Clift, William

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Clift, William

(b. Burcombe, Cornwall, England, 14 February 1775; d. London, England, 20 June 1849),

comparative anatomy, paleontology.

Clift was the youngest child of Robert Clift, a miller, who died in 1784, leaving his wife (Joanna Coutts, a carpenter’s daughter) and seven children in poverty. William showed marked artistic promise and manual skill. Through local patronage he was apprenticed to the great London surgeon and biologist John Hunter, working as dissection assistant and recorder in lieu of fee, but Hunter’s sudden death in 1793 deprived him of surgical training. Hunter’s will directed that his scientific collections be offered for sale to the government as a unit. During negotiations (1793–1799) his executors, Matthew Baillie and Everard Home, retained Clift as curator of the collections. He maintained and developed the Hunterian Museum for fifty years and perpetuated Hunter’s method of medical education through research in comparative anatomy.

The government bought the collections and placed them in trust with the Royal College of Surgeons in London; Clift moved them from Hunter’s former home in 1806, settled at the college, and became administrator of the Hunterian Museum, as the collections were known. He equipped a new museum in 1813 (rebuilt in 1834–1837); formed a scientific library; acquired specimens by gift and purchase; dissected, mounted, and described them; provided anatomical and pathological material for the college’s lecturers; and explained the museum to visitors. Clift had educated himself by studying Hunter’s preparations and manuscript records, of which he made calligraphic copies, and was employed by Baillie and Home to illustrate their scientific writings. Home used Hunter’s manuscripts for his own voluminous contributions to the Philosophical Transactions and destroyed most of the originals in 1823, greatly to the disadvantage of Clift’s descriptive cataloguing of the museum.

Hunter’s purpose in forming the museum had been to display the processes of life through examples drawn from the whole animal kingdom, both extant and fossil, arranged according to the functional systems of the body—skeletal, muscular, nervous, digestive, and reproductive—in both normal and pathologic conditions. Clift’s achievement was the organizations of this educative display, applying by his own manual skill the best technical methods of the day and adding to Hunter’s collection in order to embrace advancing knowledge, without overloading it or altering Hunter’s scheme. Under Clift’s charge the museum attracted worldwide interest and redirected the method and purpose of museum display. Clift became an acknowledged authority in comparative anatomy, especially in the identification of fossil bones, and helped to formulate the scientific basis of paleontology. He was active in the anatomical, geological, and zoological societies, and especially in the Animal Chemistry Society (1809–1825). He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1823 and served on its council in 1833–1834.

Clift’s lifework and memorial was the Hunterian Museum. He published a few papers, mainly descriptive, but left a mass of unpublished records of his curatorship. The unsigned catalogs of the museum, printed between 1830 and 1840, were planned and partly written by him but were completed by Richard Owen. Clift’s help was acknowledged by many prominent scientists—including Banks, Brodie, Cuvier, Davy, Lyell, and Mantell—in addition to those whose writings he illustrated with accomplished draftsmanship.

In 1801 Clift married Caroline Pope; their son William Home Clift, who died at twenty-nine, was trained to succeed him. Their daughter Caroline married his assistant and successor Richard Owen, who became the greatest British comparative anatomist of the century.

Clift was not self-seeking, but extremely generous of his time and knowledge. Accustomed from his youth to working for others, he never displayed his tenacity and independence until he denounced Home’s destruction of Hunter’s manuscripts before the Parliamentary Committee on Medical Education in 1834 and showed that Home had hoped to destroy evidence of his plagiarism. Clift’s artistic abilities were notable. Hunter taught him to dissect and mount specimens and provided him with professional lessons in drawing and calligraphy; he also became a competent watercolorist. He was a keen amateur musician, playing several string and wind instruments. A small man, rather broad of face, he bore a fortuitous resemblance to Hunter.


I. Original Works. Clift’s published articles are “Experiments to Ascertain the Influence of the Spinal Marrow on the Motion of the Heart in Fishes,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 105 (1815), 91–96; “A Description of the Bones,’ in Joseph Whidbey, “On Some Fossil Bones Found in the Caverns in the Limestone Quarries of Oreston,” ibid., 113 (1823), 78–90 (Clift’s “Desceiption” 81–90), plates 8–12 by Clift; “On the Fossil Remains of the Two New Species of Mastodon and of Other Vertebrated Animals Found on the Left Bank of the Irawadi,” in Transactions of the Geological Society, 2 (1829), 369–376, plates 36–44 (36, 39, and 40 are signed by Clift); and “Some Account of the Remains of the Megatherium Sent to England from Buenos Aires by Woodbine Parish,” ibid., 3 (1835), 437–450, plates 43–46 (45–46 signed by Clift).

Published drawings (listed chronologically) are in Matthew Baillie, A Series of Engravings to Illustrate Morbid Anatomy (London, 1799–1803), seventy-three plates; Patrick Russell. A Continuation of an Account of Indian Serpents (London, 1801), plates 11, 12, 13, and 16 in color; Everard Home, Lectures on Comparative Anatomy, vols. I–II (1814), 132 plates, vols. III–IV (1823), 171 plates; Nathaniel Highmore, Case of a Foetus Found in the Abdomen of a Young Man (London, 1815), two plates; William Buckland, “Account of Fossil Teeth and Bones Discovered in a Cave at Kirkdale in Yorkshire,” in Philosophical Transactions, 112 (1822), parts of plates 18, 20, and 21 signed by Clift; William Maiden, An Account of a Case of Recovery after the shaft of a Chaise Had Been Forced Through the Thorax… the Health of the Sufferer until his Decease (London, 1824), three plates (the Recovery was first published in 1812 without these illustrations); and George James Guthrie, On Some Points Connected with the Anatomy and Surgery of Inguinal and Femoral Herniae (London, 1833), 3 plates. Many of the 320 plates in Home’s 100 papers in the Philosophical Transactions were drawn by Clift, from “The Kangaroo,” 85 (1795), plates 18–21, to “The Membrana Tympani of the Elephant,” 113 (1823), plates 3–5, After their quarrel Home employed Franz Bauer as artist.

Clift’s diaries (1811–1842), a working record of daily duties, attendance at meetings, etc., with occasional comments, are at the Royal College of Surgeons; letters, bills, and leaflets are loosely inserted. Clift’s voluminous memoranda, notebooks, etc. are listed in V. G. Plarr, Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (London, 1928), pp. 12–21. There are many autograph letters by Clift in the Owen papers at the British Museum (Natural History).

II. Secondary Literature. Notices by contemporaries are Sir William Lawrence, Hunterian Oration (London, 1846), pp. 59–64; unsigned memoir in Proceedings of the Royal Society (London), 5 (1849), 876–880 (Owen’s draft is at the Royal College of Surgeons); and F. C. Skey, Hunterian Oration (London, 1850), pp. 5–10, Sir Benjamin Brodie discussed Clift in his “Autobiography,” in The Works of… Brodie, C. Hawkins, ed., I (London, 1865), 65–67.

Modern studies are N. G. Coley, “The Animal Chemistry Society,” in Notes and Records, Royal Society of London, 22 (1967), 173–185; Jessie Dobson, William Clift (London, 1954), the only biography based on the original sources, with references and reproduction of portraits; Sir Arthur Keith, “The Vicary Lecture on the Life and Times of William Clift,’ in British Medical Journal (1923), 2 , 1127–1132; and Jane M. Oppenheimer, New Aspects of John and William Hunter (New York, 1946), pt. 1, pp. 3–105 (“Everard Home and the Destruction of the John Hunter Manuscripts”), which gives an adverse view of Clift.

Two pencil drawings of Clift by his son and a pencil drawing (1831) by Sir Francis Chantrey are in the British Museum; an oil painting by Henry Schmidt is at the Royal Society; and a plaster bust (1845) is at the Royal College of Surgeons.

William Le Fanu