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Huxley, Wilberforce and the Oxford Museum

Keith Thomson

After the "debate" at the Oxford University Museum, 140 years ago this June 30, Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Henry Huxley became part of science's mythology. Bishop Wilberforce is supposed to have asked Huxley sarcastically whether "it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey." Huxley supposedly whispered an aside to Sir Benjamin Brodie, "the Lord hath delivered him unto my hand," and then responded, "If then the question is put to me whether I would rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape." Or words to that effect.

Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Henry HuxleyClick to Enlarge Image

Unfortunately there is no verbatim account, although summary reports were published in journals such as The Guardian, The Athenaeum and Jackson's Oxford Journal. Four contemporary letters written within months give us clues: Joseph Hooker to Darwin on July 2, John Richard Green to Sir William Boyd Dawkins on July 3, Balfour Stewart to David Forbes on July 4 and Huxley to Henry Dyster on September 9, 1860. How pivotal that session of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was in terms of shifting the weight of popular and scientific opinion to an evolutionary viewpoint is as unclear as what was actually said. Also uncertain is the damage that it did to the clerical cause against Darwinism. But the stakes were high for both sides—at Oxford most of all.

For most of the first half of the 19th century, science at Oxford was in a parlous state, despite the presence of the Reverend Professor William Buckland, the distinguished geologist, and other luminaries, such as Charles Daubeny. In the 1840s, a group of dons began lobbying the university for the establishment of a new Honours School of Natural Sciences and a new building to house Oxford's scientific collections, based on those of the Tradescants, father and son, and vigorously enlarged over the years.

Sadly, Dean Buckland refused to support something so "alien from what is thought to be the proper business of the University as natural history in any of its branches." On his elevation to Dean of Westminster, the young Dr. Henry Acland (Dr. Lee's Reader in Anatomy at Christ Church) took up the cause and persuaded the University Convocation, in 1849, to approve an outline plan for a new museum to house all of science at Oxford, from medicine to chemistry. (Except botany; by this time Daubeny had pre-emptively created a laboratory for himself at the University Botanic Garden.) That the funds for the project came from the surplus in the University Press's Bible account was only appropriate for a building dedicated to science as a glorification of God's works.

The winning design for the new museum was for a Rhenish-Gothic building by the Dublin architects of Dean and Woodward, incorporating all the contemporary ideas of John Ruskin. A modern secular Gothic building was almost inevitable given the growing influence of Ruskin as an artist and critic. Ruskin had been a fellow student with Acland at Christ Church and had studied with Buckland. The result, combining elements of a Venetian palace and the Cloth Hall at Ypres, is now considered to be one of the jewels of English architecture. Ruskin believed that "the museum of this University was founded to bring the light and beauty and life of the works of God to their eyes...."

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