Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Williamson, William Crawford

WILLIAMSON, WILLIAM CRAWFORD (1816–1895), naturalist, born at Scarborough on 24 Nov. 1816, was the second and only surviving son of John Williamson, gardener and naturalist, first curator of the Scarborough Museum, by Elizabeth Crawford, eldest daughter of a Scottish lapidary and watchmaker, who migrated to Yorkshire when young. In his early boyhood he learned the lapidary's art in Crawford's workshop, and acquired a good knowledge of field natural history from his father and his father's friends, notably William Smith (1769–1839) [q. v.], the founder of modern stratigraphical geology, and his nephew John Phillips (1800–1874) [q. v.], professor of geology at Oxford, who was for some time an inmate of John Williamson's house. His schooling, begun early, was inadequate, largely owing to delicate health. Between three and six years of age he went to three dame schools; in 1822 he went to William Potter's school, where he had meagre instruction in Latin and English. In 1831 he had his only real teaching, from the Rev. Thomas Irving at Thornton grammar school, where he stayed only six months. In the autumn he went for six months to the school of a M. Montieus at Bourbourg, near Calais, with little intellectual profit, even in the acquisition of French, for the majority of the boys were English. This completed his school life: he never acquired ease in French speaking, though he read the language with ease, nor the knowledge of any other modern tongue. He was apprenticed as a medical student (1832) to Thomas Weddell, apothecary of Scarborough, where he discharged the functions of errand boy, dispenser, and clerk, according to the general custom. He continued his natural history studies, and contributed a paper on birds to the Zoological Society, and two to the Geological. These were among the first pioneering attempts to analyse the strata into smaller ‘zones’ characterised by their own proper groups of fossils, a field in which enormous advances have since been made. He also published a pamphlet, since twice reprinted, giving an account of the contents of a tumulus opened at Gristhorpe, and described a new mussel (Mag. Nat. Hist. 1834). To the ‘Fossil Flora of Great Britain,’ by John Lindley [q. v.] and James Hutton (1726–1797) [q. v.], he contributed illustrated descriptions of fossils which had been discovered in an estuarine deposit by his father and his father's cousin, Simon Bean. His work attracted the attention of many eminent naturalists, notably William Buckland [q. v.] Owing to their interest, and to that of naturalists visiting Scarborough, he received a call from the Manchester Natural History Society to the curatorship of their museum in 1835, Weddell generously cancelling his indentures; he held this office for three years, continuing especially geological research and publication, and was a frequent visitor at the Literary and Philosophical Society, where he met among others John Dalton (1766–1844) [q. v.] In the summer of 1838, in order to raise funds for medical study, he gave a course of six lectures on geology in various towns of Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Durham; he studied one winter at the Pine Street medical school, Manchester, and entered in the autumn of 1839 at University College, London. In 1840 he attended a second course of lectures there; but before the close of the year had obtained the diplomas of M.R.C.S. and L.S.A., and in January 1841 commenced practice in Manchester with the generous guarantee of two wealthy friends. Some successful operations on squint brought him into note, and he was soon appointed surgeon to the Chorlton-on-Medlock dispensary, a post he resigned in 1868. Ear troubles during his student days had interested him in that organ; he profited by some vacations to study aural surgery under Menière in Paris, Joseph Toynbee [q. v.] and Harvey in London, took active steps towards the creation of the Manchester Institute for Diseases of the Ear in 1855, and was surgeon to it until 1870, when he became its consulting surgeon. To his large general practice he thus added that of a specialist in this department. He continued professional medical work till about his seventieth year. He was present at that public demonstration of mesmerism which first attracted James Braid [q. v.] to the subject; was the first to show from the contracted pupils that the hypnotised patient was in a genuine and peculiar state; and utilised Braid's services as a hypnotist later on in the successful treatment of epilepsy; but finally abandoned the therapeutic use of hypnosis, regarding it as likely to undermine the will power of the patient. He devised the treatment of infantile convulsions by prolonged continuous chloroform anæsthesia, and wrote two papers on this subject, the first (not cited in the Reminiscences) in the ‘Lancet’ (1853, vol. i.). A clinical observation on the ‘Functions of the Chorda Tympani’ (also not cited; Assoc. Med. Journ. 1855) as a nerve of taste, a view which still has partisans, completes with the three cited papers (Brit. Med. Journ. 1857) his contributions to medical science.

In January 1851 he was appointed first professor of ‘natural history, anatomy, and physiology’ in the Owens College, Manchester. His duties comprised instruction in zoology and botany in the widest sense, besides the geological sciences. In 1854, with Mr. Richard Copley Christie, he initiated at the college evening classes for working men. At first he divided his subjects into two groups, on which he lectured in alternate sessions; but ultimately the demands of university students made this impossible. In 1870 a distinct lectureship had to be created in mineralogy. In 1872, on the fusion with the Royal School of Medicine, geology was also separated, and Williamson became professor of ‘Natural History.’ A demonstrator to assist in the then new laboratory work was appointed in 1877; and in 1880 zoology was split off, leaving him the chair of botany, which he resigned in 1892, after forty-one years' continuous tenure of office, with the title of emeritus professor, and a year's salary as gratuity. His lectures to students were well arranged and well delivered, interesting and fluent, but lacked minuteness of accurate detail; and from the ignorance of German which he deplored he never thoroughly assimilated the current language of the modern aspects of botany.

Williamson added largely to his income by popular scientific lectures; between 1874 and 1890 alone he gave, among others, at least three hundred in connection with the Gilchrist trust. For these, many of which dealt with his own discoveries, he drew and painted beautiful and effective diagrams. He was highly successful as a popular lecturer. Several of his popular lectures were printed. He wrote a number of articles for the ‘London Quarterly Review,’ published under Wesleyan auspices, and some for the ‘Popular Science Review.’ Those on ‘Primeval Vegetation in its relation to the Doctrines of Natural Selection and Evolution’ in the ‘Owens College Essays and Addresses,’ 1874, and on ‘Pyrrhonism in Science’ (Contemporary Rev. 1881), show his cautious attitude, by accepting the descent-theory generally, but resenting all attempts at scientific dogmatism and intolerance. He was inclined to demand something which escapes scientific analysis, in addition to the known natural factors of divergent evolution.

He was on friendly terms with the Wesleyans in Manchester, and was for a time a member of that body. He was medical attendant to the Wesleyan Theological College, Didsbury, 1864–83, and a member of the committee of management.

After an attack of ill-health in 1860, Williamson settled in 1861 in the then outlying hamlet of Fallowfield. There he built a home, with a garden and range of plant-houses, and became a successful grower especially of rare orchids, insectivorous plants, and higher cryptogams; these were utilised in the later development of laboratory teaching at the college, which contributed an annual grant towards the expense. In 1883 he suffered from diabetes, and had finally to resign his chair in 1891. He removed from Manchester to Clapham Common, where he continued in harness nearly to the last, working in collaboration with Professor R. D. Scott at his own house or at the Joddrell Laboratory, Kew. His last publication (in February 1895) was the obituary of his old friend, sometime opponent and recent convert, the Marquis de Saporta. He died at Clapham on 23 June 1895. He was spare and erect, with blue-grey eyes deep set in an oval face. He had an educated taste in music; and the watercolour sketches he brought back from his vacation trips were poetic in feeling and happy in composition.

He was married twice: first, in 1842, to Sophia (d. 1871), daughter of the Rev. Robert Wood, treasurer to the Wesleyan body, by whom he left a son, Robert Bateson, solicitor, and a daughter, Edith; secondly, in 1874, to Annie C. Heaton, niece of Sir Henry Mitchell of Bradford, who completed and edited his autobiography under the title of ‘Reminiscences of a Yorkshire Naturalist;’ by her he left one son, Herbert, painter.

Williamson's scientific work was immense and invaluable. Early researches on the Foraminifera between 1840 and 1850 led to his preparing a monograph on the recent forms of this group for the Ray Society; William Benjamin Carpenter [q. v.] asserted that his work introduced a new technique for their study (that of thin sections) and a new conception (that of the combination of a wide variety of forms hitherto ranked as of specific or generic rank in single individuals), and that it gave a starting-point for all future investigations. Researches on Volvox about 1850, only some thirty years later noticed and confirmed, demonstrated that this critical form is essentially vegetal, not animal, in its morphology. A very complete study of the wheel-animal, Melicerta, was published in 1853, and in consequence he was employed by Andrew Pritchard to write a monograph on the Rotifera for the third edition of his ‘Infusoria’ (1861); this was an admirable compilation. Between 1840 and 1850, largely provided with material by Sir Philip de Malpas Grey-Egerton [q. v.], he produced two monographs on the histology of teeth, fish scales, and bone, of classical value. Herein he demonstrated two capital theses—the essential identity of teeth and of fish scales, and the distinction of bone formed directly in membrane from that preformed in cartilage. Kölliker, the great histologist, esteemed the work important enough to warrant his arduous pilgrimage from central Germany to accept Williamson's hospitality of board and study. This work gained Williamson the fellowship of the Royal Society (1854). Fossil plants had engaged his earliest efforts. He resumed their study in 1854 with the enigmatic form Zamia gigas, called Williamsonia by W. Carruthers, who says that Williamson has probably come closer to its determination than any one else. But it was only towards 1858 that he really began that comprehensive study of the plants of the coal-measures which is his greatest claim to rank as one of the founders of palæobotany. He demonstrated that with certain characters of the higher existing flowerless plants—horsetails, ferns, clubmosses, &c.—there were found at that period plants whose woody cylinder grew by external deposit of new layers, as in our forest trees. His results met at first with neglect and hostility. His drawings were exquisite and nature-true, made on lithographic transfer paper with the artifice of a quadrillé eye-piece; but they suffered in the processes of transference to stone and printing. His figures were distributed over the plates with a view rather to neatness and economy of space than to logical connection. In each successive memoir he described all the material he had studied completely up to date. To his unfamiliarity with modern botanical terminology he added a defective exposition. His text was a detailed description of the specimens, with references to the accompanying plates and to those of previous memoirs, interspersed with discussions of generalities and of controversial matter, without tables of contents, general introductions, or final summaries and conclusions. To master such papers was, in effect, to conduct a research on the figures with a minimum of effective aid. In 1871 a discussion at the British Association was followed up in ‘Nature,’ where a correspondent accused him of going back to the conceptions of Nehemiah Grew [q. v.] In France his results were systematically ignored, despite his constant invitations to his opponents to study his specimens as his guests, until 1882, when for the first time the facts and arguments on both sides were marshalled in a readily accessible form in a French essay, ‘Les Sigillaires et les Lépidodendrées’ by Williamson and his demonstrator, Professor Marcus Hartog (Ann. Sc. Nat. 1882). Fresh evidence poured in. In 1887 Renault, his chief opponent, retreated honourably from one part of the field, and Grand' Eury and Saporta in 1890 avowed their general conversion. Only in respect of one minor point—the question of the interstitial growth of the centre of the woody cylinder—did Williamson's views break down; but it was through his own laborious investigations that the disproof was completed. A full investigation on the structure of compact coal was commenced in 1876 and continued to his death, but the examination of many thousand sections led to no publication embodying general results after the preliminary note (British Association Report, 1881). A valuable research in 1885 extended Nathorst's discovery that reputed animal and vegetable fossils were mere tracks of animals or of tidal currents. Williamson never spared money in the purchase of adequate apparatus and specimens; one of the latter, a magnificent Sigillaria with stigmarian roots, from Clayton, near Bradford, now in the Manchester Museum, was long called ‘Williamson's Folly.’ He met with generous help from the amateur field-naturalists of the north, often working men, who were proud to help him with the fossils they had collected or the sections they had cut and noted as worth his study. This help he always acknowledged.

Williamson's scientific work lacked, of course, the method developed by personal academic training and by the laboratory instruction of pupils. He stands halfway between the scientific amateurs of genius like Cavendish, Lyell, Joule, and Darwin, and the modern professional savants of Cambridge and South Kensington. Averse from excessive speculation and dogmatism, he took no share in the formation of scientific theory. From 1865 to 1882 his reputation stood at the lowest among the new school of professional English biologists, trained when his pioneering work had become the anonymous commonplaces of the text-book, while his recent work was ill understood or largely ignored. From that period onwards it rapidly rose, and at the British Association meeting in Manchester (1887) he was an honoured member of the cosmopolitan group of botanists there present, many of whom were his personal guests. Williamson was elected F.R.S. in 1854. He became a member of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester in 1851, served repeatedly on its council, and was elected an honorary member in 1893; and he took a leading part in the formation in 1858 and in the working of the microscopic and natural history section. His ninth memoir, ‘On the Organisation of the Fossil Plants of the Coal Measures’ (Phil. Trans.), was given as the Bakerian lecture at the Royal Society. A nearly complete bibliography is given in the ‘Reminiscences.’ He received the royal medal of the Royal Society in 1874, an honorary degree of LL.D. of Edinburgh in 1883, and the Wollaston medal of the Geological Society in 1890, besides foreign honours. A portrait by H. Brothers is in the Owens College, Manchester.

[Reminiscences of a Yorkshire Naturalist, 1896; obituaries and notices by Count Solms Laubach (Nature, 1895), A. C. Seward (Nat. Sc. vol. vii. 1895), R. D. Scott (Science Progress, 1895–6, and Proc. R. S. vol. clxx. 1896–7), F. J. F[araday] and T[homas] H[icks] (Mem. Manchester L. and Phil. Soc. 1896), and Lester Ward (Science, vol. ii. 1895); information kindly given by Robert Bateson Williamson, Rev. W. H. Dallinger, F.R.S., Rev. Richard Green (of the Wesleyan Theological College, Didsbury), Mr. Walter Brown (University College, London), the registrar of Owens College, Manchester, and P. J. Hartog; personal knowledge.]

M. H.