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The Times, Tuesday, February 17, 1885

[A copy of this review was stuck into the back inside cover of the copy of Rolleston's Scientific Papers ... held by the Balfour Library]

The late Professor Rolleston's papers

Rolleston from 'Scientific Papers ...'George Rolleston from 'Scientific Papers ...'The fine portrait prefixed to these volumes seems to us to show markedly the combined individuality, delicacy, and scrupulousness of character which belonged to the late Professor Rolleston, and which are well brought out in Dr. Tylor's interesting memoir, and amply illustrated in the numerous papers and addresses that follow. Professor Rolleston's mind was certainly one of uncommon power and originality, and it has been truly enough said that had he devoted his energy and keenness of vision to one department of research he would assuredly have taken a much higher and more permanent place as an original worker in science than he has done. But this kind of speculation, as to what a man might have done had he been differently constituted and differently environed seems to us somewhat unprofitable. It implies that the earnest and enthusiastic worker, who scatters his forces over a wide area, does less valuable service than if he had concentrated them along a particular line. But we may be sure that such a man follows the tactics for which he is best adapted; and although he may reap less enduring renown than if he had made a brilliant dash against a single strong position, the ultimate results may be even more valuable and far-reaching. Rolleston was a man of the widest sympathies; there was nothing human that did not interest him, and what interested him he could not choose but follow up in all its ramifications and details. Possibly had his father, the squire and vicar of Maltby, in Yorkshire, been of the modern scientific instead of the good old-fashioned classical type, and had Rolleston's mind been from the first trained with a view to scientific work, the results might have been different, though in a many of his strongly marked individuality even this may be doubted. Until his 21st year, Rolleston's training was almost exclusively classical; and he ended his career at Pembroke College, Oxford, by taking a first-class in classics. In his earliest years, however, Rolleston showed an instinctive liking for natural history. ... Apropos of dissection we may say that Rolleston early acquired an aversion to field sports as cruel, and it was largely owing to him that the law with reference to experiments on living animals was passed in its existing form. Rolleston's future career was decided by the medical fellowship at Pembroke that he obtained in 1851. He determined to make medicine his profession, and with characteristic thoroughness and enthusiasm he set himself to master it in all its details, down to the compounding of drugs. In 1855, towards the end of the Crimean War, he was appointed one of the physicians to the British Civil Hospital at Smyrna, where he worked hard and successfully and gained much useful experience. During his stay in the East he learnt to despair of the Turk as hopeless. The comprehensive report which Rolleston wrote on Smyrna is probably even now, as Dr Tylor remarks, the best guide-book to the place which a traveller or merchant could have.

After practising for a short time in London, Rolleston returned to Oxford in 1857 as successor to Dr. Ogle at the Radcliffe Infirmary and Lee's Reader in Anatomy at Christ Church. Rolleston's predecessor in the latter office, Dr. (now Sir Henry) Acland, had done much to reanimate the almost extinct teaching of the chair, and by his extensive series of dissections to lay the foundations of the Biological Department of the University. In 1860 Rolleston was appointed the first Linacre Professor of Anatomy and Physiology, a position which he held till his death. Here his influence on the crowd of students who flocked to him was like an inspiration; the enthusiasm, the love of truth, the loftiness of purpose, the anxiety for precision and completeness which he was able to infuse into his disciples have undoubtedly had a far wider and deeper influence on the progress of biological science and its extended recognition at Oxford than if Rolleston had devoted himself exclusively to some narrow branch of research. In his lectures his characteristic breadth of sympathy and his love of following up a subject into remote and obscure byways were not suppressed; but these came out still more strongly in his popular lectures and occasional discourses. One friend writes of him;-- "He started a subject or a line of thought. Ideas and speculations from all quarters soon crowded in. One after another was taken up at a tremendous pace, until at length we were watching a torrent of words on some question as remote as possible from the subject which originally provoked it. Thus once in the chair at our inaugural dinner he rose to propose 'Prosperity to the Medical School,' and in less than five minutes he was discussing with great vehemence the origin of the word 'clan.' On another occasion he began a lecture the subject of which was to have been 'Ancient Skulls' but towards the end a large part of it was taken up by a criticism of the merits, as a writer, of Diodorus Siculus." The writer, Mr. Savory, F.R.S., considers this feature of Rolleston's character was his weakness; his work was abundant, clever, brilliant, but too diffuse and fragmentary; "he touched many things, and most of them with effect, but he produced nothing wholly worthy of himself. He was certainly far greater than he appeared to be in any work he has left behind." But Rolleston's real greatness, as we have already indicated, seems to us to lie in the very variety of influence which he exercised, in the effectiveness in so many directions, in the suggestiveness to others of the fields of research which he barely indicated. It may be true enough that Rolleston lacked somewhat "the power of patient thought, of steady and sustained reflection," though his career both as a classical and a medical student seems hardly to support this. As to his will "not being fully equal to the direction of his intellectual faculties," we should be inclined to say that strength of will was one of the most dominant features of Rolleston's character; he could make himself do anything, and had, therefore, perhaps, just a spice of intolerance for those who had less command over themselves than he had. On the other hand, Mr. Savory does full justice to the many noble qualities of his friend's character:--"Who that knew him will forget his tender sympathy for the weak and suffering, his honest dislike of tortuous and secret ways, his manly scorn of all that is mean or ignoble, his delicate sensibility, his subtle humour, his refined taste, his keen appreciation of beauty and of the nobler side of things, his ardent love of truth, and his reverence for the higher forms of it?" Rolleston's chivalry and his love of truth were never more eminently or more serviceably displayed than when he boldly and effectively took the side of Professor Huxley against Professor Owen in the famous and not altogether creditable dispute that marked the meeting of the British Association in Oxford in 1860. It was all the more creditable to Rolleston that he was not then, and probably not at any time, a thorough-going Darwinian; his intellect was too scrupulous, almost sometimes to casuistry, to permit him to adopt any set of opinions without many reservations. At the same time, it is evident that while he preserved the simple beliefs of his boyhood, the principles with which the name of Darwin are associated were those which guided him in all his scientific investigations.

Many of the papers which Professor Turner has so carefully arranged and edited are of distinct value as original contributions to scientific research. His British Association addresses must take rank among the best productions of this character; and never was the anthropological section so lively, so abounding in suggestive discussion, and so fruitful of the best results, as when Rolleston occupied the president's chair. The papers collected in these two volumes show the multiplicity of directions in which is sympathies and eager pursuit after knowledge found exercise. Those in anatomy and physiology contain several which may be taken as models of minute research having important general bearings. In zoology the paper on the domestic pig of prehistoric times in Britain is a good example of Rolleston's capacity for minute inquireies and his restless anxiety to exhaust all sources of information. It seems to us that he was most at home when he had an anthropological or archaeological subject in hand, and it is admitted that his contributions to a knowledge of the early inhabitants of our islands are of the highest value in this department of research. Take his papers on the prehistoric crania from British barrows, on the people of the long barrow period, on the researches and excavations in an ancient cemetery at Fulford [sic], on the iron, the bronze, and the stone ages, the British Association addresses on anthropology, and other papers belonging to this category. These could only have been written by a man who combined Rolleston's knowledge of historical sources with his capacity for the scientific estimation of evidence and minute knowledge of anatomical structure. The paper on "The Modifications of the internal aspects of organic matter produced by man's interference" is a perfect mine of curious information and far-reaching research.

But the results of Rolleston's work are not to be measured by his published writings, valuable as these undoubtedly are. In many directions, scientists, social and even political, he exercised a powerful influence during his lifetime; many of his students who have now their place among the general body of English scientific writers received from their master an enduring inspiration; to him it is largely due that biology has at the present time so prominent a position at Oxford; and, indeed, in whatever sphere he moved, whether officially or unofficially, his influence was of that ennobling and impelling character which is characteristic only of men who are endowed with a certain amount of genius. Rolleston's many admirers and friends will be glad to possess these volumes as a memorial, while specialists will welcome the reproduction in a permanent and accessible form of papers which in several departments are authoritative.

AP transcribed December 2012.





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