Parker, William Kitchen (DNB00)

PARKER, WILLIAM KITCHEN (1823–1890), comparative anatomist, born at Dogsthorpe, near Peterborough, Northamptonshire, on 23 June 1823, was second son of Thomas Parker, a yeoman farmer. His father was a Wesleyan of the old school. His mother, Sarah Kitchen, who had literary tastes, was a farmer's daughter. His early education at the parish school was obtained in the intervals of work on the farm, but he was early devoted to reading, and acquired a skill as a draughtsman which never deserted him. As he grew older his delight in literature increased, and he made himself master of the Bible, of Milton, and of Shakespeare. At fifteen he spent about nine months at the Peterborough grammar school, where he learned some Latin and Greek; and during this period he developed a religious fervour which remained with him in after life. On finally leaving school, he was apprenticed to a druggist at Stamford, under conditions which involved fifteen hours' work a day. A love of wild flowers had characterised his boyhood, and during the first years of his apprenticeship he collected, named, and preserved, during the small hours of the morning, some five hundred species of plants. While still a druggist's assistant he read physiology for the first time; and at the end of the apprenticeship he was articled to a surgeon at Market Overton in Rutland, with whom he remained for two years. An enthusiasm for anatomical study quickly grew in him. He dissected every animal that he could obtain, and made a valuable series of notes and drawings, the greater part of which remains unpublished. In 1844 he left Market Overton for London, and became resident assistant to a Mr. Booth, a general practitioner in Little Queen Street, Westminster. He afterwards studied at the Charing Cross Hospital, and was later appointed assistant to Dr. R. B. Todd, physiologist at King's College. While a medical student he attended the lectures of Professor (afterwards Sir Richard) Owen [q. v.] at the Royal College of Surgeons. It was not, however, until he came under the influence of Dr. Todd's colleague, William (afterwards Sir William) Bowman, the oculist and physiologist, that his exceptional capacity was recognised or that he received any real encouragement to pursue anatomical research.

In 1849 he became a licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries, and commenced life as a general practitioner in Pimlico. In that neighbourhood he resided until his retirement from practice in 1883, moving in succession from Tachbrook Street to Bessborough Street and Claverton Street. Although Parker cared most for biological research, he did not neglect his patients; and much of his best work was accomplished in the intervals of an arduous practice. In 1861 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the curatorship of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. In 1883 he retired from practice, and six years later a civil service pension was conferred on him. He had already received, through the Royal Society, many payments from the ‘Government Grant Fund for the Encouragement of Scientific Research.’

Meanwhile, in 1873, he was made Hunterian professor of comparative anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons, having first been admitted a member of the college after a formal examination, as had been done in the case of Sir Charles Bell [q. v.] He delivered ten courses of lectures in the theatre of the college. But his utterances were more fervid than perspicuous. He was liable to long digressions from the main topic, and his mind worked too rapidly to allow him to express himself with clearness, or at times even with coherence. Of these courses, the last only, given in 1885, was published in book form. It bore the title ‘Mammalian Descent,’ and was printed at the instigation of Miss Arabella Buckley. It exhibits all Parker's defects as a lecturer. His eldest son has said of it that it is ‘unsatisfactory enough if one goes to it with a view of getting a succinct statement of our present knowledge as to the mutual relations and phylogeny of the mammalia.’ ‘Full of quaint fancies and suggestive illustrations,’ it is, in fact, a collection of moral lessons, interspersed with poetic effusions and outbursts of intense enthusiasm, rather than a scientific treatise.

His scientific memoirs number in all ninety-nine, and his miscellaneous writings but five. The first thirty-six of the former were confined to the Foraminifera, and were mostly written in conjunction with his friends Professors T. Rupert Jones and H. B. Brady, and published between 1858 and 1869 in the ‘Annals and Magazine of Natural History,’ the ‘Journal of the Geological Society,’ and elsewhere. In 1862 he appeared as joint author with Dr. W. B. Carpenter and Professor Rupert Jones of the ‘Introduction to the Study of the Foraminifera’ (published by the Ray Society). ‘The Structure and Development of the Shoulder-girdle and Sternum in the Vertebrata’ (1868) was published by the same society. The numerous drawings with which this work is illustrated were all executed from original preparations made from a great variety of species by Parker himself. His observations confirmed the view that the forelimb is attached to the trunk by an arch consisting of a coracoid or anterior, and a scapular or posterior element, at the meeting-point of which the humerus is always articulated. It showed that Richard Owen's view that the forelimb consists of a number of outlying apophyses of one of the imaginary vertebral segments of the skull is untenable, even supposing that the skull be allowed to consist of a series of vertebræ.

Parker's most extensive work as an anatomist is that upon the skull. His researches and conclusions on this subject are embodied in a series of laborious monographs and a number of smaller papers, published over a period of five-and-twenty years (mostly in the Transactions of the Royal, Linnean, and Zoological Societies). These papers are estimated to cover eighteen hundred pages of letterpress, and are illustrated by about 270 elaborate quarto plates. His work upon the skull was reduced into book form, in 1877, by G. T. Bettany, under the title ‘The Morphology of the Skull,’ and this volume gives the best conception of the breadth and nature of Parker's labours. His papers on the bird's skull are perhaps the best. Both his earliest anatomical studies and his last series of published monographs were devoted to the avian skeleton. His knowledge of the habits, taxonomy, and general anatomy of birds was most extensive; and such were his stores of anatomical knowledge that he was once known to speak for four hours continuously on the lower jawbone of the raven without saying anything that was other than valuable.

Parker's works on the shoulder-girdle and skull contain few generalisations not to be found in the earlier writings of Rathke, Huxley, and others. His results respecting the skull confirm, with a great extension of detail, the principles laid down in Professor Huxley's Croonian lecture delivered before the Royal Society in 1858. Parker recorded with immense labour, and as the result of protracted observations of representative members of each of the great groups of vertebrates, embryological data which put Professor Huxley's conclusions beyond dispute, and dealt the final death-blow to the vertebral theory of the skull, as elaborated by Owen. Parker's ultimate conclusion was that the ‘cephalic scleromeres are not vertebræ.’ The old vertebral theory was mainly deduced from the detailed comparison of the skull of mammals with the segments of the backbone. But the resemblances between the two were shown by Parker to vanish among the lower vertebrata.

Continental contemporaries were working on parallel lines during the period that Parker was pursuing his researches, and his published work occasionally ran closely parallel with that of his German fellow-workers. But he knew little or nothing of the German language, and his work was all original. It is noteworthy, however, that some of the more striking of his latterly discovered details in the cranial anatomy of the mammalia had been long anticipated by Hagenbach.

Parker's methods of work exhibited an industry and application rarely equalled. His life was wholly absorbed in his researches; he took no part in controversy, and was content, for the most part, to record his investigations, and to leave to his successors the task of testing them with a view to basing on them general conclusions. Parker's detailed discoveries were based upon the dissection of embryos of all classes of vertebrated animals, extending over more than twenty years of devoted and continuous labour, and these dissections were delineated with a masterly fidelity in the profuse illustrations which adorn his works. In some of his determinations he was wrong, and doubt has been thrown upon certain of his minor conclusions. Although he was a diffuse, obscure, and rambling writer, his works constitute a mine of carefully observed facts, the full meaning of which it is for future investigators to interpret. Professor Huxley, who was Parker's chief scientific friend and adviser, gave him an encouragement and guidance which helped to keep in check his discursive habits of mind.

Parker's chief scientific honour was the election to the fellowship of the Royal Society in 1865, followed in 1866 by the presentation of the society's gold medal. He later received the Baly medal of the Royal College of Physicians. In 1864 he was elected a fellow of the Zoological Society honoris causa, with exemption from fees, and in 1871 to 1873 he acted as president of the Royal Microscopical Society. In 1876 he was elected an honorary fellow of King's College, London, and he was also a fellow of the Linnean Society. He was an honorary member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, of the Imperial Society of Naturalists, Moscow, and of the Cambridge Philosophical Society.

Parker died suddenly, 3 July 1890, of syncope, at Cardiff, where he was staying with his second son. He was buried at Wandsworth cemetery. He married, in 1849, Miss Elizabeth Jeffery, and the grief caused by her death early in 1890 hastened his own. Seven children survived him—four sons and three daughters. Two of his sons, following in his footsteps, hold professorships in biological science, viz.: Thomas Jeffery Parker, at the university of Otago, New Zealand, and William Newton Parker, at the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, Cardiff.

[A good biographical sketch of Parker was published in 1893 by his son T. J. Parker; this volume contains a complete and classified list of his publications. Obituary notices appear in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, vol. xlviii. p. xv, in London Quarterly Review for April 1891, in Zoologist, 3rd ser. xiv. p. 302; and shorter ones in Nature, xlii. 297, British Medical Journal, 1890, p. 116, Times, 14 July 1890.]

G. B. H.