Miscellany — March 2010

The irrepressible ‘Rod’ Murchison . . .

. . . is how Jack Morrell and Arnold Thackray describe the geologist and geographer Sir Roderick Impey Murchison in the introduction to Gentlemen of Science, their edition of the early correspondence of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (added to EE this month). The epithet is well chosen; of all the scientists and others involved in the early years of the BAAS, Murchison is the one whose personality comes across most clearly in his letters — and he comes across as a vigorous character with a wicked sense of humour and a gift for the telling turn of phrase. It is hard to find a letter of his, even an official one, without at least a couple of amusing throwaway remarks.

Thus in the very first letter we have from him, to William Venables Vernon Harcourt on 15 August 1831, he finishes his description of his geological field work in Yorkshire with the following:

. . . My last few days have been directed to the neglected science of grouse shooting, which I combined with lead mining on the Grassington Moors and with very fair success . . .

Or his note to Charles Babbage of 13 April 1837 on their forthcoming visit to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to lobby for the removal of duty on scientific instruments:

Your memorial is so perfect, that no one can improve it. I am ready to be your squire whenever you fix to have an encounter with the little Knight of the Red Tape.

This last note also underlines another attractive character trait, Murchison’s modesty. Reading his reports on the meetings in York, Liverpool and other places, it is clear that he has been working very hard behind the scenes; but he casts himself as no more than ‘a faithful soldier who will with lungs and hands endeavour to back you gallantly’ (to William Venables Vernon Harcourt, 13 September 1831).

Yet despite his irrepressibility, even Murchison eventually begins to tire of the behind-the-scenes wrangling, misunderstandings and sensitivities of his fellow-scientists. After averting a disastrous explosion at the BAAS’s 1837 meeting in Liverpool, he remarks to Harcourt: ‘I have toiled my fingers off and stretched my heart-strings to set all to rights.’ But he is resilient enough to make a joke of it:

The Liverpool coach has not been upset and the meeting has gone off remarkably well, notwithstanding wind and weather. . . . There appeared, however, early in the week two or three great nebulae in the horizon which it required all my energy and skill to disperse. . . . on Friday morning a fierce gale set in from the north-east in the form of a letter from Lord Durham, desiring me indignantly to withdraw his name from any list of officers and talking of ‘rational’ beings, etc.

And so he goes on. Remarkably, he manages to do so without losing his temper: the closest he comes is a reference to the local committee (who had nearly brought about the disaster by their over-zealous activities) as ‘the men of hot rolls and butter’.

In much the same way, after quashing Babbage’s attack on Murchison in the 1838 Newcastle meeting — an affair that threatened to cause real damage to the BAAS — Murchison was able to make peace with his opponent, and to remark wryly in the postscript to a letter to Harcourt of July 1839: ‘I think I hear your blessing. You see that M. has come to the end of his letter without an allusion to B.’

Reading Murchison’s letters over the years, and especially his correspondence with his friend Harcourt, one gains a remarkably fresh impression of an efficient and good-humoured General Secretary, a man of sensitivities (he frequently asks after Harcourt’s invalid daughter Louisa) and an indefatigable worker for the BAAS. There is something characteristic about his last letter in EE (1 March 1844), which is to William Whewell, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and is largely a plea for him to accept the presidency of the Association at its next meeting, in Cambridge.

. . . We repudiate the idea that the chief aim of our existence is to stir up a few embers of latent scientific warmth in the provinces. If indeed that were truly our main object, I for one would cease to play pantaloon or clown in the strolling company, even if it should have a benefit night, as you suggest, for the followers of Caractacus on the frontiers of Siluria! . . . I at once admit, that the very look of the Master of Trinity when he chides his foster child, is entitled to the greatest respect, and I for one can imagine no good and effective meeting of science at Cambridge in which he does not cooperate. . . . In short my sincere advice is that you ‘tak your auld cloak about ye’ in the year 1846, and so hug us with your lusty arms as to give us a new spring for the rest of our career.

— Peter Damian-Grint
Correspondence Editor, Electronic Enlightenment Project
© 2010 University of Oxford

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