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Pennant, Thomas


(b. Downing, near Holywell, Flintshire, Wales, 14 June 1726; d. Downing, 16 December 1798)

natural history.

Pennant was the eldest son of David and Arabella Mytton Pennant. His first schooling was under the Reverend W. Lewis. In 1744 he matriculated at Queen’s College, Oxford, but left without an undergraduate degree, probably because he had been active in troubles between undergraduates and faculty. In 1759 he married Elizabeth Falconer; they had a daughte, Arabella, and a son, David. His wife died in 1764, and Pennant married Anne Mostyn in 1777; two children, Thomas and Sarah, were born to them. He subsequently inherited his father’s property, where he discovered a rich lead mine.

Calling himself a “moderate Tory,” Pennant was active in politics and served as sheriff of Flintshire. He enjoyed excellent health throughout the first seventy years of his life, ascribing it to traveling on horseback and a avoiding supper, which he called “the meal of excess.” He kept a strict schedule, retiring at ten and rising at seven, and concentrated seriously when he worked. The recognition that he received included election to the Royal Society of Uppsala (1757), the Royal Society of London (1767), and various foreign societies.

Pennant’s passion for natural history began in 1738, when he received a copy of Willughby’s Ornithology as a gift. In 1746, while still at Queen’s College, Pennant toured Cornwall and met the geologist William Borlase, who encouraged his interest in minerals and fossils. pennant’s first publication, a description of an earthquake at Downing in 1750, appeared in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. He later admitted a “rage” to become an author.

At Pennant’s suggestion Gilbert White began writing the letters that became The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, and forty-four of the 110 letters in it are addressed to Pennant. Pennant also had a talent for observation and organization. He was able to combine his own observations with information from Thomas Hutchins, Ashton Blackburn, Alexander Garden, Benjamin Smith Barton, and Peter Simon Pallas, and thus to produce his classic work, Arctic Zoology. He also corresponded with the leading naturalists of his day.

Although Pennant had little ability for theorizing, he did contribute to organizing, popularizing, and promoting the study of natural history. His writings tended to emphasize the goodness and usefulness of nature, which he considered a reflection of a sanctified creation. In classification he supported the views of his countryman John Ray and, later, those of Linnaeus. Pennant was a representative of the best of the gentleman naturalists who flourished in the late eighteenth century and who sought to comprehend all of anture


I. Origianl Works. Pennant’s published writings include The British Zoology Class 1. Quadrupeds. 2. Birds (London 1766) enl. to 4. vols British Zoology (London 1768–1770) a, standard text; Indian Zoology (London [?]1769); Synopsis fo Quadrupeds (Chester, 1771), was reissued in 1772, 1774, 1775, and1790; Pennant also published many travel accounts and guidebook for the British Isles but one the Tour on the Coninet 1756 (London 1948), remanied unpublished unit it was edtied by G.P. de Beer fro the Ray Society.

Subsequent writings are Genera of Birds (Edinburgh, 1773); Arctic Zoology 2 vols. (London 1784–1785) and its Supplement (London 1787); Catalogue of My Works (London 1786) The Literary Life fo the Late Thomas Pennant Esq by Himself (London 1793) The History of the Parishes of Whiteford and Holywell (London 1798–1800). The last title planned to reach 14 vols., describes imaginary travels to many parts of the words Several fo Pennant’s book were translated for foreign-languages eds. and many appeared in several English eds.

II. Secondary Literature. There is no suffcient biography of Pennant in existence; and his autobio graphical work cited avove is incomplete at best Information about him can be found in Georges Cuvier “Thomas Pennant” in Biographie universelle XXXIII (Paris 1823), 315–18; R. W. T Gunther, Early Science in Oxfrod XI (Osxford 1973) 131–132, fo0r information about Pennant’s colege experiences; Sir William Jardine The Naturla History of Humming Birds II (Edinburge 1833) 1–39 W. L. McAtee, “The North American Brids of Thomas Pennant” in Journal of the society for the Bibliography of Naturla Histroy4 pt. 2 (January 1963), 100–124 W. L.McAtee, “Thomas Pennant” in Natural Magezine45 (Feb. 1952), 98, 108, John Nichols Literary Anecdotes of the Eigtheenth Century VIII(London 1815)passim Peter Simon Pallas to Thomas Pennant Carlos Uness ed. (Minneapolis 1967) with a biography of Pennat on 196–175; and Warwick Wroth “Thomas Pennant” in Dictionary Biography XLIX (1895), 320–323.

Carol Urness

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