The Amazing Tale of the Genius that History Forgot

Naturalist Francis Willughby was the first to do things we now take for granted in science, like measuring bird beaks and fish fins.

We all know the names Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin. But somehow British naturalist Francis Willughby—a precocious talent who revolutionized the way we look at the world—slipped through the cracks of history to become one of the forgotten geniuses of science. For his new book, The Wonderful Mr Willughby, Tim Birkhead dusted off the archives to bring this trailblazing, 17th-century scientist to a new audience.

Speaking from Sheffield, England, Birkhead explains how Willughby was the first ornithologist to systematically classify birds, why the Venice fish market was such a rich source of specimens; and why he would like to rename a rare buzzard in honor of Willughby.

Francis Willughby was an obscure, 17th-century naturalist who wrote books in Latin. Why should we be interested in him today?

We should be interested in him because Willughby was a pioneer both of the scientific revolution and of ornithology. Britain had recently been through the civil wars, and there was a sense of change in the air. Part of that change was the way people viewed the world, particularly the natural world.

View Images

Willughby was from a fairly, but not staggeringly, wealthy family who were keen on book learning. When he went up to the University of Cambridge as an undergraduate at the age of 17, one of his tutors was John Ray. The two of them hit it off and they embraced this new way of thinking about the natural world. That new way was to not trust the ancients, like Aristotle, not take somebody else’s word for it—but to find evidence and see things with your own eyes.

It sounds banal today, but that was a new way of thinking and it is in that sense that I view Willughby as a pioneer. We should also be interested in him because he is a forgotten figure. He died young and a lot of his papers were lost, so he slipped to the sidelines, while John Ray, who spent a lot of time and effort trying to promote Willughby, ended up eclipsing him.

Together, Willughby and Ray did some far-reaching journeys across Europe. Give us a sense of the purpose and scope of their travels, and why the Venice fish market was a highlight.

During their undergraduate days they went on several journeys within Britain to examine seabird colonies. Having made journeys to the Lake District, Wales, and to southwest England, they planned a monumental expedition to the Continent. For Willughby and Ray, and the two colleagues that accompanied them, this was hard-core educational travel. They wanted to see everything; they wanted to visit other scientists and institutions and collect information. I imagine them in the evening writing up notes, trying to remember everything they’d seen during the day. The travel was mostly by mule or on horseback. If they were lucky, it was a boat, which gave them a bit of relaxation.

The high spot, both culturally and intellectually, was the three months they spent in Venice. They’d had a very arduous crossing of the Alps and when they came down into northern Italy, they were blown away by the richness of the vegetation and Venice itself, particularly the fish market. [laughs] As well as being interested in birds, Willughby was also planning a book on fishes. And at the market he found hundreds of specimens.

The key thing that makes Willughby special scientifically is that he was very systematic in knowing what he wanted to get from these specimens. He started with a description of the external features, whether it was a fish or a bird, and he measured things. How long was the bird’s beak or the spine on the dorsal fin of a fish? That measuring was a crucial part of the scientific revolution. After they had done the external stuff, then they dissected the animal and looked at its insides. What Willughby was searching for was what he called “a distinguishing mark.” What features, either external or internal, were crucial in distinguishing this species from that species, and connecting different groups of species.

Magnificent Hummingbird Magnificent hummingbirds are the only birds that can hover in mid-air. They achieve this by rotating their wings in a figure 8 motion.

Willughby and Ray’s most famous work was The Ornithology. Explain how they went about creating it, and why it was so groundbreaking

One of the things that is a challenge, if you’re a scientific historian, is trying to put yourself back into their position. We have so much knowledge today, particularly about birds. But it wasn’t the same for Willughby and Ray. You’ve got all these different species: How do you tell the difference between a linnet and a redpole, for example? They’re actually pretty similar! It was an incredible challenge, but Willughby and Ray were wonderfully systematic. Having obtained specimens, they went through that procedure, describing, dissecting, and classifying. The Ornithology of Francis Willughby is written up in this incredibly carefully conceived way. So much so that that book became the bible for every subsequent ornithological or natural history encyclopedia.

Their objective was to describe every known species of bird. Luckily for them at that time, they thought it might be about 500. We now know today that it’s at least 10,000, which would have been overwhelming. They tried to see and describe every known European bird. They also used the accounts of travelers to Brazil or Mexico, and incorporated their material. The South American stuff must have been an absolute nightmare because the names were just phonetic and you can barely pronounce them! So there was the enormous potential for confusion.

Willughby also had a section on mythical birds. Tell us about the “daie.”

I think it was Ray who said, “We have to find a way of dealing with stuff we’re not really sure of or convinced about.” So, there’s a section at the back of the book entitled Birds That We Take for Fabulous, meaning that these are probably fantasy birds. It includes things that they couldn’t see themselves, either live or in museums, and the daie was one of them.

The description says that it comes from somebody on Magellan’s voyage: a bird that didn’t incubate its own eggs but laid them in the ground, and they still managed to hatch. Ray reads this account and says, “I dare boldly say that this history is all together false.”

The daie was actually the Philippine megapode, one of a group of birds that deposits its eggs in warm volcanic soil or decomposing vegetation, like the Australian brush turkey. Ray and Willughby were cautious about these things. They probably thought these were mythical birds, but erred on the side of caution. Another bird in that category was the hoatzin. The information Ray and Willughby had was that it feeds on snakes. In fact, it’s a vegetarian and a very unusual bird, in that it spends a lot of time and energy using its complex alimentary canal to ferment and digest the leaves that it eats.

Willughby also wrote a book about games. Tell us about it and why he was interested in the spin on a tennis ball.

Very interesting question! [laughs] This was a manuscript that was in the Willughby household but was only discovered in the 70s and 80s. A lot of the Willughby material was given to Nottingham University Library for safekeeping and The Book of Games was amongst Willughby’s papers. It’s an incredibly significant document, not because of its descriptions of games but because it was an analysis and classification of games, including soccer and board games.

Willughby was obsessed by classification: classifying birds, fish or, in this case, games. This was not a gamesters’ volume. It might as well have been describing birds or fish. It was a description of games and how they were played. Both Willughby and Ray were excellent mathematicians and fascinated by games of chance. What are the chances, if you have one or two dice, of throwing one or two sixes? What are the odds of getting four aces in a hand of cards? He applied mathematical expertise to try to understand the outcomes of particular games.

When Willughby was at Cambridge, there were people like Isaac Newton who were interested in mathematics and the rotation of the planets. Willughby recognized that it might be possible to predict the trajectory of something like a tennis ball with or without a spin. That was just one of the incredibly challenging mathematical questions he tried to solve.

Willughby died young, causing his family and colleagues what you describe as “decades of difficulties.” Take us inside his tangled legacy, and the curious case of Willughby’s buzzard.

Poor old Willughby dies at the age of 36 from some undefined disease, variously referred to as tertian fever, or possibly pneumonia. Before he dies, John Ray says to Willughby, “Look, I’ll take care of publishing all of this material we’ve collected.” And so Willughby dies content. After his death, Ray continues to live in the Willughby household under Willughby’s mum, the matriarch, but also with Willughby’s widow and their three children. A few years later, when Ray is working on The Ornithology, Willughby’s mother dies. He writes to somebody saying, “This is gonna make my situation a bit precarious.”

Soon after that, Willughby’s widow, Emma, remarries to a guy called Josiah Child, who is amongst the wealthiest people in Britain, but also turns out to be a deeply unpleasant man. She has to be loyal to him, but her three children hate him. Her 11-year-old son even runs away to go live with his aunt because he can’t bear the stepfather. A few years later the other son runs away.

Child also hates John Ray, “Who is this man in the household, cluttering things up?!” He eventually gets rid of him, so Ray doesn’t have access to any of the notes, which makes Ray’s life very difficult. But Ray is determined. He finishes The Ornithology, and then he starts on the fish book, which takes him another 20 years. After that he starts on the insect book, which is finished when Ray is literally dying. He has ulcerated legs, he’s in a terrible state, and I think he works and works to try and distract himself from the pain. But he was also setting out his own store, which contributed to Willughby disappearing to the sidelines.

But over the years, as people have dug around Willughby’s archives, they’ve recognized his contribution to natural history. As a consequence, there is a fish called Willughby’s char; and a whole genus of plants with his name. There’s even a Willughby’s bee! But there’s no Willughby’s bird. So, I feel that, since Willughby was the person to first describe the European honey buzzard, we should rename the honey buzzard Willughby’s Buzzard. It’s unlikely to happen, but I like the idea that we might do it. [laughs]

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.