Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Latham, John (1740-1837)

LATHAM, JOHN (1740–1837), ornithologist, was born 27 June 1740 at Eltham, Kent, where his father, John Latham, had long practised as a surgeon, and died 23 Aug. 1788. He was educated at Merchant Taylors' School, studied anatomy under Hunter, and practised medicine for many years at Dartford. He soon acquired a considerable fortune, and, retiring from practice in 1796, settled at Romsey, Hampshire. He received the degree of M.D. at Erlangen in 1795.

Throughout his life Latham was an enthusiastic observer of nature, and was interested in archæology. He was elected F.S.A. on 15 Dec. 1774, and F.R.S. 25 May 1775, and he took a leading part in establishing the Linnean Society in 1788. Ornithology and comparative anatomy were his favourite subjects of study, and his collection of birds was notably fine. He lived on terms of intimacy with the leading scientific men, and as early as 1771 began a correspondence with Thomas Pennant, which lasted till 1799. In his old age pecuniary losses forced him to sell a great part of his library and museum, and he began, at the age of eighty-one, his best-known book, a 'General History of Birds,' with the hope of recovering his financial position. He lived during the last years of his long life with his son-in-law at Winchester, devoted to nature, active, patient, cheerful to the end. Lord Palmerston visited him in the autumn of 1836, when he was ninety-six years old, and described him as 'well, hearty, and cheerful, eating a good dinner at five,' but adds that he could no longer see to read (Dalling, Life of Palmerston, 1874, iii. 18, 19). He died 4 Feb. 1837, and was buried in the abbey church of Romsey. An engraved portrait forms the frontispiece to vol. iv. of the 'Naturalist.'

Latham was twice married, for the first time in 1763, and for the second in 1798. His second wife was a Miss Delamott of Ealing. His son, also called John, a physician, died in 1843.

Latham's chief works are:

  1. 'A General Synopsis of Birds,' 3 vols. 4to, 1781–5; this contained many new genera and species.
  2. 'Index Ornithologicus sive Systema Ornithologiæ,' 2 vols. 4to, 1790, containing descriptions of all known birds and their habitats; reissued with additions at Paris in 1809 by Johanneau. The Linnean classification was modified in this book, and, as countless new specimens poured in upon Latham from all parts of the world, especially from Australia and the Pacific Islands, he prepared a second edition for publication, which is now in the hands of Professor Newton.
  3. 'A General History of Birds,' 1821–8, 11 vols., Winchester. This, an enlargement of his 'Synopsis,' is Latham's great work, and was dedicated to George IV. He designed, etched, and coloured all the illustrations himself. Latham is constantly referred to by ornithologists as the authority for the assigned names of species; but, as Professor Newton remarks, 'his defects as a compiler, which had been manifest before, rather increased with age, and the consequences were not happy.' The 'History' is, however, a marvellous achievement for a man at the age of 82.

Latham helped to revise the second edition of Pennant's 'Indian Zoology' in 1793; 'the more laborious part, relative to the insects,' falling to Latham's share. Two years later Latham's contribution on the subject reappeared in 'Faunula Indica, concinnata a Joanne Latham et Hugone Davies,' ed. J. R. Forster, Halle, 1795. Besides papers in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ and the 'Transactions of the Linnean Society,' Latham wrote accounts of 'Ancient Sculptures in the Abbey Church of Romsey' ('Archæologia,' vol. xiv. 1801) and of an engraved brass plate from Netley Abbey (ib. vol. xv. 1804). Other writings by his namesake, John Latham, M.D. (1761–1843) [q.v.], have been erroneously ascribed to him.

[Works; Professor Newton in Encycl. Britann. xviii. 6, art. 'Ornithology;' Nichols's Literary Illustrations of the Eighteenth Century, vi. 613, &c.; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. ix. 26; Naturalist, iv. 26, &c., cf. ii. 56, 283; Gent. Mag. July 1837; Ann. Reg. 1837, p. 178.]

M. G. W.