Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Latham, Robert Gordon

LATHAM, ROBERT GORDON, M.D. (1812–1888), ethnologist and philologist, eldest son of Thomas Latham, vicar of Billingborough, Lincolnshire, was born at Billingborough on 24 March 1812. He was entered at Eton in 1819, and was admitted on the foundation in 1821. In 1829 he went to King's College, Cambridge, where he graduated B.A. in 1832, and was soon afterwards elected a fellow. In order to study philology he resided for a year on the continent, first settling near Hamburg, then in Copenhagen, and finally in Christiania. In 1839 he was elected professor of English language and literature in University College, London, and in 1841 produced his well-known text-book on 'The English Language.' He had also determined to enter the medical profession, and in 1842 became a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians. He subsequently obtained the degree of M.D. at the university of London. He became lecturer on forensic medicine and materia medica at the Middlesex Hospital, and in 1844 he was elected assistant-physician to that hospital. But he chiefly devoted himself to ethnology and philology, and in 1849 abandoned medicine and resigned his appointments. In 1852 the direction of the ethnological department of the Crystal Palace was entrusted to him. In 1862 he made his celebrated protest against the central Asian theory of the origin of the Aryans, supporting views which have since been strongly advocated by Benfey, Parker, Canon Taylor, and others. Meanwhile he devoted himself to a thorough revision of Johnson's 'Dictionary of the English Language,' which he completed in 1870. He subsequently spent much time on a 'Dissertation on the Hamlet of Saxo Grammaticus and of Shakespeare.' In his later years Latham frequently gave lectures on his favourite subjects, and in 1863 he obtained a pension of 100l. from the civil list. Latterly he was afflicted with aphasia, and died at Putney on 9 March 1888.

Mr. Theodore Watts, an intimate friend for many years, characterises Latham as 'one who for brilliance of intellect and encyclopædic knowledge had, in conversation at least, scarcely an equal among his contemporaries, and who certainly was less enslaved by authority than any other man.' This independence of mind gave his literary work its success, despite his frequent obscurities of style and his occasional inaccuracy. His works on the English language passed through many editions, and were regarded as authoritative till they were superseded by those of Dr. Richard Morris and Professor Skeat. His lexicographical efforts were not very successful.

Latham's principal works are:

  1. 'Norway and the Norwegians,' 2 vols., London, 1840.
  2. 'The English Language,' London, 1841; 5th edition 1862.
  3. 'An Elementary English Grammar,' London, 1843; new edition, revised and enlarged, 1875.
  4. 'First Outlines of Logic applied to Grammar and Etymology,' London, 1847.
  5. 'History and Etymology of the English Language, for the use of Classical Schools,' London, 1849; 2nd edition 1854.
  6. 'Elements of English Grammar, for the use of Ladies' Schools,' London, 1849.
  7. 'A Grammar of the English Language, for the use of Commercial Schools,' London, 1850.
  8. 'The Natural History of the Varieties of Man,' London, 1850.
  9. 'A Handbook of the English Language,' London, 1851; 9th edition 1875.
  10. 'Man and his Migrations,' London, 1851.
  11. 'The Ethnology of the British Colonies and Dependencies,' London, 1851.
  12. 'The Ethnology of Europe,' London, 1852.
  13. 'The Ethnology of the British Islands,' London, 1852.
  14. 'The Native Races of the Russian Empire,' London, 1853 ('Ethnographical Library').
  15. 'Varieties of the Human Race' ('Orr's Circle of the Sciences,' vol. i.), London, 1854.
  16. 'Natural History Department of Crystal Palace. Ethnology. Described by R. G. L.,' London, 1854.
  17. 'Logic and its Application to Language,' London, 1856.
  18. 'Ethnology of India,' London, 1859.
  19. 'Descriptive Ethnology,' 2 vols., London, 1859.
  20. 'Opuscula. Essays, chiefly Philological and Ethnographical,' London, 1860, 8vo.
  21. 'Elements of Comparative Philology,' London, 1862.
  22. 'The Nationalities of Europe,' London, 1863.
  23. 'Two Dissertations on the Hamlet of Saxo Grammaticus and of Shakespeare,' London, 1872, 8vo.
  24. 'Outlines of General or Developmental Philology. Inflection,' London, 1878.
  25. 'Russian and Turk, from a Geographical, Ethnological, and Historical Point of View,' London, 1878.

Latham also edited and largely rewrote Johnson's 'Dictionary of the English Language,' London, 1866–70, 4to. He wrote a life of Sydenham for the Sydenham Society's edition of his 'Works,' 1848. He was joint-author with Professor D. T. Ansted of a work on the Channel Islands, 1862; edited 'Horæ Ferales' by J. M. Kemble, London, 1863, 4to; and Prichard's 'Eastern Origin of the Celtic Nations,' 1857. He translated (with Sir E. Creasy) 'Frithiof's Saga' and 'Axel' from the Swedish of Tegner, 1838; and edited the 'Germania' of Tacitus, with ethnological dissertations and notes, London, 1851.

[Mr. Theodore Watts in Athenæum, 17 March 1888, p. 340.]

G. T. B.