Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Rolleston, George
ROLLESTON, GEORGE (1829–1881), Linacre professor of anatomy and physiology at Oxford, was second son of George Rolleston, squire and vicar of Maltby, a village near Rotherham in the West Riding of Yorkshire. He was born at Maltby Hall on 30 July 1829. He received his early education from his father to such good effect that he was able to read Homer at sight by the time he was ten years old, and he was accustomed to say that he could then think in Greek. He was sent to the grammar school at Gainsborough in 1839, and two years later to the collegiate school at Sheffield, at that time under the mastership of Dr. George Andrew Jacob. At the age of seventeen he won an open scholarship at Pembroke College, Oxford, and matriculated on 8 Dec. 1846, though he did not come into residence until the following term. He worked hard during his undergraduate career, and obtained a first class in classics at the final examination for the B.A. degree in Michaelmas term 1850. The college elected him on 27 June 1851 to a fellowship established in 1846 by Mrs. Sheppard for the promotion of the study of law and physic. This fellowship he held until his marriage in 1862, when he was elected an honorary fellow of the society.
His election to the Sheppard fellowship appears to have determined Rolleston to follow the profession of medicine. In October 1851 he entered as a student at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London, living in Dyer's Buildings, Thavies Inn. He worked as zealously at the hospital as he had done at the university, and he came under the influence of two remarkable leaders then attached to the school as physician and surgeon respectively, Sir George Burrows and Sir William Lawrence [q. v.] He proceeded M.A. at Oxford in 1853, and, having qualified in due course as M.B. in 1854, he was admitted a doctor of physic in 1857. He was admitted a member of the Royal College of Physicians of London in 1856, and a fellow in 1859.
Rolleston was appointed one of the physicians to the British civil hospital at Smyrna in 1855, towards the close of the Crimean war, and in that capacity he had charge of surgical as well as of medical cases. Later in the year he went to Sebastopol, but soon returned to Smyrna, where his work was so highly appreciated that he and three other civil practitioners were retained when the rest of the staff were sent home on the closure of the civil hospital at the end of the campaign. The four doctors were directed to compile a report upon the sanitary and other aspects of Smyrna. This report, containing much local information of great value, was completed before November 1856. Rolleston, after making a tour in Palestine, returned to England in June 1857.
For some time Rolleston acted as an assistant physician to the Hospital for Sick Children in Great Ormond Street, London. But in 1857, on the death of James Adey Ogle [q. v.], regius professor of physic in Oxford, Rolleston was elected, in his stead, physician to the Radcliffe Infirmary, and was at the same time appointed by the dean and chapter of Christ Church Lee's reader in anatomy, in succession to Dr. (afterwards Sir Henry Wentworth) Acland, the new regius professor of medicine. Rolleston continued to practise as a physician in Oxford, but the development of scientific teaching in the university, mainly due to the energy of the new regius professor, soon led to the establishment of a Linacre professorship of anatomy and physiology. In 1860 Rolleston was called to that chair, and he filled it with conspicuous ability until his death.
Rolleston's scientific work dates from this period. He was present at the historical meeting of the British Association at Oxford in 1860, when Richard (afterwards Sir Richard) Owen and Thomas Henry Huxley discussed with some heat, in reference to the Darwinian theory, the structural differences between the brains of men and monkeys. The controversy set Rolleston to work upon the problem of brain classification, and he published his first results in a lecture at the Royal Institution on 24 Jan. 1862. Owen renewed the dispute with Huxley at the Cambridge meeting of the British Association in 1862, and Rolleston entered into the debate on Huxley's side. The questions of cerebral development and the classification of skulls maintained their interest for him until the end of his life. To his suggestion is due the magnificent collection of human skulls in the Oxford Museum.
The earlier years of his professorship were largely occupied in preparing his work on ‘The Forms of Animal Life,’ published in 1870. It was the first instance of instruction by the study of a series of types, a method which has since obtained general recognition in the teaching of biology. His intervals of leisure were spent with his friend Canon Greenwell in examining the sepulchral mounds in various parts of England, the results being published in ‘British Barrows, a Record of the Examination of Sepulchral Mounds in various parts of England,’ Oxford, 1877. He thus became a skilled anthropologist. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1862, and a fellow of Merton College in 1872. In 1873 he delivered the Harveian oration at the Royal College of Physicians, London.
Rolleston subsequently wasted much energy in university and municipal politics. He did much, however, to promote the study of sanitary science, and, as a member of the Oxford local board, he was mainly instrumental in causing the isolation of the cases of smallpox as they occurred during the epidemic of 1871, while to his advocacy Oxford owes the system of main drainage which replaced the cesspools of previous generations. In later life Rolleston was a strong advocate of the Permissive Bill, and he became from conviction a total abstainer for two years. He gave evidence before the commission appointed in 1874 to inquire into the practice of experiments upon living animals. He was in favour of vivisection under fitting restrictions, and the act 39 & 40 Vict. cap. 77 was to a large extent drafted from his suggestions; but these were curiously perverted by the opponents of the bill.
Failing health, accompanied by a nervous irritability, the result of overwork, obliged him to spend the winter of 1880–1 in the Riviera. Returning home with difficulty, he died in Oxford on 16 June 1881. He was buried in the cemetery at Holywell, Oxford. His professorship was subdivided at his death, Professor Henry Nottidge Moseley [q. v.] being entrusted with the chair of human and comparative anatomy, Professor Tylor with that of anthropology, and Professor (Sir) John Burdon Sanderson (1828–1904), then regius professor of medicine, with that of physiology.
Rolleston married, on 21 Sept. 1861, Grace, the daughter of Dr. John Davy and the niece of Sir Humphry Davy. They lived until 1868 at 15 New Inn Hall Street, Oxford, and then removed to the house which they had built in South Parks Road, close to the museum. Rolleston left seven children.
Rolleston represented an admirable type of university professor. On his pupils he impressed the love of knowledge for its own sake and not from any mere monetary benefit which might accrue from it. While deeply learned in his special branch of study, he was well informed on all subjects. He was perhaps the last of a school of English natural historians or biologists in the widest sense of the term, for, with the training of a Francis Trevelyan Buckland [q. v.] or of a William Kitchen Parker [q. v.] he combined the culture of a classical scholar, the science of a professor, and the gift of speech which belongs to a trained linguist and student of men. He was an attractive conversationalist, apt at quotation and brilliant in repartee. Warm-hearted and of sterling honesty, he was a good hater, and never abandoned a losing cause after he had convinced himself that it was right. But the breadth and vastness of his knowledge led to carelessness of detail, and to some diffuse thinking and writing. His literary style was often involved, and his essays were overloaded with references.
Rolleston published numerous papers and addresses, and the following books: 1. ‘Forms of Animal Life,’ Clarendon Press, Oxford, 8vo, 1870; 2nd edit. (edited and much enlarged by Wm. Hatchett Jackson, F.L.S.), 8vo, 1888. 2. ‘A Selection from his Scientific Papers and Addresses, arranged and edited by Sir William Turner, with a biographical sketch by Dr. E. B. Tylor,’ was issued from the Clarendon Press at Oxford in 1884, 2 vols. 8vo, with portrait.
A crayon portrait, drawn by W. E. Miller in 1877, hangs in the common room at Pembroke College, Oxford. It was presented by Professor Goldwin Smith, and bears a Latin quatrain from his pen. This drawing is reproduced in the two-volume edition of his ‘Collected Addresses.’ A marble bust in the museum at Oxford, executed from a study after death, by H. R. Pinker, hardly does justice to that massiveness of feature which, in his later life, lent a great charm and strength to Rolleston's face.[Personal knowledge; obituary notices by Sir W. H. Flower, F.R.S., in Proc. Royal Soc. xxxiii. 24–7; Dr. Tylor's Biographical Sketch prefixed to the Collected Addresses; additional facts kindly contributed to the writer by Dr. H. G. Rolleston and by Mr. G. Wood, the bursar of Pembroke College, Oxford.]