Busk, George

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Busk, George

(b. St. Petersburg, Russia, 12 August 1807; d. London, England, 10 August 1886)

medicine, natural history, nthropology.

George Busk was the second son of Robert Busk, an English merchant in St. Petersburg, and Jane Westley, daughter of John Westley, customshouse clerk at St. Petersburg. His grandfather, Sir Wadsworth Busk, was attorney general of the Isle of Man, and an uncle was Hans Busk, scholar and minor poet.

Busk received his medical education at St. Thomas’ and St. Bartholomew’s hospitals, and became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1832. He then became surgeon to the Seaman’s Hospital Society, recently founded for the relief of merchant seamen, and served at Greenwich on the hospital ship Dreadnought, which had been given to the society by the Admiralty. Although not actually at sea, he made good use of his time and the available clinical material. Busk is credited with having worked out the pathology of cholera and having made important observations on scurvy. A few of his notes on scurvy are still extant at the Royal College of Surgeons, but no direct evidence of work on cholera has been found. It is probable that there has been confusion with Busk’s work on fasciolopsiasis, which culminated in his description of the fluke now eponymically styled Fasciolopsis buski, the adult stage of which occurs in the small intestine among natives of India and eastern China. The disease causes toxic symptoms and acute diarrhea, and thus may have been termed cholera.

When Busk resigned from the Dreadnought in 1854, he apparently retired from active surgical practice and turned to biology and teaching. In 1843 he had been among the first elected to fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons. From 1856 to 1859 he was Hunterian professor of comparative anatomy at the college, and his lecture notes survive in its archives. They make somewhat dull reading now, but his philosophical approach is shown by remarks on reproduction and sexual physiology in invertebrates. “Time was when the difficulty of the physiologist lay in understanding reproduction without the sexual process. At the present day it seems to me the process is reversed and that the question before us is why is sexual union necessary?” (R.C.S. 275.6.3).

In 1850 Busk was made a fellow of the Royal Society. He was four times its vice-president and received its Royal Medal in 1871. His industry and zeal were enormous. He was president of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1871 and belonged to the Linnean Society (vice-president and zoological secretary), the Geological Society (Lyell Medal, 1878; Wollaston Medal, 1885), the Microscopical Society (foundation member, 1839; president, 1848–1849), the Anthropological Society (president, 1873–1874), and the Zoological Society. He was editor of the Microscopic Journal (1842), the Quarterly Journal of Microscopic Science (1853–1868), the Natural Hiustory Review (1861–1865), and the Journal of the Ethnological Society (1869–1870). Busk was also a member of the Senate of London University, treasurer of the Royal Institution, and the first Home Office inspector under the Cruelty to Animals Act, a difficult position that he fulfilled with tact and humanity. From 1841, he contributed some seventy papers to scientific journals.

Busk’s two main interests in science were the Bryozoa (Polyzoa) and paleontology. In 1856 he formulated the first scientific arrangement of the Bryozoa, the notes and drawings for which are extant (R.C.S. 275.e.3). In the same year, the name Buskia was given to a genus of Bryozoa. His collection is at the Natural History Museum, which also has anthropological material collected by him, notably the Gibraltar cranium, a Neanderthal type he found (but did not recognize as such) in 1868. He was an authority on craniometry, and his opinions were much sought on fossil identification.

Busk is thus to be seen as a classifier and investigator whose work, although it may now appear insignificant, was ancillary to and provided corroborative evidence for, the ideas of Darwin, Lyell, and Richard Owen. He was therefore closely connected with the development of zoology and anthropology. A dull writer and lecturer, he was described as an excellent surgical operator and a man of “unaffected simplicity and gentleness of character.”

Busk married his cousin Ellen, daughter of Jacob Hans Busk, on 12 August 1843. His portrait in oils was painted by his daughter in 1884 for the Linnean Society; a copy is in the Royal College of Surgeons. Busk died at his home in Harley Street, London.


I. Original Works. Early in his career Busk translated three works of other authors: J. J. S. Steenstrap, On the Alternation of Generations (London, 1845); A. Kölliker, Human Histology, 2 vols. (London, 1853–1854); and Wedl’s Rudiments of Pathological Histology (London, 1855), which he also edited. Among his own works are A Catalogue of the Marine Polyzoa in the Vritish Museum, 3 vols. (London, 1852–1875); Sections on Polyzoa in J. MacGillivray, Narrative of the Voyage of H. M. S. Rattlesnake (London, 1852), and W. B. Carpenter, Catalogue of Mazatlan Shells (London, 1859); A Monograph of the Fossil Polyzoa of the Crag (London, 1859); “Parasites, Venomous Insects and Reptiles,” in Holme’s Surgery, 4 vols. (London, 1860–1864), app.; “On the Caves of Gibraltar in Which Human Remains and Works of Art Have Been Found,” in Transactions of the International Congress of Prehistoric Archaeology (Norwich meeting, 1868); “On a Method of Graphically Representing the Dimensions and Proportions of the Teeth of Mammals,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 17 (1869/70), 544; “Descriptions of the Animals Found in Brixham Cave,” in J. Prestwich, Report on the Exploration of Brixham Cave (London, 1873); “Report on the Exploration of the Caves of Borneo, Note on the Bones Collected,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 30 (1879/80), 319; and Report on the Polyzoa Collected by H. M. S. Challenger, 2 vols (London, 1884–1886).

The titles of 73 papers are listed in the Royal Society’s Catalogue of Scientific Papers, I (1867), VII (1877), IX (1891), and XIII (1914), Busk’s papers in MSS are in the library of the Royal College of Surgeons, 275, c.1–12; they are listed in Annual Report of the Royal College of Surgeons (1930), p. 18.

II. Secondary Literature. Obituary notices are British Medical Journal (1886), 2 346; Lancet (1886), 2 313; Nature, 34 (1886), 387; Proceedings of the Linnean Society, 7 (1886), 36; Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society (1886); and The Times (11 Aug. 1886).

K. Bryn Thomas