The Natural Sciences and the Development of Animal Morphology in Late-Victorian Cambridge

Research paper by Helen J. Blackman

Indexed on: 11 Aug '06Published on: 11 Aug '06Published in: Journal of the history of biology


During the 1870s animal morphologists and embryologists at Cambridge University came to dominate British zoology, quickly establishing an international reputation. Earlier accounts of the Cambridge school have portrayed this success as short-lived, and attributed the school’s failure to a more general movement within the life sciences away from museum-based description, towards laboratory-based experiment. More recent work has shown that the shift in the life sciences to experimental work was locally contingent and highly varied, often drawing on and incorporating aspects of museum work. Thus in order to understand the more general changes, studies of particular sites are needed. Here I examine the organisation of teaching at Cambridge, both in terms of the spaces in which it was taught and the ways in which teaching and examining were organised, to bring out the complexities of the ‘revolt from morphology’ and to show in more detail the institutional aspects that intertwined with intellectual change. Francis Maitland Balfour, as head of the Cambridge school, was able to make use of family connections and his own personal wealth to promote morphology. His successor lacked these resources, and once competition within the natural sciences at Cambridge intensified, morphology was unable to compete properly.