Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Newton, Alfred

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NEWTON, ALFRED (1829–1907), zoologist, born at Geneva on 11 June 1829, was fifth son of William Newton of Elveden, Suffolk, sometime M.P. for Ipswich, and Elizabeth, daughter of Richard Slater Milnes of Fryston, Yorkshire, and aunt of Richard Monckton Milnes first Baron Houghton [q. v.]. In 1848 Newton left home for Magdalene College, Cambridge. He obtained the English essay prize there in two successive years and graduated B.A. in 1853. From 1854 until 1863 he held the Drury travelling fellowship, making use of the endowment in the study of ornithology, a subject to which he had been attached from boyhood. He visited Lapland with John Wolley, the ornithologist, in the summer of 1855, and in 1858 they went together to Iceland and sought out the last nesting-place of the great auk. Newton stayed in the West Indies in 1857 and went thence to North America. In 1864 he paid a visit to Spitzbergen on the yacht of Sir Edmund Birkbeck, and he made several summer voyages round the British Isles with the ornithologist Henry Evans of Derby, so that he was acquainted with almost all the breeding-places of their sea-birds. All these travels he accomplished in spite of lameness due to hip-joint disease in childhood, which later in life was aggravated by an injury to the other leg. Newton made no complaint, though he had to use two sticks instead of one, and went about his work with undiminished assiduity. He wrote the 'Zoology of Ancient Europe' in 1862 and the 'Ornithology of Iceland' in 1863. A chair of zoology and comparative anatomy was founded at Cambridge, and Newton was appointed the first professor in March 1866; he held office till his death. His lectures were the least important part of his work as professor. The subject was almost unknown in the university, whether among the undergraduates or the ruling authorities, and the professor had to create a general interest in it and to improve the museum and other apparatus for its study. Newton did his best to make the acquaintance of every undergraduate who had any taste for natural history and to encourage him. Every Sunday evening at his rooms in the old lodge of Magdalene such undergraduates found a cheery welcome and pleasant talk, and many of them became lifelong friends of the professor and of one another. Charles Kingsley was sometimes there and talked on the land tortoise and the red deer or on the natural history of the New Forest. George Robert Crotch, the first coleopterist of his time, was generally present, and started fresh paradoxes on every possible subject every evening. Newton's own talk, which was most often on birds or on the countries to which he had travelled, was always full, exact, and interesting, and exhibited a pleasant sense of humour. The rooms in which this circle met contained a fine ornithological library, and where the walls were vacant a few pictures of birds, of which the finest was a drawing of gerfalcons by Wolff, the celebrated artist of birds. The accuracy which Newton encouraged in others he required from himself, and for this reason his works often took long to complete. His large book 'Ootheca Wolleyana,' an account of the collection of birds' eggs made by his friend John Wolley, appeared from 1864 to 1902, and contains an interesting biography of the collector. The collection of eggs was given to Newton by Wolley's father, and Newton presented it, with his own large collection, to the University of Cambridge. The 'Dictionary of Birds,' which appeared 1893-6, is probably his greatest work. He had prepared himself for such a book by his 'Ornithology of Iceland,' published in Baring Gould's 'Iceland' in 1863; his 'Aves' in the 'Record of Zoological Literature,' vols, i.-vi.; his 'Birds of Greenland,' printed in the 'Arctic Manual'; and by many papers in the 'Ibis' and other scientific journals. He wrote the article on ornithology in the ninth edition of the 'Encyclopædia Britannica,' and that on Gilbert White in this Dictionary; he edited the 'Ibis' from 1865 to 1870, the 'Zoological Record' from 1870 to 1872, and the first two volumes of the fourth edition of Yarrell's 'British Birds,' 1871-82. He was elected F.R.S. in 1870, and received the royal medal of the society in 1900, and the gold medal of the Linnaean Society in the same year. He used to attend the meetings of the British Association, and it was due to its action, stimulated by him, that the first three acts of parliament for the protection of birds were passed. He was for several years chairman of the committee for studying the migration of birds appointed by that association, and he was constantly referred to by the public and by individual students as the chief authority of his time on ornithology, and always promptly endeavoured to answer the questions put to him. He was one of the founders of the British Ornithologists' Union and was a frequent contributor to its journal, the 'Ibis.' The dodo and the great auk were birds in which he took particular interest, and when his brother, Edward Newton, brought him from Mauritius a fine series of dodo bones Newton generously sent some as a gift to Professor Schlegel of Leyden, who had been one of his chief opponents as regards the columbine affinities of the bird. Towards the end of his life he appointed Mr. William Bateson to lecture for him, but continued to show active interest in all the other work of his professorship, and was always a constant resident during term-time at Cambridge. Throughout his career he took a large part in university affairs, and conducted with his own hand a very heavy public and private correspondence. In his last years some of the fellows of Magdalene thought him too arbitrary in his attachment to simple food and old usages, but outside their microcosm the Johnsonian force with which he expressed his convictions only added to the charm of his society. His final illness was a cardiac failure, and when the Master of Magdalene paid a last visit to him Newton said 'God bless all my friends, God bless the college, and may the study of zoology continue to flourish in this university!' He died unmarried on 7 June 1907. He was buried in the Huntingdon Road cemetery at Cambridge.

His portrait, by Lowes Dickinson, is at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

[Proc. Roy. Soc, 80 B., 1908; Trans. Norfolk Nat. Soc. viii. 1908; W. H. Hudleston's account in the Ibis, 1907; Newton's Memoir of John Wolley, 1902; C. B. Moffat, Life and Letters of A. G. More, 1898; F. Darwin, Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 1887; H. E. Litchfield, Emma Darwin: a Century of Family Letters, Cambridge, 1904 (privately printed); A. C. Benson, Leaves of the Tree, 1911, pp. 132 seq.; Field, 15 June 1907; Newton's works; personal knowledge.]

N. M.