Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Burning manuscripts: Sir Everard Home

Sir Richard Owen was one of the great names in natural history in the nineteenth century. As a young man he was appointed the assistant cataloguer of the famous Hunterian Collection, a collection of more than thirteen thousand anatomical specimens, purchased by the Crown on the death of their owner, the surgeon John Hunter (not to be confused with the naval officer of the same name who sailed on the First Fleet to Botany Bay). The Crown passed the Hunterian Collection to the Royal College, stipulating that the collection be made public, founding a lecture series and a small dedicated museum.
Owen's predecessor had been the surgeon Sir Everard Home, who had worked alongside Hunter (the men were brothers-in-law), and became caretaker to the whole estate. It quickly became apparent to Owen, however, that far from preserving Hunter's careful documentation of his extensive collection, the bulk of the manuscripts had been destroyed or lost, meaning that Owen had to effectively start from scratch before he could hope to produce a catalogue.
The story goes that the Hunterian collection was delivered to Home in 1800, in expectation that he would produce his own catalogue, but by 1818 all he had produced was a limited synopsis, while, at the same time, he had published a raft of essays over his own name. Things took a turn for the worst in July 1823 when he told a colleague that he had burned all of Hunter's papers: it had been Hunter's dying wish, he claimed in a later enquiry (although it was not quite so clear why he had taken thirty years to get around to it). Those with an incendiary bent may not be surprised to learn that it is now commonly held that Home had been systematically pillaging Hunter's own notes and publishing them over his own name, and that he had burned the evidence to avoid being caught out. Very few of Hunter's papers survived the blaze.

No comments: