Williamson, William Crawford

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(b. Scarborough, Yorkshire, England, 24 November 1816; d. Clapham Common, England, 23 June 1895)

botany, geology, zoology, paleontology.

Williamson’s father, John Williamson, was an accomplished gardener and naturalist who for many years served as curator of the Scarborough Museum, Yorkshire. His close friendships with the geologists John Phillips and William Smith greatly aided and influenced young Williamson. His mother was Elizabeth Crawford, the daughter of a jeweler and lapidary of Scarborough. As a boy Wil-liamson was devoted to his maternal grandfather, from whom he learned the art of cutting and polishing stones.

Williamson was married in June 1842 to Sophia Wood, who died in 1871. Three years later he married Annie C. Heaton; their son Herbert became a painter. A member and officer of several leading scientific societies, he was elected to fellowship of the Royal Society in 1854 and received its gold medal in 1874.

Williamson’s activity ranged widely over the field of natural history in his research, teaching, and popular lecturing. With considerable success he bridged two ages in science – from the early 1800’s, when a natural scientist was expected to deal with nearly all natural phenomena, to the close of the century, with its rapidly developing specialization. He is best remembered today by students of paleobotany for his series of studies of the fossil plants of the British coalfields, in which he laid a large part of the foundations of our knowledge of the earliest pteridophytes as well as of the early seed plants.

Most of Williamson’s scientific publications present data that he discovered and recorded with brilliance and efficiency. In addition, his Reminiscences constitutes a delightful and informative record of a vanished way of life that had a real bearing on the development of biological and geological science in the nineteenth century.

Because of poor health, Williamson’s education was inadequate. At the age of six he was sent to William Potter’s school and studied Latin and English. He received his only real instruction from the Reverend Thomas Irving at the Thornton grammar school, which he attended for only six months. When he was fifteen Williamson’s parents decided that he would benefit from education in France. He arrived at the school, which was located at Bourbourg, near Calais, but found that there were no vacancies; and it was only with difficulty that he obtained admission as a special student. The school was attended mostly by English boys and English was the spoken language. He learned little and returned home in less than a year, disillusioned.

In the meantime Williamson’s parents had determined that he should prepare for a medical career, a decision that had somewhat happier results than his French venture. His medical studies began in 1832 with a three-year apprenticeship to Thomas Weddell, a general practitioner in Scarborough. Such doctors were rarely paid for visits to their patients; rather, their income was derived from the sale of the drugs that were prescribed. The preparation of these medications was one of the chief responsibilities of the apprentice. His other duties consisted of delivering the drugs and preparing the annual bills. Although he claimed that he learned little with Weddell that could not have been mastered in a few weeks in an apothecary’s shop, Wil-liamson did have considerable free time to extend his field studies of rocks, fossils, and plants of the surrounding area and to read scientific literature.

Through his father, Williamson had met, at a very early age, such great naturalists as Murchison, Sedgwick, Lyell, and Buckland. At the age of sixteen or seventeen, while apprenticed to Wed-dell, he was invited to prepare many of the illustrations for Lindley and Hutton’s Fossil Flora of Great Britain, a renowned compilation of the day that is still used as a reference work.

In 1835, through the aid of a Dr. Phillips of Manchester, Williamson was appointed curator of the Manchester Natural History Society, with an annual stipend of £ 110. He resigned this position in June 1838 in order to enter medical school in Manchester. Faced with the necessity of obtaining funds to pay his school fees and living expenses, Williamson gave a series of lectures in nearby towns. Teaching, particularly popular lecturing, was clearly a great joy to him; and he was adept at presenting his vast scientific knowledge in an un-derstandable fashion to a variety of audiences.

Medical instruction in Manchester was mediocre at best and, determined to avail himself of what seemed to be the best that Britain could offer, Wil-liamson entered University College, London, in September 1840. He was not disappointed and quickly became aware that with such teachers as Quain in anatomy, Sharpey in physiology, Robert Liston and Astley Cooper in surgery, C. B. Wil-liams in medicine, Graham in chemistry, and Lindley in botany, “no man with brains could fail to learn” (Reminiscences, p. 86). Although Williamson had prepared drawings for Lindley some years before, the two had never met; and Lindley was quite surprised to find that he had so youthful a collaborator. Williamson’s medical studies progressed well, but his other interests were not aban-doned; he found time to attend meetings of the Geological Society of London, where he furthered his acquaintances with Sedgwick. Murchison, Greennough, James Yates, and Basil Hall.

On 1 January 1842 Williamson returned to Manchester, mounted a brass plate on the door of a house at the corner of Wilton Street and Oxford Road, and started his medical practice. While attending an afternoon tea with a friend of his wife, he met a young man who asked whether he had read Mantell’s recently published Medals of Creation. Later, in reading this work, Williamson was attracted by the author’s report that native chalk consisted largely of microscopic fossil shells; this observation led him to initiate one of his most important scientific studies of diatoms, desmids, and Foraminifera, and opened up other lines of research involving microscopy.

In 1851 Williamson was elected first professor of natural history and geology at the newly founded Owens College in Manchester; and for about nineteen years he taught the courses in botany, comparative anatomy, geology, and paleontology. As the amount of knowledge and the college enrollment increased, he was relieved of teaching geology by the appointment of William Boyd Dawkins in 1872; and in 1880 Arthur Milnes Marshall joined the staff as zoologist, leaving Williamson free to devote more time to botany.

He continued to conduct his busy medical practice along with his academic duties. Having a special interest in ear ailments, Williamson spent some time in Ménière’s consulting rooms at Paris, learning his techniques and the use of new instruments; and he also studied in London. After returning to Manchester, he helped raise funds for the establishment of an institution for aural ailments.

One of Williamson’s earliest investigations was concerned with a tumulus–a Bronze Age grave– found at Gristhorpe Cliff, a few miles south of Scarborough. Although others were also involved, Williamson played a leading part in the excavation and laboratory treatment of the remains; and his report was published in Scarborough in 1834– before he was eighteen. The article attracted the attention of Buckland, who reprinted part of it in a weekly journal. Interest in the paper led to the publication of a second edition in 1836, and in 1872 Williamson prepared a third, revised edition.

In 1842 Williamson was given a small sample of sediment from the Levant in which he found For-aminifera. Similar material was received from other sources, including samples from Charles Darwin, who had recently returned from the Beagle voyage. These studies produced an article published in the Memoris of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society that was a pioneering contribution to the understanding of the part that Foraminifera played in the formation of geological deposits. In 1851–1852 Williamson conducted a very meticulous and time-consuming study of Volvox globator, a motile, spherical colony of green cells, barely visible with the naked eye, that is commonly found in fresh waters. He observed asexual reproduction, apparently for the first time, and discovered basic facts about the mode of connection of the several hundred cells that make up the plant.

In 1849 and 1851 Williamson published two papers in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society on the cellular structure and de-velopment of the teeth and bones of fish. As a de-velopment study this pioneering research was highly regarded and was instrumental in his election to the Royal Society.

Williamson’s greatest contribution dealt with the petrified plants found in the Upper Carboniferous coal seams of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Sometime in the 1840’s collectors began to bring him specimens of “coal balls,” aggregations of petrified plants found in the coal itself that included fragments of stems, leaves, seeds, and other reproductive parts sometimes preserved in excellent cellular detail. As representatvie samples of the vegetation of the Carboniferous, “Coal balls” presented an unparalleled source of information, and Williamson took full advantage of it. The challenge was to pre-pare the plant materials for study and to fit the parts together so as to reconstruct the trees that forested so much of the northern hemisphere some 200 million years ago.

Williamson’s contribution in this area is the more remarkable because he prepared his own thin sections of the fossil material and drew most of the numerous illustrations for his text. The main body of this research was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in nineteen parts (1871–1893). At the outset Williamson was probably unaware of the magnitude of the task; and he encountered some difficulty when he submitted the first part under the title “On the Organization of the Fossil Plants of the Coal-Measures. Part I,” because an editor complained that it would obligate the publication of more than one part. His “coal ball” investigations supplied much basic information on the early evolution of the pteridophytes and the more primitive seed plant groups, and were continued by many investigators in Europe and the United States. The nineteen papers may not contain outstanding writing, but they are a sound record on which later workers have been able to reconstruct, to a considerable degree, the vegetation of the Carboniferous landscapes.

Williamson served as president of the Manchester Scientific Students’s Association, the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, and the Union of Yorkshire Naturalists. He received the gold medal of the Royal Society in 1874 and the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society in 1890. The University of Edinburgh awarded him the LL.D. in 1883, and he was elected an honorary member of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

It is sad that in 1892, at the age of seventy-six and after forty-one years of service to Owens College, Williamson’s application for a pension was refused by the College Council-on the grounds that it might establish a precedent. He retired to the London suburb of Clapham Common. As his strength declined, and with much fossil plant research left to do, Williamson invited D. H. Scott, a young botanist from Kew Gardens, to collaborate with him. Scott carried on the work for many years and became a major figure in paleontology.


I. Original Works. Williamson’s autobiography is Reminiscences of a Yorkshire Naturalist (London, 1896), edited by his wife. In addition to several popular lectures on scientific subjects, he also published On the Recent Foraminifera of Great Britain (London, 1858); and A Monograph on the Morphology and Histology of Stigmaria ficoides (London, 1887). The Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, VI, 380–381; VIII, 1245–1246; XI, 817–818; and XIX, 638–639; lists 106 articles, including two papers written with D. H. Scott.

Works cited in the text are Description of the Tumulus Lately Opened at Gristhorpe (Scarborough, 1834; 2nd ed., 1836; 3rd ed., rev., 1872); “On Some of the Microscopical Objects Found in the Mud of the Levant and Other Deposits, With Remarks on the Mode of Formation of Calcareous and Infusorial Siliceous Rocks,” in Memoirs of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, 2nd ser., 8 (1848), 1–128; “On the Microscopic Structure of the Scales and Dermal Teeth of Some Ganoid and Placoid Fishes,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society,139 (1849), 435–476; “The Structure and Development of the Scales and Bones of Fishes,” ibid.,141 (1851), 643–702: “On the Volvox globutor,” in Memoirs of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, 2nd ser., 9 (1851). 321–339; and in Transactions of the Royal Microscopical Society of London, n.s. 1 (1853), 45–56; and “On the Organization of the Fossil Plants of the CoalMeasures,” 19 pts., in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society,161–184B (1871–1893), his most important work.

II. Secondary Literature. On Williamson and his work. see Charles Bailey, “Memoir of Professor Wil-liamson,” in Report and Proceedings of the Manchester Scientific Students’ Association for 1886, 1–8; the unsigned “In Memoriam. William Crawford Williamson,” in Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological and Polytechnic Society, n.s. 8 (1899), 95–111; H. D. Scott, “Williamson’s Researches on the Carboniferous Flora,” in Science Progress,4 (1895). 253–272; and L. F. Ward, “Saporta and Williamson and Their Work in Paleobotany,” in Science, n.s. 2 (1895), 141–150.

Further biographical details may be found in Mémoires de la Société de physique et d’histoire naturelle de Genève,32 (1894–1897), pt. 2, xi-xii; Geological Magazine,2 (1895), 383–384; Journal of Botany, British and Foreign, 33 (1895), 298–300; Journal of the Royal Microscopical Society (1895), 478; Leopoldina,31 (1895), 169: Nature, 52 (1895), 441–443: Canadian Record of Science, 6 (1896), 443–447; Memoirs and Proceedings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, 4th ser., 10 (1896), 1 12–125; and Proceedings of the Royal Society,60 (1897), xxvii–xxxii.

Henry N. Andrews

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