1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Williamson, William Crawford
|←Williamson, Sir Joseph||1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 28
Williamson, William Crawford
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WILLIAMSON, WILLIAM CRAWFORD (1816-1895), English naturalist, was born at Scarborough on the 24th of November 1816. His father, John Williamson, after beginning life as a gardener, became a well-known local naturalist, who, in conjunction with William Bean, first explored the rich fossiliferous beds of the Yorkshire coast. He was for many years first curator of the Scarborough natural history museum, and the younger Williamson was thus from the first brought up among scientific surroundings and in association with scientific people. William Smith, the "father of English geology," lived for two years in the Williamsons' house. Young Williamson's maternal grandfather was a lapidary, and from him he learnt the art of cutting stones, an accomplishment which he found of great use in later years, when he undertook his work on the structure of fossil plants. Williamson very early made a beginning as an original contributor to science. When little more than sixteen he published a paper on the rare birds of Yorkshire, and a little later (in 1834) presented to the Geological Society of London his first memoir on the Mesozoic fossils of his native district. In the meantime he had assisted Lindley and Hutton in the preparation of their well-known Fossil Flora of Great Britain. On entering the medical profession he still found time to carry on his scientific work during his student days, and for three years acted as curator of the Natural History Society's museum at Manchester. After completing his medical studies at University College, London, in 1841, he returned to Manchester to practise his profession, in which he met with much success. When Owen's College at Manchester was founded in 1851 he became professor of natural history there, with the duty of teaching geology, zoology and botany. A very necessary division of labour took place as additional professors were appointed, but he retained the chair of botany down to 1892. Shortly afterwards he removed to Clapham, where he died on the 23rd of June 1895. Williamson's teaching work was not confined to his university classes, for he was also a successful popular lecturer, especially for the Gilchrist Trustees. His scientific work, pursued with remarkable energy throughout life, in the midst of official and professional duties, had a wide scope. In geology, his early work on the zones of distribution of Mesozoic fossils (begun in 1834), and on the part played by microscopic organisms in the formation of marine deposits (1845), was of fundamental importance. In zoology, his investigations of the development of the teeth and bones of fishes (1842–1851), and on recent Foraminifera, a group on which he wrote a monograph for the Ray Society in 1857, were no less valuable. In botany, in addition to a remarkable memoir on the minute structure of Volvox (1852), his work on the structure of fossil plants established British palaeobotany on a scientific basis; on the ground of these researches Williamson may rank with A.T. Brongniart as one of the founders of this branch of science. His contributions to fossil botany began in the earliest days of his career, and he returned to the subject from time to time during the period of his geological and zoological activity. His investigations of the Mesozoic cycadioid fossil Zamia (now Williamsonia) gigas was the chief palaeobotanical work of this intermediate period. His long course of researches on the structure of Carboniferous plants belongs mainly to the latter part of his life, and his results are chiefly, though not wholly, embodied in a series of nineteen memoirs, ranging in date from 1871 to 1893, in the Philosophical Transactions. In this series, and in some works (notably the monograph on Stigmaria ficoides, Palaeontographical Society, 1886), published elsewhere, Williamson elucidated the structure of every group of Palaeozoic vascular plants. Among the chief results of his researches may be mentioned the discovery of plants intermediate between ferns and cycads, the description of the true structure of the fructification in the extinct cryptogamic family Sphenophylleae, and the demonstration of the cryptogamic nature of the dominant Palaeozoic orders Calamarieae, Lepidodendreae and Sigillarieae, plants which on account of the growth of their stems in thickness, after the manner of gymnospermous trees, were regarded as phanerogams by Brongniart and his followers. After a long controversy the truth of Williamson's views has been fully established, and it is now known that the mode of growth, characteristic in present times, of dicotyledons and gymnosperms prevailed in Palaeozoic ages in every family of vascular cryptogams. Thus, as Count Solms-Laubach has pointed out, palaeobotany for the first time spoke the decisive word in an important question of general botany. Williamson's work in fossil botany was scarcely appreciated at the time as it deserved, for its great merits were somewhat obscured by the author's want of familiarity with the modern technicalities of the science. Since, however, the subject has been seriously taken up by botanists of a newer school, the soundness of the foundations he laid has become fully recognized. It may be added that he was a skilled draughtsman, illustrating all his works by his own drawings, and practising water-colour painting as his favourite recreation.
A full account of Williamson's career will be found in his autobiography, entitled Reminiscences of a Yorkshire Naturalist, edited by his wife (London, 1896). Among obituary notices may be mentioned that by Count Solms-Laubach, Nature (5th September 1895), and one by D. H. Scott in Proc. R.S. vol. lx. (1897)
- (D. H. S.)