Flower, William Henry

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Flower, William Henry

(b. Stratford-on-Avon, England, 30 November 1831; d. London, England, 1 July 1899)


Flower first enrolled at University College, London, and then studied medicine and surgery at Middlesex Hospital, graduating in 1851 from London University. As a student he received medals in zoology and physiology. Soon after becoming a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in March 1854 (he became a fellow in 1857), he volunteered for the Royal Army Medical Service in the Crimea. Upon his return to London, Flower was appointed surgeon, lecturer in anatomy, and curator at the museum of Middlesex Hospital. He remained at Middlesex until late 1861 and during this period published most of his dozen and a half medical papers, including a chapter on injuries to the shoulder region in T. Holmes’s System of Surgery (1860).

After the death of John Thomas Quekett in 1861 Flower became conservator of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. He held the conservatorship until 1884, when he succeeded Richard Owen as superintendent (later director) of the Natural History Departments of the British Museum, remaining in that position until 1898. He was an active member of numerous scientific organizations: he served several terms on the council and was vice-president of the Royal Society, president of the Zoological Society (1879–1899), president of the Anthropological Institute (1883–1885), trustee of the Hunterian Collection (1885–1899), and president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1889). He was made K.C.B. in 1892.

Much of Flower’s time and effort was spent on curatorial duties for anatomy and natural history museums, and he often spoke on the aims and organization of such museums. He strongly believed in their twofold function: the education of the public by a small number of expertly presented specimens which tell a story, and the provision of comprehensive collections and related library material for further education and research by knowledgeable experts. Under Flower’s directorship the British Museum (Natural History) was developed so that it closely approached this goal.

Few of Flower’s papers published before his appointment to the Hunterian conservatorship in 1861 were of a zoological nature. Of by far the greatest interest to Flower were the Mammalia, especially the Cetacea. A concern with problems of classification loomed large in many of his researches, and he made significant contributions to the clarification of the classification of the carnivores (1869), rhinoceroses (1875), and edentates (1882). He helped considerably to consolidate the class Mammalia through two papers on the Marsupialia and Monotremata, in which he demonstrated the essentially mammalian characteristics of the marsupial dentition and the cerebral commissures of both of these aberrant groups.

Beginning in the early 1860’s the Cetacea became Flower’s prime research interest, nearly a quarter of his published works being directed toward this order. Although hampered by a shortage of information and specimens, he became recognized as the British authority on the Cetacea through his assiduous collecting of all available material. He procured many specimens, first for the Royal College of Surgeons and later for the British Museum (Natural History), and was responsible for adding the whale room at the latter, with its skeletons and life-size models. Flower described and classified many species of whales and dolphins, which he obtained either from specimens washed up on the British coast or from correspondents throughout the world. Of particular interest in this field are his “On the Osteology of the Cachalot or Sperm-whale” (1867) and his long paper “On the Characters and Divisions of the Family Delphinidae” (1883). The latter is the most extensive of his papers on cetacean classification and-was long the basis for the study of this family.

Although he was keenly interested in physical anthropology, Flower wrote only a few papers on nonhuman primates, and these were concerned chiefly with the controversy—sparked by Richard Owen in 1860 in opposition to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and settled by T. H. Huxley—over certain characteristics of primate brains. Several papers by Flower provided strong evidence that Owen’s distinctions between human and nonhuman primate brains were invalid. While at the Hunterian Museum, he added many anthropological specimens, particularly skulls, to the collection and produced a series of papers on the osteology of various primitive tribes. As a result of his researches he adopted the division of the human species into three races—Caucasian, Mongolian, and Ethiopian—which had been proposed by Cuvier sixty years earlier.

Flower was never a teacher in the sense of having students, but he did lecture extensively, particularly as the Hunterian professor of comparative anatomy and physiology (1870–1884). In the introductory lecture to his first Hunterian series he stressed the idea that they should be museum lectures and that he should be a mouthpiece for the specimens. This first series was published as An Introduction to the Osteology of the Mammalia. His 1883 series was on the horse, a topic of special interest to him; he published a volume treating the evolutionary development of the horse and related species. With Richard Lydekker, Flower published a comprehensive volume on living and extinct Mammalia (1891), which considers the evolution and classification of the mammals and their geological and geographical distribution.


I. Original Works. Flower’s principal separate publications are An Introduction to the Osteology of the Mammalia (London, 1870, 1876; 3rd ed., with Hans Gadow, 1885); The Horse, a Study in Natural History (London, 1891); An Introduction to the Study of Mammals, Living and Recent (London, 1891), written with Richard Lydekker; and Essays on Museums and Other Subjects Connected With Natural History (London, 1898), which contains a collection of essays on the organization and role of museums, on general biology (including whales), and on anthropology.

The following are perhaps the most significant of Flower’s papers: “On the Commissures of the Cerebral Hemispheres of the Marsupialia and Monotremata, as Compared With Those of the Placental Mammals,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 155 (1865), 633–651; “On the Development and Succession of the Teeth in the Marsupialia,” ibid., 157 (1867), 631–642; “On the Osteology of the Cachalot or Sperm-whale (Physeter macrocephalus),” in Transactions of the Zoological Society of London, 6 (1867), 309–372; “On Some Cranial and Dental Characteristics of the Existing Species of Rhinoceroses,” in Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (1876), 443–457; “On the Mutual Affinities of the Animals Composing the Order Edentata,” ibid. (1882), 358–367; and “On the Characters and Divisions of the Family Delphinidae,” ibid. (1883), 466–513.

II. Secondary Literature. See Charles J. Cornish, Sir William Henry Flower. A Personal Memoir (London, 1904), which includes a list of the topics of Flower’s Hunterian lectures and a bibliography of Flower’s writings compiled by Victor A. Flower; and Richard Lydekker, Sir William Flower (London, 1906).

Wesley C. Williams