Rolleston, George

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(b. Maltby, near Rotherham, Yorkshire, England, 30 July 1829; d. Oxford, England, 16 June 1881)

comparative anatomy, zoology, archaeology, anthropology.

Linacre professor of anatomy and physiology at Oxford from 1860 until his death, Rolleston pioneered in the teaching of elementary zoology by means of the still-dominant “type” system, in which a few representative organisms are selected for the student to dissect. He was the second son of the Rev. George Rolleston, vicar and squire of Maltby Hall, from whom he received his early education at home. In 1839 he entered the grammar school at Gainsborough and two years later the collegiate school at Sheffield. In 1846 he won an open scholarship at Pembroke College, Oxford, which he entered early in 1847. He graduated B.A. in 1850 with a first class in classics. Following his election on 27 June 1851 to the Sheppard fellowship (established at Pembroke in 1846 to promote the study of law and medicine), Rolleston shifted his attention from classics to medicine: and in October 1851 he enrolled at the medical school attached to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. He graduated M.A. from Oxford in 1853, M.B. in 1854, and M.D. in 1857. In 1856 he became a member, and in 1859 a fellow, of the Royal College of Physicians, where he delivered the Harveian oration in 1873. He was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1862 and of Merton College, Oxford, in 1872.

In 1855, near the end of the Crimean War, Rolleston was appointed one of the physicians to the British Civil Hospital in the Turkish seaport of Smyrna (now İzmir), where he remained after the war to write a report for the war secretary on the sanitary and other conditions of the city (1856). He returned to England in 1857, serving briefly as assistant physician at the Hospital for Sick Children in London. Later in the same year he moved back to Oxford, where he had been appointed physician to the Radcliffe Infirmary and Lee’s reader in anatomy at Christ Church College. On 21 September 1861 he married Grace Davy, daughter of Dr. John Davy and niece of Sir Humphry Davy. His wife survived him, as did seven children, including Humphry Davy Rolleston, regius professor of physics at Cambridge from 1925 to 1932.

Of Rolleston’s research papers, the most interesting bear on the celebrated Victorian controversy over man’s place in nature. More specifically, Rolleston supported T. H. Huxley against Richard Owen on the most crucial issues in their debate over the similarities and differences between human and simian brains. Like Huxley, he denied Owen’s claim that the human brain contained anatomical structures (notably the hippocampus) not found in simian brains. At the same time, however, Rolleston emphasized the large differences of degree (if not of kind) between human and simian brains, nothing in particular the greater absolute weight and height of the human brain and the greater complexity of its cerebral convolutions. He also insisted that his support of Huxley’s anatomical position should not be extended to the materialist implications sometimes drawn from Huxley’s results. In fact, Rolleston’s support of Huxley was expressed in a manner so cautious and contorted, and occasionally so obscure, that some inattentive readers placed him among Owen’s supporters.1

More generally, Rolleston’s verbose and convoluted prose style made it extremely difficult to follow his train of thought on any topic. It is doubtful that he made any important original contributions to the scientific literature, despite learned and wide-ranging papers on mammalian placental structures; the development of the enamel in mammalian teeth; the Stone, Bronze, and Iron ages; and prehistoric pigs and cats. As the latter two topics perhaps suggest. Rolleston shared the contemporary enthusiasm for archaeology and anthropology, an enthusiasm that carried him into the fields of craniology and anthropometry. Several of his papers concern the classification of human skulls and skeletons excavated from prehistoric burial mounds in various parts of England. If his work in these areas now seems marred by ethnocentricity and male complacency, it was at least representative of the age and laid the basis for the superb collection of human skulls in the Oxford Museum.

Rolleston introduced the type system of zoological instruction at Oxford in the early 1860’s:

His “types” were the Rat, the Common Pigeon, the Frog, the Perch, the Crayfish, Blackbeetle, Anodon, Snail, Earthworm, Leech, Tapeworm. He had a series of dissections of these mounted, also loose dissections and elaborate MS. descriptions. The student went through the series, dissecting fresh specimens for himself. After some ten years’ experience Rolleston printed his MS, directions and notes as a book, called Forms of Animal Life.2

From the beginning the type system has had its critics, who lament its restricted focus on dissection and on a small number of animals. Also from the beginning its defenders have insisted on its value as the only possible means of giving the beginning student real exposure to dissection and research techniques. In any case, Rolleston must share credit (or blame) for the type system with Huxley, who had been chiefly responsible for his appointment as first incumbent of the Linacre chair and whose advice he reportedly followed in developing the system.3 Certainly Huxley played a crucial role in the elaboration and wide diffusion of the type system.4

Rolleston took an active part in meliorist causes, notably the temperance movement, and in university and municipal politics. As a member of the Oxford local municipal board, he pressed for the isolation of smallpox cases during an epidemic in 1871 and did much to improve the municipal drainage system, water supply, and sanitary regulations. In testimony before the Royal Commission on Vivisection in 1875, he steered a middle course between the community of research physiologists and the more rabid antivivisectionists. The provisions of the Vivisection Act of 1876 reportedly satisfied him, but it is an exaggeration to claim that the act “was in great measure framed on his recorgendations.”5 In general, Rolleston was a transitional figure, not quite ready to embrace the new experimental movement emanating mostly from Germany but attuned to the importance of most of the new currents in biological thought, including Darwinian evolutionary theory.


1. See Leonard Huxley, Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, 2 vols. (London, 1900), I, 191. For a general discussion of the debate over man’s place in nature, see William F. Bynum, “The Problem of Man in British Natural History, 1800–1863” (Ph.D. diss., Cambridge, 1974).

2. Huxley, op. cit., 377–378, quoting a letter from E. Ray Lankester.

3. See Cyril Bibby, “Thomas Henry Huxley and University Development,” in Victorian Studies, 2 (1958), 97–116, on 100. See also Huxley, loc. cit.

4. See G. L. Geison, “Michael Foster and the Rise of the Cambridge School of Physiology, 1870–1900” (Ph.D. diss., Yale, 1970), 275–300.

5. E. B. Tylor, “Life of Dr. Rolleston,” Ix. For an antidote to this simplistic assessment, see Richard D. French, Antivivisection and Medical Science in Victorian Society (Princeton, 1975).


I. Original Works. Rolleston’s most influential work, and his only book, was Forms of Animal Life: A Manual of Comparative Anatomy With Descriptions of Selected Types (Oxford, 1870); 2nd ed., rev. and enl. by W. Hatchett Jackson (1888). Forty-eight of his publications are gathered in George Rolleston, Scientific Papers and Addresses, arranged and edited by William Turner, with a biographical sketch by Edward B. Tylor, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1884). This work also contains a bibliography of 79 items, including several book reviews and brief notes (pp. lxvii-lxxvi), and a digest of three previously unpublished archaeological notes (II, 937–944). The Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, V, 260–261; VIII, 771; XI, 210–211; XII, 626; lists 30 papers by Rolleston and two of which he was coauthor. Twenty-eight letters exchanged between Rolleston and T. H. Huxley are preserved in the Huxley papers, Imperial College of Science and Technology, London; there is a microfilm copy at the library of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia. See Warren R. Dawson, The Huxley Papers: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Correspondence, Manuscripts and Miscellaneous Papers of Thomas Henry Huxley (London, 1946), 135–136.

II. Secondary Literature. For obituary sketches of Rolleston, see Edward B. Tylor, “Life of Dr. Rolleston,” in Scientific Papers and Addresses, I, ix-lxv; D’Arcy Power, in Dictionary of National Biography, XVII, 167–169; and W. H. Flower, in Nature, 24 (1881), 192–193, repr. in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 33 (1882), xxiv–xxvii.

Gerald L. Geison