Sir William Henry Flower on Mammals and the Human Brain

William Henry Flower

William Henry Flower

On November 30, 1831, English comparative anatomist and surgeon William Henry Flower was born. Flower became a leading authority on mammals, and especially on the primate brain. He supported Thomas Henry Huxley in an important controversy with Richard Owen about the human brain, and eventually succeeded Owen as Director of the Natural History Museum.

William Henry Flower matriculated in Arts in 1849 and later joined the Medical School at University College London whilst becoming a pupil at the Middlesex Hospital. In March 1852 Flower read his first paper before the Zoological Society, of which he was a Fellow. He was appointed Junior House Surgeon at the Middlesex Hospital, and after six months promoted to Senior House Surgeon. In March 1854 he passed the Royal College of Surgeons exam to become a Member, a basic qualification for practising surgery in England. Also in 1854 he became Curator of the Middlesex Hospital Museum.

Flower had long been interested in natural history, and he later decided to move his career in that direction, probably under the influence of Thomas Henry Huxley, who was also a comparative anatomist, and Fullerian Professor at the Royal Institution at the time. Flower further became associated with Huxley’s controversy with Richard Owen concerning the human brain. Owen had erroneously said that the human brain had structures that were not present in other mammals, and separated man off into a Sub-Class of its own instead of a genus in the primates. Huxley contradicted this in a debate at the BA meeting in 1860, and promised a demonstration in due course. Huxley consulted Flower on the matter and over the years, Flower published papers on the brains of four species of monkey, and acted as Huxley’s partner in demonstrations at subsequent BA meetings.

In 1870 he became Hunterian Professor of Comparative Anatomy in succession to Huxley and commenced a series of lectures that ran for fourteen years, all on aspects of the Mammalia. The essence was published in his books of 1870 and 1891. He was President of the Zoological Society of London from 1879 to 1899. In 1882 he was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society.

In 1884, on the retirement of Sir Richard Owen, Flower was appointed to the directorship of the Natural History departments of the British Museum in South Kensington. In addition to his role as Director, Flower also took over from Albert Günther, the ornithologist, as Keeper of Zoology in 1895, remaining so until his retirement in 1898. Apart from his continuing interest in primates, Flower became an expert on the Cetacea. He carried out dissections, went out on whaling boats, arranged whale exhibits in the Museum in South Kensington, and studied the new discoveries of whale fossils. His publications were all bar a few on mammals; he was not a field biologist, nor a student of the other vertebrate groups, at any rate in his adult life. He wrote forty articles for the 9th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, every one on a group of mammals. Flower was an effective Director of the natural history departments of the British Museum, balancing the competing and conflicting needs of the staff, the public, the other professional naturalists, the Trustees and the Principal Librarian.

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