A Victorian Influencer

Born in 1810, Edward BLYTH used a small inheritance to open a pharmacy in London. A passionate interest in zoology led to him neglecting the business and it failed. Suffering ill-health, his future seemed uncertain but, partly on the strength of articles he had written for leading scientific journals and notes written for a re-issue of Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne (1837), he was recommended for the job of Curator of Zoology at the Museum of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. He sailed for Calcutta in 1841. Though not universally respected at the museum he was considered by some to be “the greatest of Indian naturalists” (Allan Hume), and known for many years as the Father of Indian Ornithology. (Thirteen bird species carry his name. One, Blyth’s pipit, occasionally loses its way on migration from Mongolia or India and fetches up in the land of Edward’s birth. The count of confirmed sightings in the UK is in the twenties I think.)

Edward married the Widow Hodges (née SUTTON) in 1854 but she died three years later. His health broke down altogether and he returned to England in March 1863. Had he recovered his strength he might have returned to the sub-continent to supervise the transmission of the Asiatic Society’s collections to the Indian Government and become the first Superintendent of the Indian Museum (Christine Brandon-Jones). Instead, he suffered a total breakdown, spent some time in a private asylum, and took to drink (Wikipedia). He died in London of heart disease on 27 December 1873.

1864, photographer unknown, Woodbury Company, public domain

Edward’s representation on the FamilySearch Shared Tree is minimal, giving the lie to this post’s title.

There are sources on FamilySearch that can expand the pedigree a little and Geni offers more connections. I’m hesitating to add some of the information I have found because of doubts regarding Edward’s father. One online tree says Clare Blyth died in 1820. Another Clare died in 1837 aged 78 and the calculated birth year of 1759 fits a birth record but indicates a late age to marry in 1808 and have four children with Catharine SAUNDERS. (Catharine’s parents and sisters have representation on the Shared Tree.)

Another puzzle regarding Edward’s father is this notice in a newspaper.

It seems odd that a 31 year-old worsted weaver would feel threatened by the press-gang. Fourteen years later a Clare Blyth in London ended a partnership with  Leeds woolstapler John BELL.

Note the Ironmonger Lane address. When an English census enumerator finally caught up with Edward in 1871, our naturalist was very precise when giving his birthplace.

Two years before his death, Edward was mentioned in a Pall Mall Gazette article titled Fragments of Science.

The custom by which literary men of the present day collect and publish in a convenient form the separate contributions which they may have offered to periodical literature during a certain period is one which has been acted on so extensively for the last few years that we are not surprised when Professor Tyndall contributes his own quota to the roll of self-connected articles. Such a plan is infinitely preferable to that adopted by many other scientific men as, for example, the late Dr. Hugh Falconer, whose memoirs throughout life were scattered through an enormous series of partially accessible publications, and were not collected in a systematic form until after his decease. Perhaps one of the most prolific and excellent among our living zoological writers, Mr. Edward Blyth, is the one whose contributions to scientific literature are the most scattered and the most inaccessible. If the best of of our scientific authors had adopted the plan on which so few have really acted, and had preserved copies or at least references to their contributions to scientific literature, great advantage would result…

Poor Edward, almost gone but not forgotten. One of the scientists who paid heed to some of the ideas expressed in his prolific output was Charles DARWIN. The more eminent Victorian hat-tipped Edward in print, invited him on several occasions to Down House and they exchanged many letters.  In Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X, Loren Eiseley suggests that Edward contributed more to the great man’s theory of evolution by natural selection than was publicly acknowledged. He ends his chapter Darwin, Blyth and Natural Selection thus:-

But let not the world forget that Edward Blyth, a man of poverty and bad fortune, shaped a key that dropped half-used from his hands when he set forth hastily on his own ill-fated voyage. That key, which was picked up and reforged by a far greater and more cunning hand, was no less than natural selection. At that moment, probably in 1937, the Origin  was born. When Blyth died in 1873 there was found among his papers a fragment of a work which he was preparing “On the Origination of Species.” It was not, his literary executors opined, worth publishing. It was derivative. In truth it was the dry seed husk fallen from what had grown to be a great tree.

The End of Slavery

If only slavery had ceased. Candace Owens reminds us that large numbers of Afric’s children are being trafficked still – by people of colour.

Bird 86 · Churchyard Crow