Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Obscure Victorians: Dr. Rolleston Dissects a Brain for George Eliot

May 26, 1870. G. and I went to the Museum, and had an interesting morning with Dr. Rolleston, who dissected a brain for me (George Eliot, Journals).

Dr. George Rolleston

On the May 1870 visit to the Pattisons in Oxford (when she saw Mrs. Pattison framed like a Greuze portrait in the window of the Rector's lodging), George Eliot and her partner George Henry Lewes paid a visit to the University Museum of Natural History as the guest of Dr. George Rolleston (1829-1881), the first Linacre Professor of Physiology and Anatomy. I suspect that Eliot would have found Rolleston a congenial host. He was known as a "fluent and rapid talker," with an ability to speak intelligently on a wide range of topics. The son of a Yorkshire clergyman, Rolleston was sight-reading Homer at the age of ten, and received a thorough classical education at Gainsborough before going up to Pembroke College, Oxford, where he received a first in Classics in 1850. He subsequently turned to medicine, served as a doctor at the British Civil Hospital in Smyrna during the Crimean War, and eventually became the first Linacre Professor at Oxford in 1860.

Rolleston was at Oxford during the religious upheaval of Tractarianism, and heard Pusey preach, but was drawn to the liberal Broad Church party, which "relieved his scientific work from the pressure of theological restraint, while enlarging his tolerance of other men's views to the widest stretch." George Eliot would have been sympathetic to Rolleston's views, emphasizing the importance of morality and tolerance over strict theological dogmatism. Rolleston once wrote: "To me there is no subject so pleasing and none so ennobling as the triumph of will over interest, and the victory of conscience over expediency."

A drawing from a paper by T.H. Huxley (1861), marking with a white "x" the hippocampus minor in a spider monkey.

As a scientist, Rolleston became a leading authority on the anatomy of the brain, and in the early 1860s was drawn into a famous debate between Richard Owen and T.H. Huxley over the comparative anatomy of the human and simian brain. Owen, representing the Oxford scientific establishment and allied with the Anglican Church, had claimed that the human brain contained structures not found in the brains of monkeys and apes, particularly a small structure known then as the hippocampus minor (calcar avis). Owen, a notable scientific opponent of Darwin, wanted to distance humans from evolutionary connection with apes implied by Darwinism (although Darwin himself didn't make the connection explicit until his Descent of Man in 1870). Huxley, a staunch Darwinist who stood outside the Oxford scientific and religious establishment, drew on Rolleston's brain dissections to prove that apes did, in fact, possess a hippocampus minor.

Although Rolleston, the Oxford scientist, sided with Huxley, his moderate temperament prevented him from adopting the thoroughgoing materialist view that Huxley's arguments promoted. He wrote: "It has always been clear to me that the true relation of man's body to his soul, to the world in which he lives, and to the Governor of it, can never be fully elucidated either by physiological or psychological researches, nor yet by both combined." In other words, Rolleston shared the view of Tennyson (also an adherent of the Broad Church), who wrote: "I think we are not wholly brain..."

1 comment:

Meg said...

Just read this. I researched Rolleston in Oxford for my D.Phil on Natural science. Have you any more R. information/

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