Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/November 1896/Two Scientific Worthies

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WE can estimate the popularity of any branch of knowledge by the interest taken by the public in the lives of the men who are identified with it. We read with avidity the lightest details in the careers of military leaders for the glamour which is attached to war; but the victories and defeats of students of Nature pass unregarded.

The mediæval naturalist was artist and naturalist, or priest and naturalist. Permit me to quote a passage from Edward Forbes's Naked-Eyed Medusa: "The genus Sarsia was instituted by Lesson for a very remarkable Medusa discovered by the eminent naturalist of Norway, whose name it bears; a philosopher who, pursuing his researches far away from the world, buried among the grand solitudes of his magnificent country, where the pursuit of science is his recreation, and the holy offices of religion his sacred duty, has nevertheless gained name and fame wherever the study of Nature is followed. The unpretending writings of this parish priest have become models for the essays of learned professors in foreign lands, and his discoveries the texts of long commentaries by experienced physiologists." Father Sars, a priest and naturalist, appears to have been a representative of the mediæval type projected into the nineteenth century. While the conflict between science and religion is going on, the amenities of science and religion as exemplified by such a career should be acknowledged.

I shall sketch briefly the careers of two scientific worthies, one standing on the threshold of modern times, and the other well within. I allude to the naturalist and physician in the person of Sir Thomas Browne, and the naturalist and administrator in that of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. I shall present their claims as scientists, for these have been largely ignored.

Sir Thomas Browne was an English provincial physician of the time of Charles II. He was born in 1605 and died in 1682. We are informed that modern readers without special preparation can understand the spirit of this time. But we must acknowledge Browne is something of a puzzle. It is true we can dip into his mental life as we can read of an Owen. He is one of us. He thought and worked as we do. At other times he appears as a Rosicrucian in his physics—an Aldrovandus in his natural history. How pregnant his inquiries! How trenchant his comments! A phrase suggests the beginnings of new sciences. His phraseology is cumbersome and pedantic, yet in startling ways he will use poetical expressions in the midst of learned comments that carry the mind along vistas of the imagination. He was a physician, and, while giving only his leisure to science and literature, he became a leading authority in the zoölogy and botany of Great Britain. He introduced the word "commensality," now in common

PSM V50 D093 Thomas Browne.jpg
Thomas Browne.

use, to express a state of many living together, as it were, at the same table. This word is mentioned by Johnson as an example of a useful term which if rejected must be supplied by circumlocution. Browne was a pioneer in the scientific study of graves and their contents. He appreciated the value of fossils. He was also a comparative anatomist, and constantly engaged in such topics as the anatomy of the horse, the pigeon, the beaver the badger, the whale. In a note on an autopsy of a spermaceti whale the following passage occurs: "It contained no less than sixty feet in length, the head somewhat peculiar, with a large prominence over the mouth; teeth only in the lower jaw, received into fleshy sockets in the upper. The weight of the largest about two pounds; no gristly substance in the mouth, commonly called whalebones; only two short fins. . . on the back; the eyes but small." This is a very good note, we think, and written in a scientific spirit.

He studied animal mechanism, especially the gaits of quadrupeds and the acts of swimming and floating; the problems of right and left handedness; and the erect figure of man. He tells us that "tempermental dignotions" can be detected by studying spots on the finger nails. Physicians even in our own day have not formulated knowledge on this curious subject. He discovered the animal soap now called adipocere. "He would have made a very extraordinary man for the Privy Council," we are told by his biographer.

A letter of advice to a young physician from Browne gives an estimate of the reading held to be essential to a medical course in his day. "Lay your foundation in anatomy." Among authors he recommends Vesalius, Spigelius, Bartholinus; and enjoins his friend to "master Dr. Harvey's piece, the Circulation of the Blood; also, to read with care and diligence Sennertus's Institutes. This done, to see how Institutes are applicable to practice." It must be remembered that in Browne's day "institutes" included physiology. This is all very modern in spirit.

What were the contents of a scientist's mind of the seventeenth century? The queries are taken from Sir Thomas's commonplace book. "Why little lap-dogs have a hole in their heads and often other little holes out of the place of the sutures?" "Why a pig's eyes drop out in roasting rather than other animals?" "Why a pig held up by the tail leaves squeaking?"[2] "What is the use of dew claws in dogs?" "To make trial of this, whether live crawfish put into spirits of wine will presently turn red, as though they had been boiled, and taken out walk about in that color." Such an experiment reminds us of the famous distich of Peter Pindar.

Here is another modern touch! Browne remarks of one of his writings: "It is done by snatches of time, as medical vacations, and the fruitless importunity of uroscopy would permit us. And therefore also, perhaps it hath not found that regular and constant style, those infallible experiments, and those assured determinations, which the subject some time requireth, and might be expected of others, whose quiet doors and unmolested hours afford no such distractions." The "importunity of uroscopy" is perhaps less "fruitless" than it was in Sir Thomas's time, but physicians who chance to have scientific tastes will repeat the plaint of envy for those favored ones "whose quiet doors and unmolested hours afford no distractions."

Browne wrote in addition to scientific work two remarkable general treatises—the Religio Medici and Christian Morals; and indeed on these accounts he has been absolutely appropriated by the literary critic. It is necessary, as we have said, to secure a true point of observation in judging of the science of Sir Thomas Browne so as not to be unfair to him. It is equally necessary to resist the claim of professional authors that Browne is simply a man of letters. Mr. Simon Wilkins, in speaking of the early death of Thomas, the second son of Sir Thomas Browne, says that if he had not been cut off early, his character and talents would have secured to him in the profession he had chosen a distinction not inferior to that his father had attained in the more quiet paths of philosophy and science. But this is a single voice. It is likely that many who hear these words will learn for the first time that Sir Thomas Browne was a savant as well as a literary man. Because Browne took no interest in the theological and political controversies of his time, the writer of the biographical notice in the Encyclopædia Britannica calls him a psychological curiosity. Allibone in his Dictionary of Authors does not allude to his science. In Johnson's celebrated life of Browne (it is strange that with such lack of sympathy he should have written at all) occurs this passage in reference to the Hydrotophia or Urn Burial: "It is indeed like other treatises of antiquity rather for curiosity than use, for it is of small importance to know which nation buried their dead in the ground, which threw them into the sea, or which gave them to the birds and beasts; when the practice of cremation began, or when it was disused; whether the bones of different persons were mingled in the same urn; what oblations were thrown into the pyre or how the ashes of the body were distinguished from those of other substances." We are properly instructed to bow before the great moralist and thinker, Samuel Johnson; but for such an estimate as the above (and it is by no means an isolated one in which Johnson held all knowledge of the exact sciences) we can not be alone in confessing to some impatience!


No more striking figure is met with in modern biography than that of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. He was the first to give the learned world knowledge of the mysterious East as expressed in Java and Sumatra. He, like Sir Thomas Browne, has been strangely misjudged by the literary critic.

Raffles was born in Jamaica in 1781, but was educated in England. He was the only surviving son of Benjamin Raffles, one of the oldest captains in the West Indian trade at Port London. His school education ceased at the early age of fourteen years, when he was removed from the seminary and placed as extra clerk in the East India House. He never overcame the deficiencies arising from imperfect early education. The habit of study which in after years made him remarkable for his attainments was due toPSM V50 D096 Thomas Stamford Raffles.jpgThomas Stamford Raffles.utilizing the moments which he described as "stolen" either before office hours or after them in the evening.

In 1805 the Court of Directors determined to make an establishment at Penang, a small island on the west coast of the Malacca Peninsula. Raffles was appointed assistant secretary to Sir Hugh Inglis, the representative of the Court of Directors in the East India Board. He was at this time but twenty-four years of age. In 1811 — namely, when he was thirty years of age — he was appointed by the directors agent to the governor-general. He suggested to the Indian Government the conquest of Java, and after this was accomplished in 1811 he was appointed lieutenant-governor.

The Spice Islands, so called because they yielded cloves, nutmeg, coriander, mace, ginger, pepper, and cinnamon, were so important to Europe that their possession was eagerly sought for by the maritime powers. As condiments the demand for many of the spices is much less now than formerly was the case. The esteem in which ginger and pepper especially are yet held is low in comparison with that entertained in the period from the fifteenth to the beginning of the present century. Are the relatively few dishes into which these spices enter to be regarded as survivals of the diet of a Charles V? Is the art of cooking so far advanced that we are no longer obliged to cover up taint with aromatics? But after answering such questions, and after making allowance for changes in taste, it is a striking fact that spices should at any time have entered into questions of state policies.

As an antithesis to an active life Herrick says of a rustic hero:

Thou never plow'st the ocean's foam
To seek and bring rough pepper home,
Nor to the Eastern Ind dost rove
To bring from thence the scorched clove.

Was not the zest to control spice due to its use, not as a condiment as it is with us, but as a preservative? Ice appears to have had a small place in preserving perishable articles. Salt is a coarse agent and impairs both the flavor and digestibility of food when used in sufficient quantity to arrest decomposition, and with the exception of the olive is not applicable to fruits. Spices are highly antiseptic. Oil of cloves is used by microscopists in preserving sections of tissue. Oil of cinnamon is one of the most valuable antiseptics in the modern materia medica. Spices increase the preservative power of sugar, an article of luxury in the middle ages and far out of the reach of the masses. If this view of the importance of spices be conceded, we can understand their value as something over and above their use to improve a defective cuisine, increase flavor, and add variety to diet. We must also remember that while the attempts to find new routes to the Spice Islands by sailing west failed, the early voyagers discovered in the American tropics vast tracts of arable land which were adapted to the growing of many of the spices; they also succeeded in bringing to the European market new condiments in capsicum and allspice. Besides this, rapid transportation places fresh fruit early in the market, and the discoveries of chemistry have done away with the necessity of resorting to spices for preservatives, benzoic acid alone supplanting most of them in the keeping of vegetable products. Thus geographical and chemical sciences have brought about changes in national policy.

While no future administrator is likely to repeat the experience of a Raffles in giving excuse for European control of the Spice Islands, the role that he played was one but little less in importance to the East (especially in Java) than that of the Dutch administrators who preceded and followed him.

Raffles secured Singapore in 1818, and thus transferred to British interests the waters by which the best passage from the Indian seas to the Pacific Ocean is possible. His opportunity came with the Napoleonic wars, by which the loss of Holland to the French threw the Eastern possessions of the Dutch as fruits of conquest into the hands of the English.[3]

Raffles encouraged missionary work, and in 1821 endeavored to suppress slavery in the island of Pulo Nias. The circumstances attending this traffic were no less revolting than those that marked it on the coast of Africa. But the East India Company was an association of traders, and prudently repressed whatever sentiments its members may have held on the subject of slavery. The Court of Directors disapproved of Raffles's acts, and went so far as to assert officially that his proceedings were deserving of their reprehension. He always insisted that it was folly to assume that the exposure of the evils of the slave-system in any way affected the Company. However, he came near being dismissed from the service, and in a little while after the transfer of the islands to the Dutch the slave trade was resumed with greater vigor than ever. I mention this circumstance in order to show how differently Raffles interpreted his duties from those of a mere agent of a trading company. He held science, literature, and practical benevolence as primary motives to action.

But, by the redistribution of lands agreed on at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Java ("another India!" cries a despairing critic) was returned to the Dutch; and the Raffles administration (and to a great extent the reforms he established), after a brilliant term of five years, came to an end.

After his recall from Java, he visited England. The Prince Regent showed his appreciation as opposed to that of the East India Company by knighting Raffles, and in a short time thereafter appointing him Lieutenant-Governor of Sumatra.

Any sketch of Raffles would be incomplete that did not include an account of his domestic life. He married in 1805, but lost his wife in 1815. He remarried in 1816. Lady Raffles, in 1830, wrote a life of her husband in the form of a large quarto of exactly eight hundred and twenty-three pages.[4] Judged by the standard of the taste of to-day, such an achievement defeats in great measure its own object, though it must be said in behalf of the author that she intended the volume to be a defense of her husband's services, and the records of his private life are subordinated. Raffles's domestic life and his zeal for natural history are inextricably mixed. His residence and the yard attached thereto were a museum and laboratory. "I have thrown politics far away," he writes, "and, since I must have nothing more to do with men, have taken to the wilder but less sophisticated animals of our woods. Our house is on one side a perfect menagerie; on another, a perfect flora; here, a pile of stones; there, a collection of seaweeds, shells, etc."

When he was in Bencoolen he rose early, and delighted in driving into villages, inspecting the plantations and encouraging the industry of the people. At nine the family assembled at breakfast; afterward he wrote, read; studied natural history, chemistry, and geology; superintended the draughtsmen (of whom he had constantly five or six employed), and always had his children with him as he went from one pursuit to another. At four he dined, and seldom alone. After the party had dispersed, he was fond of walking out with the editor (Lady Raises always alluded to herself as the editor), and enjoying "the delicious coolness of the night land-wind." "I believe people generally think I shall remain longer," says he in a letter to a friend, "as they hardly suppose in such times, and with an increasing family, a man will be inclined to forego the advantages of the field before me; but they know me not. I have seen enough of power and wealth to know that, however agreeable to the propensities of our nature, there is more real happiness in domestic quiet and repose, when blessed with a competence, than all fancied enjoyments of the great and the rich" (page 497). His oldest son Leopold " has the spirit of a lion, and is absolutely beautiful." His daughter Charlotte "is of all creatures the most angelic I have ever beheld." There are two other younger children, Harry and Ella. But Sumatra, as indeed all tropical Asia, excepting favored localities in Java, is fatal to children of European parents. Raffles entertained a scheme of removing his family to a colder climate, but he lingered too long, and all his children, save the youngest, Ella, died within one year. From these blows he never recovered. His health rapidly failed. He asked to be relieved from duty, and after a foreign service of twenty years he prepared to return for good to England.

His collections included objects of natural history in every department, a living tapir and many birds, and upward of two thousand drawings, notes, observations, together with memoirs, vocabularies, dictionaries and grammars of native languages. Just as he is about to sail, all his collections being carefully stored in the hold, the vessel, through the carelessness of the steward, takes fire and everything is lost. How unutterable the dismal sense of failure that thus often awaits the explorer! Rafinesque, Wallace, Schweinfurth, all lose the result of years of toil and privation. Humboldt makes three collections, travels with one, never losing sight of it, ships the other two, and both through the fortunes of war are in great part lost. Raffles staggered to his feet after this crushing blow and obtained a second collection with which he sailed to England. Upon his arrival he was not idle. He interested himself in establishing the Zoölogical Society of London and became its first president. He founded the Museum Rafflesianium, which is composed of specimens of natural history from the Malayan Archipelago. He died suddenly in 1826, at the comparatively early age of forty-five years.

The career of Raffles is thus briefly outlined. If any one is interested in the subject and looks it up in the Biographical Dictionary, the encyclopaedias, or in articles on Java, he will find nothing, or next to nothing, on Raffles's scientific labors. The interesting chapter in Chambers' Miscellany entitled Sir Stamford Raffles and the Spice Islands relates almost entirely to his work as a philanthropist and administrator. Yet his influence on the subject of topography, botany, zoölogy, ethnology, and archæology of the East is as great as are his political ideas. He undertook systematic investigations of Java, Sumatra, and the neighboring islands. He encouraged collections to be made by competent explorers,[5] instituted special expeditions for collecting antiquities by which the Hindu influence on the Javanese mythology, history, and literature was established. He wrote an elaborate history of the island. Some idea of the comprehensive plan of his labors and of its rich results can be obtained by the estimate of the cargo with which he stored his ship on his departure for England.

We acknowledge the justness of the tribute to Raffles as pressed in the epitaph on a tablet in Westminster Abbey. It reads as follows: "He was ardently attached to science; he labored to add to the knowledge and enrich the museums of his native land."

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  1. An address delivered before the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, December 7, 1894.
  2. Charles Waterton asks, "What is the use of classification, when no one can tell us why most birds drink, by alternately sipping and raising the head between the sips, and others like the pigeon by prolonged immersion of the bill?"
  3. A study of the influences of the Raffles administration over Philadelphia would be found interesting. The founding of Penang and Singapore gave increased security to our vessels trading in the China seas. The Raffles and, later on, the Brookes policy tended to suppress piracy. The large trade of Philadelphia with the East in the early part of this century, that built up the fortunes of a Girard and a Wagner, has been of incalculable  advantage to Philadelphia.
  4. Memoir of the Life and Public Services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, F. R. S. London, John Murray, 1830.
  5. The Americans who have made impressions in European affairs are naturally very  few. The mind in this connection reverts to Ledyard and Count Rumford among scientists; to West, Copley, and Leslie among painters. I infer that few Philadelphians recall that a man trained in their city and a native of Bethlehem, Pa., should be added to the list. I allude to Dr. Thomas Horsfield, the most prominent of the naturalists encouraged by Raffles in the exploration of the Malayan Islands under his administration. Horsfield was born in 1773; he studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was graduated in 1708, writing on Rhus Poisoning, which appears as one of the Medical Theses, edited by Charles Caldwell, Philadelphia, 1805. In no other publication is there to be found so excellent an account of the properties of the American poison vine and poison oak. Immediately after graduation Horsfield went to Java, where he remained for twenty years in the service of the East India Company. At the end of this time he was recalled to London, where he spent the rest of his life as the curator of the museum of the company in Leadenhall Street. He was elected a correspondent of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1826. He was the author of the classical work on Zoölogical Researches in Java, a separate volume on the rare plants of Java, as well as a special report on the annelids of the same general region. Dr. Horsfield died in 1859.