the Ashmolean Museum but had not added greatly to the Anatomy School collections, with the consequence that when Acland was installed he 'found himself master of the gloomy, musty room where a human skeleton hanging by the top of its head to an old brown cord was conspicuous at once as apparatus and ornament. Scarcely anyone ever came into this old world place to inspect the anatomical preparations which embodied the then most advanced physiology.' Acland devoted himself to amassing a collection of a wide range of anatomical and physiological specimens, many being the fruits of his expeditions to the Western Isles and elsewhere, these and others being arranged after the plan of John Hunter, the celebrated anatomist and founder of the Museum of The Royal College of Surgeons in London. By 1852 Acland's collection comprised 1,000 osteological specimens, 1,700 physiological specimens, 500 specimens illustrating the anatomy of the Invertebrata, and the nucleus of a pathological and histological series.

In his 'Memoir' of Henry Acland, 1903, J. B. Atlay recounts several amusing episodes in Acland's specimen-hunting career as he attempted to build up the zoological material for the Christ Church Museum: in 1845 he travelled to the Orkney and Shetland Isles with Edward Forbes the naturalist to dredge there for specimens of the marine fauna, returning to Oxford at the beginning of Michaelmas Term to await the arrival of the fourteen large cases containing his pickled specimens which were to be sent from Edinburgh by sea, but they did not appear as planned. The cases had been taken into custody at the London docks, and the consignee found himself under suspicion of attempting to smuggle whisky into the country owing to the fact that he had indeed used this spirit to preserve his precious cargo.

In December 1846 Acland voyaged to Madeira with H. G. Liddell, his old tutor and Dean of Christ Church, for as Liddell was seriously ill, Acland had advised him to winter in a sunnier climate more beneficial to his health. Acland himself returned to England on the steamship Tyne homeward bound from Rio de Janeiro. After a call at Lisbon on 9 January the ship encountered heavy seas and a gale in the Bay of Biscay: the crew observed Portland Light at midnight on 12 January but at three in the morning the ship, ten miles off course, struck a reef a mile off St. Alban's Head on the Dorset coast. Fortunately the passengers were all taken off safely at daybreak by a little boat that made several journeys to the wreck of the Tyne.

Amongst the salvage from the ship was a splendid tunny fish which Acland had obtained by way of the Consul in Madeira: the fish had been packed in salt and placed in an eight-foot-long box addressed to 'Dr. Acland, Oxford'. During the voyage, the crew and passengers had become convinced that the box contained the corpse of a patient, which in their superstitious minds was sufficient to account for the storm in the Bay of Biscay, and they all but mutinied until the Captain gave notice to Acland that he intended to throw the ill omen overboard. Acland had to threaten legal proceedings to preserve his specimen. However, the crew and the passengers could not be convinced of the true contents of the box, and such was their indignation that they refused to speak to him.

In this intolerable situation, Acland submitted to the opening of the 'coffin' by the ship's carpenter who unscrewed the lid before the assembled company to reveal the tunny for all to see. After the wreck of the Tyne took place, the sailors, feeling remorse for their unfounded suspicions, worked double tides to save the tunny fish from the ship, and it was eventually delivered to the Museum at Christ Church in perfect condition, the skeleton being later carefully articulated by Charles Robertson in the Anatomy School.

A sequel took place with regard to the adventures of the tunny: when it was removed from the Christ Church Anatomy Museum to the new University Museum in 1860 and placed in the central court in its present glass case it was supplied with a somewhat complacent Latin inscription. This inscription became the basis of a parody, a University jest attributed to Charles L. Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and his friends who produced a spurious Congregation Notice proclaiming that it had pleased the University to substitute for the original 'Epitaph' of the tunny a revised version which was a clever line-for-line parody. ...

The accommodation in the Anatomy School at Christ Church was extremely limited, and a stable was used for the maceration of specimens; the consequent stench did not endear itself tb the coachmen next door who complained of the odours, but before Acland had time to remove the offensive specimens, servants raided the stable and pitched into St. Aldates' the partly macerated skeleton of a giraffe, whereupon a dog ran away with the giraffe's tail. As a consequence the skeleton, now exhibited in the University Museum, has part of the tail vertebrae cast in lead. A Synopsis of the Physiological Series in the Ch. Ch. Museum, in which Acland explains how the series was arranged for the use of students after the plan of the Hunterian Museum, was printed in 1853. A series of manuscript catalogues of the various collections were prepared and subsequently revised as additional preparations were added; the latest series, together with some of the earlier editions, were eventually passed on to the University Museum between 1860 and 1866 with the collections and are still in use. The Anatomy School at Christ Church was refitted and converted into a chemical laboratory in 1868.

... The British Association met in Oxford in 1847, and Acland, who had just been elected a Physician to the Radcliffe Infirmary, suggested that a new museum with lecture rooms and a library should be erected by the University for the teaching of Natural Science. In 1849 the Revd. F. W . Hope presented to the University his famous collections of insects, crustacea, etc.: the acceptance of this donation clearly emphasized the need for proper accommodation to be provided for the expanding collections of natural history material. Those in favour of the proposal to build a new museum met at New College in May 1849 and an action committee was formed, M. H. Nevil Story-Maskelyne becoming the Secretary of this committee formed to promote the scheme for building a University Museum. The Honour School of Natural Science was founded in 1850, and the resolve of supporters of the new museum scheme was strengthened in 1852 when the University Commission recommended that the University should proceed with the plan to build a great museum for the sciences.

During the year 1853 the University appointed a Committee to plan the University Museum, this committee including Acland and other heads of departments. A new Committee was appointed in 1854 to consider the question of erecting the building; when the Committee's report had been approved by Convocation a Delegacy was appointed in 1855 by Convocation and the Committee dissolved itself, its labours transferred to the new Museum Delegates who then offered a competition for suitable designs, the architect finany selected being Benjamin Woodward of the Dublin firm of Deane, Woodward, and Deane. Preceded by a great deal of controversy and considerable opposition to the plan by an anti-science faction--one old don described the proposed museum as 'a Cockatrice's Den'--the foundation stone was eventually laid by the Chancellor, Lord Derby, in June 1855, and by 1860 the building was virtually completed. It was Acland's intention that the newly erected museum would gather together the scattered scientific collections then in Oxford and provide facilities for exhibits, research, and for the instruction of students preparing for an Honour Degree in the sciences. The front of the new University Museum, facing west, was originally allocated to Medicine on the north-west side and to Chemistry on the south-west side, the chemical laboratories being partially separated from the main block but connected with it by a passageway. The Departments of Experimental Philosophy (Physics), Mineralogy, and Geology were accommodated on the south side of the Court quadrangle, the north side being occupied by the Anatomical, Physiological, and Zoological Departments. The east side was left for extensions. Professor John Phillips, who had been the last Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum prior to the dispersal of the original collections became the first Keeper of the University Museum.

Meanwhile, in 1832, owing to overcrowding in the Ashmolean Museum, the Geological and Physical Apparatus Collection had been moved to more ample quarters in the Clarendon Building which had recently been vacated by the University Press, this building becoming known as the Clarendon Science Museum, the geological material ultimately passing on to the new Museum in Parks Road. On completion of the new University Museum the parts remaining of the natural history collections of the Ashmolean Museum were transferred there, as were the Christ Church Collections between 1860 and 1866, and together these collections formed the nucleus of those which today constitute the Zoological Collections in the University Museum.

1883 saw the building of an annexe on the eastern side of the University Museum to accommodate the extensive archaeological and ethnological collection presented to the University in 1882 by Major-General Pitt Rivers. This building was completed in 1885 and in 1886 the ethnological material from the Ashmolean Museum was transferred there, leaving in the old building in Broad Street only the antiquities of Ashmole. The latter collections were subsequently removed in 1894 to the University Galleries in Beaumont Street, now known as the 'new' Ashmolean Museum, an impressive neo-classical building built in 1845to the design of Charles Robert Cockerell and then known as the New University Galleries. In 1894 a large extension was added to the north of the Galleries and in 1899 the designation 'Ashmolean Museum' was transferred to this extension and ultimately to the whole building. This building requires to be distinguished from the 'old' Ashmolean Museum in Broad Street which eventually reopened, being later re-designated and established by Statute in 1935 as the Museum of the History of Science, created in 1925 when Dr. Lewis Evans bequeathed his magnificent collection of scientific instruments. The Ashmolean books and manuscripts were removed to the Bodleian Library in the period 1858-60.

Darwin's The Origin of Species had been published in 1859 and Thomas Huxley, immediately after reading the Origin, wrote to Darwin that he was 'sharpening his claws and beak' in readiness to support his theory of evolution and combat Darwin's critics. Huxley, who was to become known as 'Darwin's Bulldog', came to the University Museum in 1860 as the building neared completion, in order to attend a meeting of the British Association at which a memorable debate took place between Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford. Wilberforce cynically expressed the disquietude he would feel if a venerable ape was shown to be his ancestress, to which Huxley took heated exception, replying 'that he would rather be descended from an ape than a divine who employed authority to stifle truth'. A wall plaque in the upper west arcade of the Museum indi- cates the room in which this famous controversy took place.

Henry W. Acland had been appointed Radcliffe Librarian in 1851, and in 1857 a special meeting of the Trustees considered the proposal for removing the scientific portion of the books from the Radcliffe Library to the new Museum in rooms in the charge of Dr. Acland; in June 1860 they ordered that Dr. Acland be authorized on behalf of the Trustees to plan the move which subsequently took place in August 1861. The Radcliffe Library occupied in the Museum the first floor rooms along the whole of the west front, the northerly room being equipped as a Reading Room with a select library of books and periodicals, while the southerly room contained a Reserve collection of less used books, and the small central room in the tower was used as an accessions and work room.

Acland, in issuing new library regulations, made the important provision that books from the Library could be borrowed by Professors and other suitable persons for use with the Scientific Collections in the court of the Museum, a privilege subsequently maintained to the present day.

The rapid growth of the Library made it a necessity that new book space be acquired, while the Scientific Collections were simultaneously expanding and seeking additional room: the solution to these problems was afforded by the generosity of the Draper's Company who provided a new Library building adjoining the large chemical laboratory on the southern aspect of the Museum. During his tenure of office as Librarian Acland had made a profound impression on the organization and scientific utility of the Radcliffe Library, which was removed to its new premises between 1902 and 1903, the rooms then vacated being re-utilized for Museum purposes. Zoological books, formerly part of the Ashmolean Museum Library, were evidently kept within the University Museum for use in the Department of Comparative Anatomy and some of these, possessing Ashmolean bookplates, have been located recently in the Department present authors, while a few others are present in the Hope Department Library ...

The installation of the Ashmolean and Christ Church Museum Collections in the new University Museum brought to an end this particular phase in the history of the zoological collections in Oxford. It would appear that between 1860 and 1881 the only biological teaching at the Museum was that given by the Linacre Professor of Anatomy and Physiology, Dr. George Rolleston, and it seems that little Medical instruction was given there until 1891 when Acland organized some teaching in Bacteriology and Pathology; in 1891 Victor Carus sent Dr. Menge to Acland in answer to a request for a distinguished specialist to work on Bacteriology in the laboratory of the Museum.

In the years following the completion of the University Museum the need for expansion, as a result of demands for increased teaching and research facilities, led to a considerable dispersal of those departments originally associated with the Museum. This process began the rapid growth of the University Science Area and gave rise to a number of complex changes in the administration of the Collections and in the allocation of space to those departments remaining in the Museum. A brief outline follows of those developments which led ultimately to the present disposition and accommodation of the Collections associated with the four Departments of Zoology, Entomology, Geology, and Mineralogy, and in particular the Zoological Collections.

With regard to the departments originally associated with the Museum, Experimental Philosophy (Physics), which previously had occupied rooms on the south side of the Museum court, removed to the Clarendon Laboratory, built in 1870 in the north-west angle of the Museum grounds. The rooms so vacated were taken over by Chemistry and, later, additional buildings for Chemistry were erected between 1877 and 1879 at the south-east angle of the Museum; in connection with these alterations the so-called 'Abbot's Kitchen' was divided by a floor, the upper part becoming a chemical laboratory whilst the lower room provided access to the New Radcliffe Library from the Museum, direct access from the inner Museum court being sealed off at a later date.

The Department of Physiology, situated near the north-east angle of the Museum, was founded in 1884, being subsequently enlarged in 1908 and again in 1927. Behind the Museum a temporary building was erected in 1886 for the Department of Human Anatomy, and in 1893 a permanent building was completed on the eastern side of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

In 1895 the newly appointed Professor of Medicine, Sir John Burdon Sanderson, offered in the Museum regular courses of lectures in Pathology with practical instruction. a separate Pathological Department was built in 1899 and opened in 1901. At this time Professor Van der Kolk's Pathological Series of 770 preparations, purchased by the University in 1864 and originally kept in the north-west angle of the Museum, were given into the custody of the Reader in Pathology and transferred to the museum in the Department of Pathology. The Pathology Department building was replaced in 1927 by a new building in South Parks Road, the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology.

Owing to the increase in the numbers of medical students requiring instruction in Zoology and Botany, a new large laboratory was erected in 1899 on the north side of the Museum premises occupied by the Department of Comparative Anatomy, thereby enlarging that Department which later became renamed as the Department of Zoology.

In passing, it may be amusing to record that in 1902, in response to renewed requests from students and others that luncheon and afternoon tea should be provided within the Museum, arrangements were made by which Messrs. Boffin provided both meals in the Upper West Gallery for a fortnight, but the attendance was so poor that the experiment was discontinued. ...

virtual collections logo

Supported by the John Fell OUP Research Fund


(c) 2012 Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford