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A practical point

1 March 2023

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Oxford, UK (Image: wuppertaler, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Dear Editors,

I was interested by Nina Morgan’s point (Geoscientist 32(4), 32, 2022) regarding the surprising reluctance of William Buckland [1784 – 1856] to support the new project for the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in the 19th century.

To be fair to Buckland, he may well have had a reasonable basis in 1847 for arguing that there would be insufficient demand among undergraduates for the study of Natural Science. From the reform of the University of Oxford’s curriculum at the very end of the 18th century (to replace the medieval system of disputations by more modern examinations), and up until 1850, the undergraduate course, both at Honours and Pass level, was a general course in Classics, Mathematics and Divinity. It was designed for future Anglican clergy, as well as young members of the aristocracy and gentry. The Mathematics element contained Applied Mathematics, including Mechanics and some Optics and Astronomy, as illustrating applications of Plane and Spherical Trigonometry, and thus bordered on Physics, but did not extend into Natural Science more generally.

When Buckland was lecturing on Geology, attending those lectures was not part of the curriculum, but simply an optional extra for those who might be interested. Buckland might have had a point in suggesting that the studious who might be interested in such topics were under pressure to focus their time and energy on subjects in which they would be examined.

That changed in 1850 when two new Final Honours Schools, in Natural Sciences, and Modern History and cognate subjects (the latter chiefly Law), were introduced as alternatives to Mathematics for the later part of the course. (Classics and Divinity remained compulsory for some time thereafter.) It was that change that enabled the new museum to make a significant contribution to the teaching of Natural Science at Oxford. However, in 1847, Buckland may simply have been making a practical point.

Richard Trounson

Richard Noy Trounson is a former in-house lawyer with British Coal who continues to work part-time for a large law firm. He is a member of the History of Geology Group and of the Home Counties North Regional Group of the Society.

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