William Buckland was a colourful local character, who cloaked a serious contribution to science in a reputation for eccentricity. Wearing a dodo tie, Jim Kennedy presented a warm tribute full of vivid anecdotes. As a former Head of the Natural History Museum in Oxford, Kennedy was able to highlight Buckland’s extraordinary contribution to both the teaching and understanding of Victorian science.
The son of a vicar, raised in Axminster in Devon, Buckland came to Oxford in 1801 as an undergraduate to Corpus Christi College, to study Classics and Theology. Chemistry. Once Buckland graduated he was faced with a stark choice: leave Oxford for a living elsewhere, or stick around until a more senior academic moved or died, and step into his shoes. Buckland chose the latter and, after gaining a Readership in Minerology, and most importantly, the sum of £100 which came with it, he set off to travel all over Britain, looking for the signs and effects of Noah’s flood.
After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Buckland set off with a bunch of fellow scientists for the continent, and became obsessed by caves, finding one full of the remains of cave bears. In 1821 in Kirkdale, in Yorkshire, he found a cave full of elephant and rhinoceros remains, which he concluded, was the lair of a pack of hyenas. Bringing back some large bones for further examination in Oxford, he struck lucky: a circus was in town. He borrowed a hyena, went to Oxford market and bought an ox bone and put the two together. The markings on the modern ox bone after the hyena had got its teeth into it were strikingly similar to those of the prehistoric bones recovered in the north. In this way, Buckland showed that studying modern animal behaviour could shed light on the past.
Famous for many things including exotic pets (he rode out with a barley-sugar loving bear sitting before him in the saddle), a fascination with poo (much lampooned in contemporary cartoons) and a high success rate in identifying dinosaur remains, Buckland thrilled students, academics, and even the Prime Minister Robert Peel, alike. He ate strange things, including bumble bees and voles, but Kennedy assured us that this was part of a concern for the nutrition of the rural poor. His alleged eating of a piece of the mummified King of France’s heart is unproven.
Kennedy’s riveting narrative, apt illustration and quiet, humorous voice carried the hour. We left wanting more, newly fired up to revisit the Natural History Museum to see some of his finds for ourselves.