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John Viriamu Jones and other Oxford memories

Edward Bagnall Poulton, London: Longman, Green and Co. 1911

Chapter VIII

George Rolleston

Born July 30, 1829. Died June 16, 1881.

Linacre Professor of Human and Comparative Anatomy and Physiology at Oxford, 1860-1881

SHORTLY before his death Sir John Burdon Sanderson remarked to me ' It is a pity that none of Rolleston's pupils have written their impressions of him.' The following chapter is an attempt to supply the deficiency, and in writing it I have, except where it is stated otherwise, consulted neither lecture-notes nor any other notes earlier than 1905. I have thought it best to trust to the sieve of memory to retain the characteristic and reject the unessential. My knowledge of Rolleston is restricted to the last eight years of his life, from 1873 to 1881.

In the first five chapters of this volume I have tried to convey an impression of the most powerful influence that was brought to bear upon my youth the influence of friends of the same age, and especially that of the greatest friend of all. In the sixth and seventh chapters I have revived memories of an Institution by which this influence is strongly promoted in Oxford. I now hope to give a slight sketch of the most stirring personality it was my lot to know, as a boy and as a young man, among the senior members of the University.

Burdon Sanderson himself was a great individuality, but then he was a great investigator as well, and a great leader of investigation. He has left an undying record behind him, and his fame will be secure in the keeping of generations who cannot share the vivid memory of his magnetic charm as a man. But of Rolleston it may be truly said that the personality was the man, and that when the deep impression made by his individuality is forgotten there will be little or nothing left.  For, although he was always at work, and probably worked much too hard for his health, he was in no sense a great investigator. Nor can it be truthfully said that he was a fruitful inspirer of research.

Rolleston wished to encourage original work, and was glad when it was going on in his Department, but his own principal investigations the form of the human skull and the history of domestic animals were too specialized and too remote from the prescribed course of study to be likely to attract his pupils. Furthermore, it cannot be said that Rolleston's researches led to any important advance: yet the subjects nearest to his heart could only have yielded inspiration when the air was charged with the contagious enthusiasm that springs from far-reaching discovery and rapid progress.

Rolleston's enthusiasm was most deeply stirred when his inquiries led him into the borderland between Science and Literature. He was fascinated above all by such questions as the domestic animals of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, or by the attempt to explain Caesar's meaning in the passage in which he seems to deny the existence of the beech and the fir in Britain. [1]

The recent rapid growth of science in Oxford may be inferred from the number of separate Departments which now represent the subjects over which Rolleston presided. He was Linacre Professor of Human and Comparative Anatomy and Physiology.

In addition to the Linacre Professor and the Department of Comparative Anatomy, we have now a Professor and Department of Human Anatomy; in Anthropology, two Readers and the Pitt-Rivers Department with its Curator; a Professor and Department of Animal Physiology.

Rolleston was not only keenly interested in all these branches of learning, but also in Geology and Sanitary Science. His enthusiasm for the latter was of double origin, the subject itself was a great favourite, but it probably appealed even more strongly to him by its results, the saving of lives and the lessening of misery, especially among the poor.

Even this array of comprehensive scientific departments by no means exhausted his insatiable love of knowledge; for Rolleston's literary interests were probably quite as strong as his scientific. This immense range, unfortunately quite impossible at the present day, was undoubtedly one principal source of his personal power and charm.

When it is remembered that Rolleston also threw himself into every form of political and social activity, it will be realized that his crowded life was too full for health and too full for the continuity and the sustained thought without which the hardest worker cannot leave an enduring monument. His high moral sense, his fierce championship of the oppressed and his impatience of scheming and compromise, specially fitted Rolleston to benefit his country in a political career. The calmer academic life did not always provide a sufficient field for the exercise of these high qualities; while an impetuosity that would not be denied led Rolleston to fight for the sake of fighting, and caused much unnecessary waste of time and temper.

I owe to my friend Professor E.B. Tylor a story which illustrates the tireless activity of Rolleston's life. It is said that a friend who accidentally met him at the door of the Museum, and asked 'Can you show me something of your collections? I've just got a spare half-hour,' received the reply, 'I do congratulate you! You've got what I've been vainly trying to get for twenty years.'

Rolleston was extremely kind to his pupils and took the deepest interest in them. I remember his kindness to myself and my fellow students, and witnessed his kindness to later generations when I was one of his Demonstrators. I remember being rebuked by him for putting a large !
at the side of the paper when a pupil had committed the enormity of placing Brunner's glands in a wrong part of the small intestine. Rolleston
thought that such a mark might wound the feelings of a sensitive student; but I defended myself, knowing well that the men, who were about my own age and my good friends, would feel no grievance at my shorthand method of indicating the gravity of the 'howler'. 

I especially remember one occasion in my student days when I unintentionally put Rolleston in an awkward position before his Class. In the course of a demonstration on the skeleton of the sloth and other so-called Edentata, in the Museum Court, Rolleston described the incomplete bony arch at the side of the skull (the zygomatic arch) as a feature unique among Mammals. These classes in the Court were quite informal and he invited remarks from the students. I had just been studying the Mammalian skull, and suggested that the arch was also incomplete in certain Insectivora. Rolleston adhered to his former statement, I to mine, and he accepted my offer to go for the reference. My friends told me that while I was bringing it, Rolleston, after making some kind remarks about me, added 'but he's wrong this time', so that he had committed himself irretrievably, when I returned with Flower's Osteology in one hand and the skeleton of a mole, proving that Flower was right, in the other. This was in the year 1876 when I was under twenty-one, and a man of Rolleston's age and position might quite unconsciously have developed a little coolness, but he showed no abatement whatever of the kindly interest he invariably displayed towards me as a student.

More than once he voted in a Union election at my request. 'I'm an old bird, but I've never done this before,' he remarked, as he followed the directions for recording his vote on the first occasion.

Looking through the letters I received from Rolleston I only find one written during my student days. It was certainly a very kind and encouraging letter for a young man to read. It is dated August 15th, 1876, and addressed to my father's house in Reading. Rolleston had lectured on 'Distribution of Species' in the Summer Term, and had evidently given a set of questions to the students at the end of the course.

Your answers are very good; the only thing I wish to see different is the writing only on one side so as to leave room for comments. Very few would be wanted; still I could write here and there a few remarks on the page opposite if it was left blank. I wish you had got rid of Examinations; I could have got you into a very good place just now if you had been a B.A. But there are as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it, and when you have got rid of these Examinations you will be sure to have a place found for you.

I am very interested in all that concerns Distribution,--and I have read what you say with much pleasure. The other day I came on a great blunder of Wallace's; he says no true Sus exists in the AEthiopian Region. But in the British Museum cellars I found two skulls of a true Sus, and having faith in Wallace I told Gerrard [2]  that they were wrongly labelled. But on hunting the subject up further I find Wallace is wrong and that the skulls were right. [3] This is what one would expect ; for where we have Hippopotamus, Phacochoerus, and Potamochoerus, why should we not have Sus? Where we have Didunculus and Goura we have the typical Pigeons, and so with the other Orders.

I will return your papers shortly. I am,

Yours very truly,


The same arresting individuality which impressed his pupils so deeply, made Rolleston a great social force--all the more so because he had charm as well as power.

One day, probably in 1876, the young lady mentioned on pp. 160-1, came into the Court of the Museum where the students happened to be at work, and those of us who were happy enough to be her friends at once began talking to her. Rolleston came up and I well remember the humorous twinkle in his eye, as he told her that she must really go away or no work would be done.

A keen sense of humour is not essential to a dominant individuality, but it is a splendid accession; and Rolleston possessed it in full measure. He was always on the alert for the comical aspect of incongruity, and his hearers were made to realize it also by the expression of his voice, the half smile and amused look in the eyes. For this reason I fear that his recorded words must lose a large part of the force they possessed when he spoke them. How much they will lose I am unable to judge. A man of Rolleston's nature was bound to be a partisan, but, as I have already said, he did not suffer the usual fate of the partisan, the loss of a sense of humour. He could sometimes at any rate see admirable or interesting qualities in an opponent. Thus I have heard him express the utmost enthusiasm for the masterly way in which the Conservative candidate, Mr. A.W. Hall, managed his horse in the crowds at an election. 'It almost made me change my mind,' he said, ' although it could never have changed my vote!'

One of the most marked of his curious prejudices was that which he displayed against the Celts, and he was much puzzled by a brilliant student, now one of the most distinguished of the Oxford medical graduates. 'I can't make out---,' he used to say, 'he's a Celt, and yet he does so well; but I'll tell you what, I wish he wasn't a Celt!'

Rolleston's lectures were of the greatest value to the advanced student who already possessed a grasp of the subject as a whole. Such a man was helped and not disturbed by the flash-light which the speaker turned now on this aspect now on that, and then again upon something entirely remote. The young inexperienced student carried away one enthusiasm and intellectual elevation. Here was something splendid, and it was put before him by the most splendid personality he had ever met more splendid than anything that he had imagined. These were my feelings when, not long after my seventeenth birthday, I began to attend his lectures in the Summer Term of 1873. But without the knowledge to fill in the background and restore to the subject some harmony and arrangement, the strongly illuminated points stood out sharp and disconnected, and formed as a whole a very imperfect presentation. And yet the illumination had been so brilliant that to the young student each point seemed to be a massive contribution, and the whole a complete exposition. The light had been so strong that the inexperienced hearer gained the mistaken impression that the whole subject was completely illuminated, and that there was neither darkness nor shadow in any part of it.

In lecturing and public speaking generally, Rolleston's sentences were remarkably long and complicated, positively bristling with dependent clauses, and yet he did not lose the construction, as most speakers would have done, but preserved the grammatical symmetry to the end. It was not a good style, and for almost any one else would have been a hopeless style. But Rolleston's memory secured continuity, while his striking individuality so gripped the audience that they too were able to wind their way through the maze of his speech. I have been told that Professor Henry Smith, the ablest man of his day in Oxford, said to his friend:--'When you are speaking, Rolleston, I look at you with wonder. Again and again I say to myself 'Now he's done for!' but, no, you always  come out all right in the end.

Rolleston read largely in many languages, and quotations from the Classics as well as from French and German were freely scattered over his lectures. Even for such a familiar expression as 'mere child's play' he preferred the German equivalent. It is a curious fact that, in spite of this marked predilection, his pronunciation of German was singularly bad. I have heard his great friend Professor Max Miiller express an amused horror at the thought of it.

The want of system and method which detracted so greatly from the value of his lectures was shown forth in the rumour, which may have been invented, but if so was well invented, that he once began with the words:-- Our subject this morning is the stomach of the dog: I therefore propose to explain to you the stomach of the cat.

How much the students felt that they lost by Rolleston's discursiveness and want of arrangement may be inferred from the opinion, expressed by one of them to me, that the ideal lecture would be prepared by the Senior Demonstrator, Dr. W. Hatchett Jackson, the present Radcliffe Librarian, and delivered by Rolleston.

It is certain that Rolleston was a better lecturer at an earlier period. My friend Dr. W. Hatchett Jackson tells me that, in his student days beginning in 1869, Rolleston's lectures were far better than they became in later years. The last years of Rolleston's life were passed under the shadow of a terrible disease, and his natural excitability was heightened by the ever-increasing number of causes into which he threw himself with a fierce zest. Although I can warmly agree with all that my friend Dr. A. G. Vernon Harcourt says of his knowledge, enthusiasm, and power of apt quotation, it would be incorrect to describe as admirable the ill-arranged discursive addresses to which I listened in 1873 and later years. But in the following words Dr. Vernon Harcourt was speaking of 1858:-- Dr. Rolleston was an admirable lecturer and teacher, full of knowledge and enthusiasm. He would illustrate his lectures on natural history and comparative anatomy with apt quotations. For example, in speaking of the pre-eminence of mankind, he would declaim:

Pronaque dum spectant animalia cetera terram,

Os homini sublime dedit coelumque tueri.

Or again, when he had to tell his class that the hippocampus minor (a lobe of the brain), on which great hopes had been based, did not serve as a distinguishing feature between man and the ape he would repeat with a sigh of regret :

Simia quam similis, turpissima bestia, nobis!

He was long one of the chief pillars of natural science in the University.[4]

The well-known Oxford saying 'No one could be so wise as Dr. Routh looked,' may be adapted to this interesting personality. 'No thought could be so penetrating as Rolleston looked when he uttered it.' But still the thought was penetrating, how penetrating the reader can decide more truly than the writer; for, when Rolleston's words are recalled, the dominating individuality of the speaker must ever rise before the mental vision of one who saw and heard him. To such an one the following words and ideas from his lectures gain an arresting force and interest never to be wholly understood by others.

Nearly the whole of the examples that have branded themselves on my memory were spoken in the course of lectures or demonstrations on physiological subjects.

On the subject of the adipose tissues I remember his saying that a practical illustration of the value of fat as a cushion was given at the very moment of instruction:



He was also fond of telling us that St. Paul, in the words' our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness', was referring to the pleasantly rounded outlines produced by a padding of fat.

Another very characteristic and characteristically spoken, twice repeated, sentence of his comes back to me from his lectures (Lent Term, 1876) on the digestive system:--


pulpy, vascular, glandular, pepsiniparous.

The last word and the first ten were spoken with marvellous rapidity, the other three also rapidly but each sharply cut off from others by pronounced pauses.

A quaint aspiration, which abides in the memory, was expressed in his lectures on the circulation. He told us how, during an exhausting climb up a mountain in Greece, he had longed for a 'moderator band' like that in the heart of the sheep--a muscular column passing from wall to wall of the right ventricle and helping to sustain it in times of excessive and exhausting stress. And he explained that he endeavoured as far as possible to supply the want by throwing himself on the ground face downwards and strongly pressing upon his chest over the region of the ventricles.

Rolleston was ever fascinated by the broad and interesting questions which grew out of the detail of the science he was teaching,--attracted more rather than less when they were unanswerable.

Thus he would wonder at the mammal's excretion of nitrogen in the form of urea dissolved in a quantity of fluid, which, being lost at the temperature of the body, was so wasteful of heat. He would tentatively suggest that the form of the excretion was a consequence of the impossibility of nitrogen leaving the body as one of its gaseous compounds (cyanogen, ammonia, &c.) because these are poisonous or irritant. The essential problem, however, is not the urea itself but the water in which it is dissolved; for, as he used to insist, one cause of the high temperature of birds even higher than that of mammals may be found in the fact that their waste nitrogen is not got rid of in solution but in the solid state. As other reasons he suggested that feathers are worse conductors than hair, and that bright colours radiate off heat less than dull ones.

Upon the same subject of animal heat Rolleston pointed to the difference between the food supplied to the developing bird and the young mammal, and led us to conclude that sugar was probably a heat-producing food; for the bird's egg, kept at a uniformly high temperature by the body of the parent, contains everything that is supplied to the young mammal except sugar. The presence of this substance in milk may therefore be related to the greater need for warmth.

Rolleston's account of the progressive stages of intoxication (Michaelmas Term, 1876) I have adapted from notes made in his life-time, although some years after my attendance at his lectures.

He used to tell us that after the first well-known cerebral effects, manifested in conversation and in general bearing, alcohol next shows itself by its action on the cerebellum--'the bilateral co-ordinator of movements.' The first muscles to be rendered inharmonious are those of the eyes, and the man 'sees double'. Then quickly follows the loss of all properly regulated control over the general muscular apparatus. Beyond this stage the deep-lying nervous masses at the base of the brain are affected and the man becomes incapable of sensation or movement, lying in a profound stupor. In this condition he may be run over and submit to injuries which by shock alone would have been fatal to one who was sober, the explanation, Rolleston told us of the saying, 'the fairies take care of tipsy folk.'

After this last stage, in which the organism lies a mere machine, all the necessary vital operations sustained by the simplest nervous circles, there follows, when sufficient alcohol has been taken, the final fatal stage. Then the medulla oblongata itself is rendered functionless, the 'noeud vital' is unloosed, and death follows the stupor as the effect creeps downwards over this last fundamental part of the nervous apparatus.

My friend Sir Ray Lankester has told me of an interesting generalization of Rolleston's which I do not remember in any of his lectures the conclusion that the power of regenerating lost parts is characteristic of aquatic as opposed to terrestrial forms of life, of newts rather than frogs and toads, of Crustacea rather than insects.

Speaking on Classification, he was fond of the Darwinian teaching that the old metaphors derived from lines, or ladders or stairs are fallacious, and that the true image is the branching of a tree.

Lecturing on the distribution of animals in the Summer Term of 1876 Rolleston used a striking and excellent metaphor for the balanced combination that is set up between the ancient inhabitants of a country. Such an equilibrium is established in a part of the earth's surface cut off from the rest by a barrier, as South America has been by the submergence of the isthmus. Then later on when land connexion is re-established a new barrier is found to have taken its place that of a stable condition of mutual interdependence between living forms in a long-isolated area.

Hence, as Rolleston expressed it, when physical barriers are removed invasion is still opposed by 'an army of all arms'. He would also express the conclusion that it was food and not climate which determined the range of warm-blooded animals by saying that they were 'bad thermometers', telling us little of the temperature of countries in which they were found.

olleston was fond of illustrations derived from warfare. I have already given an instance from his lectures on Distribution. Then in a lecture on respiration, speaking of the condition of pneumothorax, he would draw on his experience in the Crimean War and tell how the soldiers were instructed to give the bayonet a twist so that air could at once rush into the cavity of the thorax, disabling an enemy in a moment by collapse of the lung.

He would also tell us, not perhaps as illustrations, but simply as arresting conclusions thrown in because of their intrinsic interest, that the bronze sword could never have been beaten by soft iron, steel was required to render it an anachronism, that for men fighting in ranks the slashing or chopping weapon could never meet the piercing one.

I have spoken of Rolleston's vast intellectual horizon. Such a man was certain to encourage breadth in the student who came under his influence lofty social, political, and literary ideals, and in science a keen and sympathetic outlook on the main discoveries in branches not one's own. Thus the subject of his course in the Lent Term of 1876 was 'Digestion'; and in beginning the lecture on February 29th he expressed the hope that all the students had heard Mr. (now Sir William) Crookes on the Mechanical Action of Light, [5] at the Ashmolean Society the night before. With true prophetic instinct he said impressively, and then again repeated the words, 'An Epoch-making Lecture.' Rolleston was fond of highly coloured and exaggerated statements. I have heard him say that if a certain preparation did not support his account of the blood of an earth-worm, 'I'll eat the worm itself--raw.'

Always striking, his sayings were often picturesque. Not long before his death he went to Malvern and saw the remains of the supposed Cambrian coast-line running along the Archaean hill-side and including, as was believed at the time, fragments derived from its waste. The evidence, as it was then understood, seemed to show that, even at the remote epoch of the Cambrian sea, the pre-Cambrian rock of the Hills had been changed into its 'present form. 'It makes one draw a long breath' I heard him repeat twice. [6] On one occasion when he was visiting a chalk district, I think Cissbury, an old man told him that his son had a theory to account for the flints in the chalk. Rolleston said he should like to know it, as the question was a very difficult one. The man replied that his son was too shy to appear himself, but that his theory was that the flints were just the crystals of the chalk. Rolleston remarked: Well, the only objections I know of to the theory are that the flint is not chalk but quite a different substance, and that it is not crystalline but a hardened jelly. Except for these difficulties there is a great deal to be said for your son's theory!

In order to appreciate the effect of these words one must remember the running half laughter which accompanied them, breaking out into hearty laughter at the end.

He said of one who had recounted various doubtful stories:--    kept saying the things which are generally unsaid, and revealing the parts which are generally concealed; in fact he behaved like a gentleman !

The treatment said to have been meted out to such conversation by Jowett was subtle and effective. It took the form of the quietly incisive rebuke 'Don't you think we'd better join the ladies?'

Rolleston was contemptuous of those biologists who shrank from physical contact with a dissection. How far he was from feeling this form of squeamishness himself is sufficiently shown in the following incident.

A prolific source of acrimonious dispute at meetings of the British Association which followed the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859, was the so-called Hippocampus Minor of the human brain and its bearing upon the resemblance between man and the ape. The discussion is parodied in Kingsley's Water Babies, published in 1863. At one of these meetings a speaker regretted that he had not got a monkey's brain on the spot in order to demonstrate a  particular point.  'I've got one in my pocket', said Rolleston, speaking as if a monkey's brain was the very thing you would expect every one to carry about with him, and producing it, to the delight of the audience.

Nevertheless in certain respects Rolleston exhibited a strange and in such a man a surprising timidity of public opinion. The late Sir William Flower told me that when a learned and valuable paper on circumcision was offered to a London society, Rolleston strongly and successfully opposed its acceptance, certainly a remarkable instance of squeamishness in a scientific man.

Another indication of timidity is recognizable in the carefully guarded sentences in which Rolleston wrote of evolution in 1870, eleven years after the appearance of the Origin. [7]

Rolleston held very extreme views on the temperance question, and I well remember the way in which he expressed them at a meeting of the Ashmolean Society when one of our most distinguished men, the late Professor J. O. Westwood, read a paper on the great pest of the vine, the Phylloxera. Celebrated throughout the world for the volume of his minute and accurate researches, in public speaking the Professor was sometimes led into curious mistakes. I have been told by one who was present that, at a Gaudy Dinner at Magdalen, he remarked in a speech:
Well, gentlemen, as we all know, man arranges, but God disarranges!

At the Ashmolean he spoke of the Phylloxera as a curse for I look on wine as a good gift of God which maketh glad the face of man, and the cheery countenance of the speaker seemed to make the mistake peculiarly appropriate. Upon the wall were drawings of the complicated life-history of the pest, but these the Professor plaintively confessed that he could not describe in the presence of ladies. The confession itself was slightly embarrassing, although no one would have been a penny the worse for the loves of the Phylloxera or for the large part of its reproduction that is carried on without any display of the tender passion. And, strangely enough, it was this latter vapid unromantic process that seemed, even more than the other, to embarrass the speaker.

But in recalling memories of one deeply interesting personality I have been led away by memories of another who has left upon learning a far deeper foot-print.

I was telling of Rolleston's intemperate temperance, and he illustrated it at the Ashmolean that night, giving to Westwood's words another and an opposite application, and speaking of 'that good gift of God, the Phylloxera!' Yet Rolleston had the curious habit of contemplating with a sort of amused sympathy the feelings of those who were astounded at his own extreme views. Thus I have heard him tell with evident appreciation of the exclamation made by a Cambridge friend to whom he expressed his intention of speaking at a temperance meeting. 'He used the English equivalent of Bon Dieu!' was Rolleston's characteristic way of putting it. This was in April 1879, when he was staying at my father's house in Reading, on the occasion of a meeting in which he took part.

Rolleston's excessive impetuosity, combined with his extreme fluency and the ease with which he could say striking things and command attention, probably carried him away and led him to speak too often. I was of course far too young to know this from my own experience, but I once heard Henry Smith tell Rolleston that a member of Council had made a note of the number of times he had spoken at a particular meeting. The fierce resentment which Rolleston displayed, and his violent abuse of the member in question, whom he compared to a savage, not only of the lowest kind but ridiculous in his degradation, led me to conclude that the implied criticism was well founded.

It was probably after such a meeting as the one alluded to by Henry Smith that my friend who became afterwards the Master of University met Rolleston coming back from Council. 'Ah! Macan,' he said:

The time spent in University business is well described by a line from Myers's St. Paul: Drunk of the sand and thwarted of the clod!

One of his demonstrators describes him coming home about five o'clock one afternoon after a stormy meeting. 'He came into my room and said, "After this meeting I shall take a walk round the Parks. I feel tired." "I thought you enjoyed meetings," said I.  "So I do," he replied, "and there was a rampage to-day, and where a rampage is (pointing to himself), there is he" I laughed, and he said, "Yes, I know what you think where he is, there is a rampage and you are about right."[8]

Rolleston found the command of language serviceable for the expression of his strong and even violent antipathies. I remember a meeting of the Ashmolean Society at which he made a savage onslaught upon a gentleman present, keeping his eye firmly fixed upon him. Afterwards I heard him it; for I had my eye on him the whole time.'

Rolleston did not always have it his own way; he was sometimes beaten, as on the occasion referred to below.

At the terrible accident on the Great Western Railway at Shipton, near Oxford, a great strain was put upon the resources of the Radcliflfe Infirmary, and makeshift arrangements were imposed by dire necessity. Rolleston bitterly attacked the administration, and at a meeting of the Board of Management Mr. Symonds, the Surgeon of the week, replied. I have been told by one who was present that he ended the speech in which he described the extraordinary and terrible circumstances, with these words:-- But in all this exceptional difficulty and stress we have received the most loyal and devoted assistance. To this there has only been one exception, a single man who has throughout made our difficulties greater and hampered us in every way in the attempt to grapple with them: that man is Professor George Rolleston.

For once in his life Rolleston had nothing to say.

An example of Rolleston's controversial style is quoted below from his Presidential Address to the Biological Section of the British Association at Liverpool in 1870. He had evidently been 'drawn' by the chaff of a literary opponent:--A purely literary training, say, in dialectics, or what we are pleased to call logic, to take a flagrant and glaring instance first, does confer certain lower advantages upon the person who goes through it without any discipline in the practical investigation of actual problems. By going through such a training attentively, a man with a good memory and a little freedom from over-scrupulousness, can convert his mind into an arsenal of quips, quirks, retorts, and epigrams, out of which he can, at his own pleasure, discharge a mitraille of chopped straw and chaff-like arguments, against which no man of ordinary fairness of mind can, for the moment, make head. It is true that such sophists gain this dexterity at the cost of losing, in every case, the power of fairly and fully appreciating or investigating truth, of losing in many cases the faculty of sustaining and maintaining serious attention to any subject, and of losing in some cases even the power of writing. [9]

A part of the description might have been applied by an antagonist to Rolleston himself, with his wonderful memory stored with oddly assorted facts and sayings. It would have been an unfair picture, but there would have been likeness, the likeness that belongs to caricature.

Rolleston's strength and weakness in science are equally well shown in the history of one of the most interesting and economically the most important of the researches ever carried out in the Department of the Linacre Professor. His confident and impressive utterances and dominant personality compelled attention, conquered British indifference to research, and secured the necessary means for its pursuit. [10] On the other hand, his grasp of the methods to be followed in the inquiry itself was imperfect. He allowed himself to be biased in favour of one set of experiments when he should have advocated many, and the able young worker, [11] who threw himself into the investigation with admirable zeal, pertinacity, and resource, was impelled to waste much valuable time in testing and re-testing the ill-founded conclusions at which his Professor had arrived. Thus it came about that while it is to Rolleston's credit that the complicated and difficult life-history of the liver-fluke (Fasciola hepatica) that terrible pest of the sheep was unravelled in this country, and strators, A.P. Thomas, who began the inquiry on June 7th, 1880. Rolleston, in his letter to the Times, drew attention to an important statement made by Willemoes-Suhm, [12] that sheep-rot was very prevalent in the Faroe Islands with only eight known species of land-molluscs a most valuable indication of the scope of the inquiry which should be first pursued. Four were slugs, and four snails, while much the commonest species was the common grey slug, Limax agrestis, which Willemoes-Suhm therefore thought might be the culprit. Rolleston, on the other hand, expressed strong suspicions of the black slug (Arion atcr). The reasons he advanced were extremely unconvincing, and it is obvious that the proper scientific method was to test all the eight molluscs known to occur in the Faroes, one after the other and as soon as possible. A.P. Thomas very soon solved the fundamental problem how to make the experiment, how to obtain active embryos from the eggs of the fluke passed by the sheep. He had only to bring the active embryos into contact with every one of these eight species, for it to be almost certain that the discovery would be made. But unfortunately Rolleston had assumed in his letter to the Times: As a matter of practice at any rate there is no need to tell farmers to be on their guard against snails which do not infest their pastures, and of the eight just specified they need usually in England only look to the black slug and the gray slug. Willemoes-Suhm suspected the gray slug, I suspect the black slug. [13] ...

The reasons for this summary dismissal of the snails from the problem are given earlier in the letter, and they are very insufficient. The snails, although air-breathing, are inhabitants of fresh water, and Rolleston had been told by the farmers of the Lake District that, while sheep were especially likely to get the disease in pastures liable to be flooded, they also contracted it in damp places beyond the reach of floods. There were two obvious weaknesses in this argument. The farmers may have been mistaken in their conclusions on a very difficult and intricate question, or the water-snails may be able, by means of ditches, &c., to extend beyond the reach of the floods. Yet so strong was Rolleston's faith in the assumption, that his young pupil was impelled to spend what turned out to be most precious time in repeating long and difficult experiments ever attended by negative results, instead of going on to test the other species. I well remember his laments to me over the wasted time. Wet cabbage leaves with numberless embryos swimming in the film of moisture, were gaily eaten by slugs which, after laborious dissection, revealed not a trace of the expected parasite. Nor were more hopeful results obtained in other experiments in which water, containing perhaps several hundred or thousand active embryos, [was] poured over slugs [both black and gray] confined in a small vessel. . . . The embryos were watched under the microscope and seen swarming about the slugs, swimming around them, and occasionally stopping to bore, but one was never seen actually to penetrate the integument of a slug. [14]

In the meantime, acting on the advice of his friend W. Hatchett Jackson, the Senior Demonstrator, A. P. Thomas had been pursuing his investigations in circumscribed localities near Oxford where it was known that healthy sheep had become infected. Jackson, a resident in Oxford, was able to make effective inquiries and to fix upon several suitable localities. Among these were five fields on the slope of Wytham Hill, considerably above the level to which the floods are known to reach. Not only had sheep been infected in this area, but rabbits were dying from the same disease in the adjoining woods on Wytham Hill. These fields were searched thoroughly, by night as well as by day, and the species captured brought home and examined for the early stages of the fluke. The species were not numerous, but among them moderate numbers of a water-snail, found in the Faroes, were captured in a marshy place in one of the fields by W. H. Jackson, who used to help his friend in collecting. This was the small snail Limnaeus truncatulus, and, found 15 to 20 feet above the level reached by the floods, it entirely destroyed Rolleston's argument. And refutation was not confined to Wytham; for Thomas was able to affirm, after an experience of several localities in 1880: I have not found any sheep-rotting ground where careful search has not revealed some water-snails. [15]

In one of the Wytham water-snails, found September 24, 1880, and kept in an aquarium, Thomas discovered, on December 22nd, an organism which he then suspected, and a year and a half later knew, to be the long-sought-for earlier stage of the fluke. He wrote of it in his paper dated January 1881: The structure and habits of this cercaria render it possible that it may prove to be the larva of Fasciola hepatica [16]

But it was too late to obtain the proof in 1880, and, as it turned out, it was impossible to obtain it in 1881; for in this latter remarkably dry year no living specimens of the snail could be found. A single one of the useless experiments upon the black slug in 1880 would, if made upon this little snail, have solved the problem at once; and as soon as Thomas was at length able, in July 1882, to get the snail, the problem was solved. The embryos, hatched from the eggs of the fluke, bored into and entered the snails whenever they met them.

Before the end of August 1882, Thomas had studied the development of the parasites within the snail until they arrived at stages precisely similar to the one he had recognized and described in the specimen from Wytham. His paper was drawn up for the October number of the Journal of the Agricultural Society, sent to the printer on September ist, and the entire issue printed off by October 2nd. Copies were received for distribution on October 24th, but the journal was not published till nearly the end of the month. But in the meantime the same discovery was announced by Professor Leuckart, the great German parasitologist, in the Zoologischer Anzeiger for October 9th. In Nature for October 19th Mr. Thomas published a resume of his investigations. I have described the discovery at some length because of its many points of interest: the fine example which it affords of scientific reasoning and method; its deep human interest; its scientific importance; the great practical issues which are at stake. For these reasons I have added in as simple and non-technical language as I can command a brief account of the essential facts which were given to the world in the great discovery made by Professor A. P. Thomas not long after his student days (see Appendix V, p. 315).

Rolleston's scientific writings, without the compelling force of his majestic presence, appear to be on a level altogether lower than his lectures and conversation; and the most scientific are the least successful. His publications are in fact at their best when they are most discursive and when, as in his lectures, he could not restrain his interest and enthusiasm from glancing in every direction. When he adhered closely to his scientific text he was pedantic and dull. For sheer aridity and indigestibility it would be hard to find the equal of his short paper 'On the Geographica lDistribution of Limax agrestis, &c. ' [17] and it would be difficult to imagine anything more likely to repel the beginner than the following description of the Bugle Coralline in his student's text-book [18] 'The Polyzoary is plant-like, erect, calcareous, dividing dichotomously, the internodes articulating by flexible chitinous bands ... The cells are arranged quincuncially round an imaginary stem, and divide the surface of the internodes which they make up, into more or less regularly rhomboidal or hexagonal spaces ....

Such compressed information like pemmican for the most inhospitable of climes is the natural nutriment of an age that values examination as an end in itself and not as a means of inspiring interest or stimulating thought. In 1863, a few years before the first edition of Forms
of Animal Life was written, Rolleston's views on examinations were thus expressed in a letter to his brother in New Zealand: [19] That frequent examinations are an evil to the very best men I admit, but it is only to the very best men, who are a very small class, and all human regulations inconvenience somebody; good men are benefited by being obliged to take stock of their attainments, and put them into easily manageable form and shape; bad men, [Greek text] mentally and morally, are saved often from utter ruin by the consciousness that a sword of Damocles is hanging overthem,' Jamjam lapsura cadentique imminet assimilis,' in the shape of a coming examination.

It may be noticed that in his letter (1876) to me as a student, printed on pp. 188-9, Rolleston twice speaks of getting rid of examinations.
Two years later, when I was a demonstrator, he wrote (June 22, 1878) about an examination with which he had been much dissatisfied, and said of the classes of certain candidates: It is a regrettable thing for their sakes, and as you have taken a great deal of pains with one or more of them I am very sorry for it on your account also. There is always a greater or less element of chance in every Examination, and the existence of this lottery-factor is one of the many evils which the absolute necessity of Examination entails and involves. You must not, however, allow this mischance to discourage you: when we have two Examiners in each Department of the School, such accidents will be less common, though in the very nature of the case they will from time to time occur and teach everybody to look to other results besides those of Class Lists.

Still later, Rolleston came to see in an even stronger light the injury wrought by the system, and one of his last occupations was to draw up a Memorandum on the subject. The system has been accepted, he wrote, both inside and outside the University as an Institution for imposing Mint Marks and Trade Marks on men who pass through it as First, Second, Third, and Fourth Class men. I believe (with the Scotch University Commissioners) that this function does more harm than good, and I hold that the Universities ought to be content to divide men into two Classes only, those two to be one Class in alphabetical order of Honour-men, and another, also in alphabetical order, of Pass-men.

He was especially impressed by the mistaken conclusions which the system of classing suggests and for a time compels the world to accept.  He wrote down the names of men whose later careers had conspicuously reversed the verdict of the Examiners, including ... a little list of First-Class men whom the world has not thought much of afterwards.

From Genoa he wrote to his friend Max Müller, on January 13, 1881, enclosing the above-mentioned names. In the letter he said: The more I think of it, the surer I am that with our system of gambling and cramming for classes we shall never succeed in making the pursuit of knowledge a real end in the University.

Within a month he wrote again from Bordighera: The reform of all others which is the most important [to be dealt with by the University Commission, then sitting] is the reform of the Examination system. It really rules everything almost which Oxford has in the way of activity; by virtue of its gambling element it possesses an attractiveness which no other purer rewards or pursuits can have. I see from my window Monaco with its Prince, its Jesuits and their schools, ...; and under it the modern Monte Carlo with its modern appliances of all kinds and its gambling Casino, and I feel that this latter place represents the Examination system with its excitement, its gambling, its power to dull aspiration of every better kind, and its all but entire monopolyof the activity of the place, ...

It would too greatly enlarge the present section to enter on any discussion of Rolleston's views on the Examination system, but a few thoughts on the subject will be found in Chapter X. [not transcribed here]

I have attempted in the present chapter to record the impressions made by a great and wonderful personality. As I have been writing, the immense power of the gift has been again and again forced upon me. By it distinction is given to every endeavour, and conquest in becoming easy becomes also graceful. But the power is as dangerous as it is great. A man cannot but be himself affected, even if unconsciously affected, by the impression his own individuality makes upon others. To those who possess it, the exercise of the gift is easy and fascinating is only too likely to become fatally easy and irrestistibly fascinating. For the scientific man it is not a gift to be desired except as the devoted servant of a gift still higher, the unbounded and unceasing love of knowledge for its own sake.

Rolleston was certainly inspired by the love of knowledge, and it is remarkable that with his extraordinary gifts he did not produce scientific work of a higher kind. The explanation is probably to be found in the character of his education and the intellectual atmosphere of his age. In Oxford and in English-speaking countries generally, the age was receptive rather than creative: knowledge was cultivated rather than the imagination. I am of course speaking of the realm of learning. Elsewhere other conditions held sway. The fire and inspiration of that age lay in the realm of social and political reform, and the most ardent spirits of the University rightly and naturally bore their part in the struggle for liberty. And the movement for greater breadth and freedom was just as necessary within the University as without it. At that time every side of academic life was fettered by the unnatural and cramping conditions that still unhappily exist in the single Faculty of Theology. At that time the conclusions arrived at after patient striving for the truth were not accepted or rejected on their merits, but judged by their bearing on the beliefs of the day.

The inspiring struggle for freedom without and for freedom within naturally tended to make politicians rather than followers of learning. It has been said of Goldwin Smith that he was by his nature more fitted to be a politician than a University professor, and the same may be said of his friend and admirer, Rolleston.

The old order changeth, yielding place to new.

As the heritage in part of a more distant past, in large part too of struggles far back in the last century, we now live in a country where there is probably more real liberty than in any other in the world. And to-day if more liberty be desired there is no lack of champions ready and eager to fight. The follower of learning need not leave his work to assist in the emancipation of his fellow countrymen. The only vital liberty that is now threatened in this country is his own crowded out as it is and forgotten in the rush of examinations and the diversion of endowment the cramped and thwarted liberty to yield himself to the love of knowledge.

These thoughts are not out of place in attempting to understand the remarkable man who is the subject of the present chapter. Rolleston's active imagination was fired by the great movements of his time rather than by an educational career which did little to encourage originality.   With his wonderful memory and interest as keen as it was broad, the receptive side of his brain was in youth developed to an extraordinary degree. There followed a professional education and training necessarily receptive and then a professional career lasting until the end of 1859; and it was not till 1860, when he became Linacre Professor, that he could seriously devote himself to original work. With the single exception of his Report on Smyrna (1856) he published nothing until 1861, when he was 32. Without any experience in his younger more impressionable years of the method and the discipline of scientific investigation, he never had the chance of developing a sense well nigh instinctive which should guide him in the choice of a scientific problem and in the means of attacking it. And he was probably misled, by the remarkable effect of his own personality, into the belief that his investigations were of the highest importance. They seemed to inspire the keenest interest such as only the very best work could evoke, but all the time the enthusiasm was for the man himself rather than for his researches. His imagination, fine and active by nature, had never been subdued to the conditions under which every great investigator must strive. Without the criticism to which a more ordinary man would have been subjected, Rolleston flung himself now into this subject, now into that, and the results, when calmly examined, are not so great as they appeared to be under the enchantment of his magnificent presence. That an intellectual equipment of such extraordinary distinction should have to rest on the fleeting testimony of memory instead of on the enduring testimony of achievement is a mystery hard to solve. It may be best understood, I believe, by looking to the power that lies in time and circumstance to thwart or develop, to make the best of a man or something short of the best. But when the best might be so great anything short of it is a tragedy.


[1] De Bello Gallico, v. 12 'Materia cuiusque generis, ut in Gallia, est praeter fagum atque abietem'. These words are, as Rolleston says, ordinarily taken to mean 'There is wood of all kinds to be found in Britain, as in Gaul, except the beech and the fir'. This was the interpretation originally followed by Rolleston himself, but he ultimately came to the conclusion that praeter in this meant 'besides' and not 'except' (Scientific Papers and Addresses, Oxford, 1884, pp. 780-782). Having often heard Rolleston discuss the question, I put the point to a classical scholar of Oriel, now Sir Robert Chalmers, who, after kindly considering it carefully, expressed the opinion that in this passage 'besides' was a mistranslation. I have now, thirty years later, put it to my friend Professor Robinson Ellis, who, after studying Rolleston's statement of the case, has kindly written to me, Oct 7, 1910, 'The words of Caesar's v. 12 most naturally mean that the timber trees in Britain were identical with those in Gaul with the exception of the beech and the fir. The other interpretation is hardly probable, and would, I think, have been expressed differently. Rolleston's authority as a scientific man would, in my opinion, "not be sufficient to counterweigh the natural meaning of the words. 'Of course every scholar is aware of the double meaning of Praeter. There are probably many other passages where the meaning is doubtful. But in B.G. v. 12 it appears to me pretty certain that the ordinary interpretation is right, and the other, consequently, wrong.'

[2] An attendant in the British Museum, who died only a few months ago, aged 99.

[3] Rolleston was mistaken. My friend Mr. Oldfield Thomas, F.R.S., writes, Oct. 11, 1910: 'No true Sus occurs in Africa south of the Sahara. It is there replaced by Potamochoerus, but Rolleston may have mistaken female skulls of the latter for Sus, as the differences are really very slight, and many people have doubted if the genera should be kept distinct.'

[4]  Cornhill Magazine, March 191.

[5] The old minute-book of the Ashmolean Society is unfortunately missing. The Oxford and Cambridge Undergraduate's Journal for Thursday, March 2, 1876, gives a brief abstract of the lecture, which it states was delivered on 'Monday evening'. My friend Sir William Crookes has kindly tracked the date by reference to his correspondence, and finds that the Monday was Feb. 28th. Professor Odling was in the Chair, and introduced the lecturer. Sir William writes, Oct. 20, 1910 'Ruskin [who had probably been brought by Dr. Acland] took in my wife, who sat next to him during the lecture. He said some complimentary things to her and after the lecture was over I had a long chat with him.' Lady Crookes tells me that Ruskin was extremely pleased with the experiments, and especially struck by the behaviour of the undergraduates. He remarked on this again and again, and said that he had never known them to be so quiet and attentive, and that it was a remarkable tribute to the lecturer. These memories are of special interest because Ruskin's treatment of another Ashmolean lecture, seven years later, was so different (see pp. 249, 250) Although the lecture of Feb. 28, 1876, was never published, the Proceedings of the Royal Institution contain a full account of a still more complete exposition of the same subject. Sir William kindly writes, Oct. 29, 1910 : 'On Feb. 11, 1876, I gave a Friday evening lecture at the Royal Institution on the Mechanical Action of Light. My lecture at Oxford was as full an abstract of the R.I. lecture as I could give considering the apparatus had to be brought from London, and the facilities for showing experiments were imperfect.'

[6] My friend Professor W. J. Sollas, F.R.S., has drawn my attention to Professor T. T. Groom's paper in Quart. Journ. Geol. Soc., 1899, v lv. In this important monograph it is shown that the older conclusions on the relations between the Cambrian and the Archaean of the Malvern Hills are erroneous

[7] Forms of Animal Life, Oxford, Ed. I, 1872, xxv.

[8] Scientific Papers and Addresses, Oxford, 1884, I, liv.  Dr. W. Hatchett Jackson tells me that he was the demonstrator referred to in this passage.

[9] Scientific Papers and Addresses, II, 852.

[10] Dr. W. Hatchett Jackson informs me that Sir Thomas Acland and the Duke of Bedford took a leading part in inducing the Royal
Agricultural Society to make the grant (see p. 208) which led to such fruitful results. Dr. Acland, influenced by Rolleston, communicated with his brother Sir Thomas, who in turn enlisted the interest of the Duke in the good cause.

[11] A.P. Thomas, Scholar of Balliol; Professor of Zoology, Auckland University, New Zealand.

[12] 1 Zeiisch. f. wiss. Zoo/., 1873, xxiii. 339 ;    see also pp. 24-5 for a description of this fine naturalist, too early lost to science.

[13] 1    In his paper, dated June 25th, 1880, in the Zoo/. Anzeig. for August 9th, 1880, p. 400, Rolleston repeated his earlier suspicions of the small black slug in these words: 'I ... should wish to be understood to be of opinion that it will as I hope, by means of experiments now being carried on in my laboratory by Mr. A. P. Thomas be ultimately shown that the smaller of our two British Arions really is one at least of the hosts infested by the sheep-fluke. ...' The whole paper containing this statement was reprinted, presumably with Rolleston's consent, in Thomas's memoir, dated January 1881, in Journ. Roy. Agric. Soc. Engl., S.S., 1881, xvii. i. It is interesting to read this conclusion thus printed (on p. 12) in a publication which (on p. 22) furnishes an entire refutation of the evidence on which it was based (see p. 212 of the present volume).

[14] For an account of these and other experiments see A. P. Thomas in Journ. Roy. Agric. Soc. Engl., S.S., 1881, xvii. 14.

[15] Journ. Roy. Agric. Soc. Engl., 1. c., p. 22.

[16] Ibid., p. 20.

[17] Zool. Anzeiger, 1880, iii. 400; Journ. Roy. Agric. Soc. Engl., S.S., 1881, xvii. i.

[18] Forms of Animal Life, Oxford, Ed. i, 1870, p. 73. The valuable and comprehensive Second Edition (Oxford, 1888), revised and enlarged by Dr. W. Hatchett Jackson, D.Sc., F.L.S., is in reality an entirely new work.

[19] This and all later words of Rolleston on the examination system are quoted from Professor E. B. Tyler's 'Biographical Sketch' in Scientific Papers and Addresses by George Rolleston, edited by Sir William Turner, Oxford, 1884, 1, 1-liii.

Chapter IX

... As soon as I had taken my degree Rolleston offered me the Junior Demonstratorship, a post which I held in 1877, 1878, and two Terms of 1879. He was then suffering from the first attacks of the terrible renal disease that was to carry him off in all the splendid vigour of mature manhood. He was only fifty-two when he died. Its effects made him excessively irritable and increasingly difficult to work with. Furthermore, the relationship of Professor and student is very different from that of Professor and paid Demonstrator. Rolleston, as I kriew him, was kindness itself in the first of these relationships. In the second he was sometimes hard and unsympathetic.

The inducements offered to a Junior Demonstrator in those days were small. The stipend was slender (15.0.0. a Term and one-third of the fees, amounting usually to about another 15.0.0.),and no original work might be done between 10 and 1, and 2 and 5 the times at which he was required to teach. Even on Saturdays there was no departure from these rather severe hours, so that the position was trying to one accustomed to afternoon exercise on the generous Oxford scale. Rolleston himself had not much sympathy with these longings of a young man who had only just ended the free life of an undergraduate. In the Long Vacation of 1878 I went with my friends F. W. Andrewes of Christ Church and his brother a delightful expedition by river from Reading to Lechlade and back. We camped for a day or two at Godstowe, and I walked in to see Rolleston about some piece of work for his Department. I saw that he was looking at my camp costume with a curious
and not very sympathetic expression the badge of the long since deceased Dark Blue Bicycle Club seemed especially to catch his eye and, when I had gone, he said to the Senior Demonstrator 'Did you ever go camping-out, Jackson?' The deep tone and sardonic expression revealed his profound conviction that no reasonable being could give an affirmative answer to such a question. Rolleston had been a rowing man himself and retained a kindly sympathy with rowing, but camping on the river in the Long Vacation was evidently, in his opinion, outside the pale. ...

The number of the students had sunk to a low level in the Summer Term of 1879, but it was the want of time for my own work, rather than the reduction of the stipend, that induced me to resign the Demonstratorship. I remained in Oxford, working at Geological subjects and taking private pupils in Zoology. Rolleston's over-excitability, the result of the sad state of his health, made the position of an independent teacher of his subject a rather trying one. More than once he imagined that opposition was being threatened, but he always freely accepted the assurance that nothing of the kind was intended. I was not in a position to oppose him even if I had so desired; and I was far from desiring it. In spite of somewhat volcanic conditions I look back with pleasure on my relationship with him during the last four Terms of his life in Oxford, from October 1879 to December 1880.

After the close of my first Term as an independent teacher he wrote, December 28, 1879, the following extremely kind and generous words:
I intended to write to you some weeks ago to say that I had observed the results of your teaching in the Oriel men who came in for my [Terminal] Examination as also unless I am considerably mistaken in the case of Mr.    [naming a private pupil of mine] who would I think scarcely have been placed as high as he was but for your assistance. If I have the opportunity, as I think it is not unlikely I may have, of urging this on your behalf, I shall not omit to do so....

It would be impossible to find a sharper contrast: Prestwich, with his gentle, dove-like face, and painfully timid, hesitating address; Rolleston, with his magnificent presence and air as of a man of destiny, born 'to ride the whirlwind and direct the storm '. ...

AP December 2012

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