Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/January 1886/Sketch of Frank Buckland

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PSM V28 D300 Francis Trevelyan Buckland.jpg


FRANCIS TREVELYAN BUCKLAND, who was almost universally known as Frank Buckland, was the eldest son of Canon William Buckland, of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, afterward Dean of Westminster, and author of the "Buckland Bridgewater Treatise," and was born in Oxford, December 17, 1826. He attended school at Cotterstock, in Northamptonshire, and spent two years with his uncle, the Rev. John Buckland, at Laleham School, near Chertsey; attended Winchester College, where Dr. Moberley, afterward Bishop of Salisbury, was head-master, from 1839 to 1844; and in the latter year entered Christ Church College, Oxford, where he took his bachelor's degree in 1848. He then entered upon the study of surgery at St. George's Hospital; passed the College of Surgeons in 1851; and became house-surgeon at that institution in May, 1852. In 1854 he was gazetted assistant-surgeon to the Second Life-Guards. In 1860 he applied for promotion to a full surgeoncy; but a rule was adopted, different from the old tradition of the Guards, that medical officers should be promoted as vacancies occurred in the same regiment, by which promotion was made to go by seniority in the brigade or at the discretion of the colonel; and the preference was given to an assistant-surgeon of older standing from another regiment. Disappointed by this action, and encouraged by the growing success of his literary and scientific career, Buckland resigned his commission in 1863, and devoted himself with ardor to what was to be his life-work in natural history and literature. "Fish-culture was henceforward his chief pursuit, and his life became one of incessant activity, bodily and mental"; but every fact connected with nature was interesting to him, and was held worthy to be communicated to others. He had begun to write in 1852, for periodicals, those articles which were afterward published collectively in his "Curiosities of Natural History." In 1866 a third series of this work was published, and Buckland, associated with some friends, started the periodical "Land and Water," of which he was the inspiring genius till the time of his death. In 1867 he was appointed one of the two Inspectors of Fisheries for England and Wales, succeeding Mr. Frederick Eden, one of the inspectors originally appointed under the Salmon-Fisheries Act of 1861. This position he held and worked in for the remainder of his life he shunned no exposure in the execution of his favorite pursuits, but rather courted it, and professed to enjoy getting wet, whether by being rained upon, or by wading up to his neck in water while searching for eggs. Too many of these exposures, and carelessness in indulging in them, brought on the illness which proved fatal to him. He died, of disease which had begun with an inflammation of the lungs nearly two years before, on the 19th of December, 1880. Such is a skeleton chronology of a life than which none more active, varied, and useful, is recorded in scientific biography. For the story of the lives of many men of science we have to be satisfied with a skeleton almost as meager as this; but happily that is not the case with Frank Buckland. He has, in the papers constituting his "Curiosities," and in "Land and Water," so revealed himself in his inner life, with his thoughts, feelings, and purposes, and his friends and the brother-in-law who has prepared his biography have given such vivid descriptions of him as they saw him, that the man is made to stand out before us almost as in his very life and personality.

From these sources we learn that, when weighed shortly after his birth, the infant Frank was found to be heavier than the leg of mutton provided for the family dinner of that day; and that a birch-tree was planted in honor of his arrival, the taste of the twigs of which he learned to know well. His early years, as described in his mother's journal, reflected in miniature his character in maturer life. For facts, especially of natural history, he had from childhood a most tenacious memory. At four years of age he began collecting specimens, and at seven he commenced a journal. Earlier than this, at two and a half years of age, "he would have gone through all the natural history books in the Radcliffe Library without making an error in miscalling a parrot, a duck, a kingfisher, an owl, or a vulture." When he was four years old a clergyman brought to Dr. Buckland, from a considerable distance, some "very curious fossils." They were shown to the child, who, not yet able to speak plainly, said, "They are the vertebræ of an ichthyosaurus." At three years of age his mother could get him to learn nothing by rote. His mind was always at work on what he saw, and he was very impatient of doing that which was not manifest to his senses, yet he was not considered premature. He excelled in apparently strong reasoning powers, and a most tenacious memory as to facts. He was always asking questions, and never forgot the answers he received, if they were such as he could comprehend. And he was always wanting to see everything done, or to know how it was done; and was never happy unless he could see the relation between cause and effect.

It was not surprising, as Buckland's biographer remarks, that his love of nature should grow with his growth, for it was inherited from both parents, and was encouraged by every association of his youth. "In his early home at Christ Church, besides the stuffed creatures which shared the hall with the rocking-horse, there were cages full of snakes, and of green frogs, in the dining-room, where the sideboard groaned under successive layers of fossils, and the candles stood on ichthyosauri's vertebræ. Guinea-pigs were often running over the table. In the stable-yard and large wood-house were the fox, rabbits. Guinea-pigs, and ferrets, hawks, and owls, the magpie, and the jackdaw, besides dogs, cats, and poultry, and in the garden were the tortoise (on whose back the children would stand to try its strength), and toads immured in various pots, to test the truth of their supposed life in rock-cells." Then there were the visits to the museum, and the afternoon drives, with which the hunt for some natural object was usually associated.

At Winchester, he was known as "a boy utterly indifferent to personal appearance, but good-tempered and eccentric, with a small museum in his sleeve or cupboard," an expert hand in skinning badgers, rats, etc., "and also setting wires at Blue Gate, for cats." A schoolfellow who slept in the next bed to him used to observe him "to get up in the middle of the night, and designedly in half-darkness carefully bind two fagot sticks together, for the purpose, as he said, of accustoming himself to be called up as a surgeon, half asleep, to do some professional duty under adverse circumstances." So we may follow him during his four years at this school, extracting the poison-fangs from adders, dissecting cats, and even successfully attempting the eye of the warden's dead mastiff. With his good-humor and spirits and his uniform amiability and obligingness, he became the most popular boy in the school. "Fond of school-work he was not, but he did his duty fairly, got through his 'construes' somehow, and ground the regulation grist of dreary Greek and Latin verse. Neither did he care for games," Toward the end of his school-days his anatomical studies enlarged their scope, and he undertook fragments of humanity, which he obtained secretly from the hospital and secretly dissected.

Of his life at Oxford, Dr. Liddon observes that there hung an odor of physical science about his rooms, "which increased as you got nearer. If you passed through the outer room into the study, you found the occupant surrounded by friends and playmates, irrational or human, and deep in scientific investigation after his own fashion, which, be it observed, was as industrious as it was irregular." His fellows did not then appreciate the reality or value of the work he was engaged in, "or that he was in fact educating himself much better than most of us were doing." Here we find a friend visiting him at his rooms having to tuck up his legs on the sofa to keep the jackal, which is prowling about the room, from biting them, while the jackal feasts himself upon the Guinea-pigs under the sofa; and we are introduced to Tiglath-pileser, or Tig, the pet bear, who attracted the notice of the British Association in 1846 as a guest in cap and gown at the garden-party, where he was introduced to Sir Charles Lyell, Prince Canino, Milne-Edwards, and Sir T. Acland, and was mesmerized by Lord Houghton.

Buckland's first article was published in 1832, after the author had attempted an unsuccessful paper on the muscles of the arm. Mr. White Cooper, the Queen's oculist, called at the deanery, and was invited down-stairs to see the pet rats. Frank took them out of the cage one by one, and described in a most interesting way the habits and peculiarities of each. Mr. Cooper then suggested to him to put down on paper all that he had related, for publication. Frank demurred, because he did not think he could write anything worth reading, but finally produced the article, which was published in "Bentley's Miscellany." This was the beginning of the series which were afterward collected and published as "Curiosities of Natural History."

He gave his first lecture in December, 1853. It was delivered at a working-men's coffee-house and institute, and was on the human body, or "The House we live in." Of his qualities as a lecturer we are told that "he inherited from his father the faculty of investing a subject, dry in other hands, with a vivid and picturesque interest, and to this he added a variety of subject and a fund of droll yet apt illustration peculiarly his own. 'I can't get on,' he used to say, 'until I make them laugh; then we are all right.' His drollery was irresistible, yet was always informing; while his vehement earnestness, and alternation of the serious with the humorous, never failed to arrest attention."

Two or three years after entering the Life-Guards, it occurred to Buckland that he was "getting too much in the natural history line," and must give more attention to medical subjects. He did not, however, but went deeper and deeper, and with more and more interest, into natural history; and his life in this period was full of his observations and experiments and collecting, and the writing of those charming articles for the periodicals. He began to write regularly for the "Field" newspaper in 1856, and continued to do so till 1865, or shortly before he started "Land and Water." He prepared a new edition of his father's "Bridgewater Treatise," receiving valuable aid in the work from Professor Owen and Professor Quekett, the former of whom looked upon it as "the best elementary book that a country gentleman or azure lady could take up" for the sciences of geology and paleontology. It was framed, says Mr. Bompas, Buckland's biographer, "on such broad lines as to be of permanent value, notwithstanding the time which has passed since it was written, and the rapid expansion of geological science."

The year 1859 was distinguished for Buckland by the search which he prosecuted in person for fourteen days, in the vaults of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, for the body of John Hunter, the father of modern physiology, which he found at last on the 22d of February. He took his friends down to see it, including Professor Owen, who expressed himself much pleased. "I wish I could have made a sketch of him," he writes, "with his hand on the coffin, looking thoughtfully at it; it would have made an excellent subject." The coffin was afterward re=interred in Westminster Abbey. In the same year, the idea, carried out somewhat later, of forming the Acclimatization Society, was suggested to him after eating a dinner of eland or African antelope.

Immediately after leaving the Life-Guards he threw all his energy into the promotion of fish-culture; and his diary is full of the records of his experiments in hatching, of consultation, and of the giving of instructions to others who had become interested in the enterprise. He showed his apparatus and explained it at the exhibitions. He lectured at the Royal Institution on the subject, and gave the grave members of that body the novel experience of laughing at the racy humor with which the new science was explained, while the earnestness with which the national importance of the subject was enforced was none the less impressive." The substance of this lecture was afterward expanded into a book on "Fish-hatching." He was invited up into Ireland to see what was the matter with some salmon-Fisheries in Galway. Seeing a very fine salmon-ladder, he climbed down into it and imagined himself a salmon, congratulating himself on narrow escapes from the nets and crevices below, and thinking how very desirable it would be to get up to his autumn quarters in Lough Corrib. To preserve and make popularly visible the results of his investigations into fish-breeding, he made the series of casts of the roe of fish and of the forms of fish at different stages of growth, which is exhibited at the South Kensington Museum. He next studied oyster-culture, and gave lectures, scientific and popular, on that. These occupations prepared the way for his appointment as Fish Commissioner, and rendered it the most appropriate one that the Government could make.

In studying the problem of fish-passes for salmon, to which he gave a great deal of attention, he made it a principle to enter, so far as was possible to man, into the feelings of a salmon, as he did at the Galway ladder; and so thoroughly did he carry out the principle that he became "as an inspector almost amphibious, wading the pools below the weirs, and feeling the force and direction of the current. . . . No wonder, then, when it was publicly stated that, in his evidence before the House of Commons, he had leaned rather to the interest of the millers than of the salmon-fisheries, he protested that his statements had either been misconstrued or not understood. 'Having placed myself as a shield over the salmon interests, I have, as is the fate of shields, received most of the arrows.'" "With regard to the cultivation of the English rivers, he saw that the conflicting interests could be reconciled without injury to any; and he strove unceasingly, and with no little success, to propagate the belief among all classes that they were each and all interested in the preservation of salmon. He continually lifted up his voice against the pollution of rivers, and told the people of Gloucester that the Chinese, who use everything in the way of manure, call the English barbarians because they pour their sewage into the rivers. The beginning of the illness from which Mr. Buckland died dates from January, 1879, when he was attacked with inflammation of the lungs after having been engaged in packing eggs from Australia in the ice-house of the steamship Durham. He was again attacked in November of the same year, after exposure in a violent snow-storm following the last inquiry it was his privilege to hold, among the fishermen at Cromer. His last fishery report was presented in March, 1880. It was a document which he endeavored to make as far as possible an outline and guide to those who wish to open up and improve salmon-fisheries, in whatever part of the world they may be situated. He went for the last time to the fishery-office in August, 1880, and left his house for the last time, on the 21st of the same month, to visit a newly arrived orang-outang. He continued to write, however, for "Land and Water," and completed a new edition of the "Natural History of British Fishes," and a revised edition of White's "Natural History of Selborne" in the last month of his life. He also arranged and revised a series of articles, which was published after his death, as "Notes and Jottings from Animal Life."

Buckland's journals occasionally show glimpses of those thoughts and feelings that men do not usually talk much about to others; the passages strikingly exhibit his simple-hearted earnestness. Thus, in 1865, he says: "I can not help thinking that the Almighty God has given me great powers, both of thought and of expressing those thoughts. Thanks to him, but I must cultivate my mind by diligent study, careful reflection in private, and quick apprehension of facts out-of-doors, combined with quick appreciation of ideas of others; in fact, strive to become a master-mind, and thus able to influence others of weaker minds, whose shortcomings I must forgive. . . . Why should I not imitate the example of that great and illustrious man to whom I owe so much of my education (William of Wykeham, founder of the Winchester School), and endeavor to do as much good as possible in my humble way? I will therefore begin next week, and put up a storm barometer for the use of the fishermen at Heme Bay." And, December 16, 1866, "Thanks be to God, I have preserved a straight course to the best of my abilities, and, though I see others taking short cuts, I think honest dealing and true is the safest ballast to keep the ship in trim, through the sea of difficulties and dangers." Just after his forty-third birthday, he wrote, "I do not aspire to do more than my duty in that station to which it has pleased God to call me, but I want to do it nobly and well."

There was another, a curiosity side to Frank Buckland's character. Nothing was without interest to him; and he was hardly less fond of studying the curiosities of the Barnum Museums than the objects of natural history with which he spent most of his life. He very much enjoyed the bearded woman, of whom he wrote quite extensively, was on good social terms with Captain Bates the giant, and Miss Swan the giantess, and Mademoiselle Millie-Christine, the "two headed nightingale"; knew nearly all the fat women and the other giants, and was fond of making up parties for these people, with the Chinamen, Aztecs, Esquimaux, Zooloos, Siamese twins, tattooed New-Zealanders, and whatever queer specimens of mankind happened to be on exhibition at the time, as fellow-guests.