COLUMNIST: Exhibition celebrating the wonderful work of biologist Francis Willughby in Sheffield


A new exhibition celebrating the work of biologist Francis Willughby has arrived here in Sheffield.

A sensation in his day, the wonderful Mr Willughby had been lost from our history books. Thanks to Professor Tim Birkhead at the University of Sheffield, he is finally receiving the celebration he deserves.

Back in the 1600s, biology and natural history were a subject of mystery, with many more questions than answers. It was a time when we relied on the findings of ancient scholars like Aristotle, despite how inaccurate they may be. Strange folk tales were taken as fact - even one that suggested if two kingfishers were strung up by their feet, their beaks would point towards the incoming weather! The wonderful Mr. Willughby however, and his Cambridge tutor John Ray, had better ideas. Together, they were pioneers of a great scientific revolution, where we learned from what was in front of us, instead of what a scholar 2000 years ago said.

They started their adventures around Britain, identifying and collecting species on their travels. It quickly became apparent that there was no agreement on how we should categorize birds, or even what they were called. They decided that a complete overhaul was needed, to group and sort birds in a logical way.

Willughby and Ray then journeyed all over Europe to put to rest the rumours which existed at the time, and start to classify the living species on Earth. Specimens, including birds eggs and beautiful paintings, were collected from all over the continent. They decided on a grouping system, classifying birds by their appearance and behaviour. It’s Willughby’s wondrous work that has led to modern ideas surrounding animal classification and scientific methods.

So how did this amazing scientist get forgotten along the way? The answer lies in the sad tale of Francis Willughby’s early death. Tragically, he died from a mysterious illness in 1672, just before Willughby and Ray had finished their book - Ornithology. John Ray finished and published the book under Willughby’s name, and propelled Willughby into fame. Further books on insects and fish were published after Willughby’s death - but only under Ray’s name, despite the fact they included work that the duo had collected together. It seems Francis Willughby’s genius was starting to be forgotten.

Matters worsened when in 1788, a biologist named Sir James Edward Smith suggested that in fact, John Ray was the genius and Francis was merely a rich enthusiast, providing funding for Ray’s work. This idea persisted right up until 1940. When a biography of John Ray was published, proclaiming once again that Willughby was only an amateur, his descendents were incensed. Fortunately, Mr. Willughby’s notes, drawings and specimens remained tucked away in his old family home, an uncovered proof of his true brilliance.

It was said that one day Willughby’s reputation will be restored, and now his time has come. The fantastical exhibit at the University of Sheffield presents a tribute to Willughby’s life and work - inside you’ll find collections of drawings and letters by the scientist, as well as a copy of his ground breaking book, Ornithology. Step back in time and discover how Willughby travelled the world, collecting and dissecting specimens to learn more about them. A book by Tim Birkhead himself, entitled ‘The Wonderful Mr. Willughby: The First True Ornithologist’ accompanies the exhibition, and will be available in early 2018.

The exhibition runs until February 28, is free of charge, and is open to the general public.