Alfred Newton

Alfred Newton

Alfred Newton FRS (Geneva, June 11, 1829 – Cambridge, June 7, 1907) was an English zoologist and ornithologist.

Newton was Professor of Comparative Anatomy at Cambridge University from 1866 to 1907. In 1900 he was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society and the Gold Medal of the Linnaean Society.


Alfred Newton was the fifth son of William Newton of Elvedon in Suffolk, sometime MP for Ipswich and a Justice of the Peace for the County of Norfolk. The family wealth was founded on sugar plantations in the Caribbean, where Alfred's grandfather Samuel Newton had a sugarcane plantation in St Kitts, and a property in St Croix (both in the West Indies). With the abolition of slavery the golden days of sugar were over, and William sold up and returned to England, purchasing the property of Elvedon, near Thetford from the Earl of Albermarle. [Wollaston AFR 1921. "Life of Alfred Newton: late Professor of Comparative Anatomy, Cambridge University 1866-1907, with a Preface by Sir Archibald Geikie OM". Dutton, NY. subsequent references to this source are noted by W+page#] Elvedon (pronounced and sometimes spelt 'Eldon') was a house and estate with a history. The house was built in 1770 by Admiral Augustus Keppel (Lord Keppel) on land where James II had hunted game. After the comparatively humble Newtons left, the estate was owned by Prince Duleep Singh, the Sikh ruler of the Punjab and the last Maharajah of Lahore, and then the Guinness family (Earl of Iveagh).

In 1828 the Newton family, complete with children and servants, made a lengthy trip to Italy. On the way back Alfred was born on July 11, 1829 at Les Délices, a chateau near Geneva that had once been owned by Voltaire. Alfred had a lively childhood, but suffered an accident when about five or six, which left him somewhat lame in one leg. He went to school in 1844 to Mr Walker's school at Stetchworth near Newmarket, and was keeping birds in cages and looking after various other animals from quite a young age.

As with Charles Darwin, a youth spent shooting game – pheasant, partridge – led to a more general interest. Unlike Darwin, however, Newton's interest stayed with birds, some of which were rare even in those days. The Great Bustard ("Otis tarda"), Montague's Harrier ("Circus pygargus"), ravens, buzzards ("Buteo" sp.), redpolls, wrynecks ("Jynx"), which are small woodpeckers that specialise in ants. "The vast warrens of the 'Breck', the woods and water-meadows of the valley of the Little Ouse, and the neighbouring Fenland made an ideal training-ground for a naturalist". (W. p4) This enthusiasm he shared with his younger brother Edward: the two carried out bird observation when they were together and corresponded whenever they were apart.

In 1846 he went to a tutor in Biggleswade for a few months, and in 1848 Newton entered Magdalene College, Cambridge as a pensioner or commoner. In Cambridge jargon, this meant a student who paid for both his education and his lodgings. Newton gained his degree in 1852, and graduated in 1853. He spent the rest of his life at Magdalene, and never married. A fall later in life, when he was on a trip to Heligoland, further crippled him, and he then walked with the aid of two sticks, instead of one, as formerly. "From a three-legged, he has become a four-legged man" commented a friend. [W p168-9]


In 1854 he was elected Travelling Fellow of Magdalene College, and subsequently visited many parts of the world, including Lapland, Iceland, Spitsbergen, the West Indies and North America. In 1866 he became the first Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy at Cambridge, a position which he retained until his death. He was one of the few British Professors of Zoology in whose appointment Huxley did "not" have a hand: in fact the procedure was for candidates to "canvass for votes"! (presumably amongst the MAs of the University). [W. p133] Result of poll: Newton 110; Dr Drosier 82 (W. p134). Newton was one of the first zoologists to accept and champion the views of Charles Darwin, and his early lecture courses as professor were on evolution and zoogeography. [W. p104]

Newton was a leader in founding the British Ornithologists' Union in 1858, and its quarterly journal, the Ibis in 1859. He wrote books, including "Ootheca Wolleyana" (begun in 1864), "Zoology" (1872), and "A Dictionary of Birds" (1893-1896). He contributed memoirs to scientific societies, and edited the "Ibis" (1865-1870), the "Zoological Record" (1870-1872), and "Yarrell's British Birds" (1871-1882). His services to ornithology and zoogeography were recognized by the Royal Society in 1900, when it awarded him the Royal Medal.

Newton spent some time studying the vanishing birds of the Mascarene Islands, from where his brother Sir Edward Newton sent him specimens. These included the Dodo on Mauritius and the Solitaire on Rodrigues, both already extinct. [Newton A, Rev HB Tristram and Dr Sclater 1866. Report on the extinct birds of the Mascarene Islands. "British Association".] [Newton A and E. 1868. On the osteology of the Solitaire or Didine bird of the island of Rodrigues. "Proc Royal Soc". 103.] [Newton A. 1877. The Dodo. "Encyclopædia Britannica", 9th ed.] In 1872 he was the first person to describe Newton's Parakeet which also lived on Rodrigues. This bird became extinct in 1875.

Protection of wild-life

Newton was a prominent member of the Society for the Protection of Birds (later, 1903, the RSPB), and carried on a long campaign to influence women against the fashion of adorning their hats with the flight feathers of raptors and other fine birds. His letters to "The Times" and addresses to BA meetings on this subject were regularly reprinted as pamphlets by the Society. [Newton A. 1899. The plume trade: borrowed plumes. "The Times" January 28th, 1876; and The plume trade. "The Times" February 25th, 1899. Reprinted together by the Society for the Protection of Birds, April 1899.]

One of his most successful works was a series of investigations into the "Desirability of establishing a 'Close-time' for the preservation of indigenous animals". These were instigated and published by the BA between 1872 and 1903, leading towards the present-day legislation concerning the closed seasons for game fish, shell-fish, birds and mammals (Game laws). The basic concept, as is now well known, is to protect animals during their breeding season so as to prevent the stock from being brought close to extinction. [Newton A. 1868. The zoological aspect of game laws. Address to the "British Association", Section D, August 1868. Reprinted [n.d.] by the Society for the Protection of Birds.] (W. p324)

Reception of the "Origin of Species"

Newton's correspondence gives an intimate view of how he encountered the momentous idea of evolution by means of natural selection::" Not many days after my return home there reached me the part of the "Journal of the Linnean Society" which bears on its cover the date 20th August 1858, and contains the papers by Mr Darwin and Mr Wallace, which were communicated to that Society at its special meeting of the first of July preceding... I sat up late that night to read it; and never shall I forget the impression it made upon me. Herein was contained a perfectly simple solution of all the difficulties which had been troubling me for months past... I am free to confess that in my joy I did not then perceive that... dozens of other difficulties lay in the path... but I was convinced a "vera causa" [true cause] had been found... and I never doubted for one moment, then nor since, that we had one of the grandest discoveries of the age—a discovery all the more grand because it was so simple." [extract from Newton A. 1888. The early days of Darwinism. "Macmillan's Magazine", February 1888, W p112-4.]

Only four days after the publication of the famous 1858 paper, and one day after he read it, Newton started to apply Darwin and Wallace's idea to various problems in ornithology. [letter from Newton to H.B. Tristram, August 24, 1858. W p115-7]

= The 1860 BA debate=

The British Association annual meeting for 1860, held in the University Museum in Oxford, was the location for two of the most important public debates in 19th century biology. Newton was present at both, and left a record of what happened in letters to his brother Edward.

Saturday 30th June 1860: this was the day of the famous debate between Huxley and Wilberforce. In a letter to his brother, Alfred writes::"In the Nat. Hist. Section we had another hot Darwinian debate... After [lengthy preliminaries] Huxley was called upon by Henslow to state his views at greater length, and this brought up the Bp. of Oxford... Referring to what Huxley had said two days before, about after all its not signifying to him whether he was descended from a Gorilla or not, the Bp. chafed him and asked whether he had a preference for the descent being on the father's side or the mother's side? This gave Huxley the opportunity of saying that he would sooner claim kindred with an Ape than with a man like the Bp. who made so ill an use of his wonderful speaking powers to try and burke, by a display of authority, a free discussion on what was, or was not, a matter of truth, and reminded him that on questions of physical science 'authority' had always been bowled out by investigation, as witness astronomy and geology.
He then got hold of the Bp's assertions and showed how contrary they were to facts, and how he knew nothing about what he had been discoursing on. A lot of people afterwards spoke... the feeling of the meeting was very much against the Bp." [W p118-120]

The letter, dated July 25th 1860, is good evidence that the traditional account of the debate is reasonably accurate – indeed, the best kind of evidence we could have in the absence of a verbatim account.

The 1862 BA debate

Ever since 1857 when Richard Owen presented (to the Linnean Society) his view that man was marked off from all other mammals by possessing features of the brain peculiar to the genus "Homo", Huxley had been on his trail. The issue had been debated at the BA in 1860 and 1861 (Manchester), and then in 1862 at the Cambridge meeting of the B.A. Huxley arranged for his friend William Flower to give a public dissection to show that the same structures were indeed present, not only in apes, but in monkeys also. Flower stood up and said "I happen to have in my pocket a monkey's brain" — and produced the object in question! (report in the Times). At least two letters deal with this issue::"There was a grand kick-up again between Owen and Huxley, the former struggling against "facts" with a devotion worthy of a better cause. The latter now takes it easy, and laughs over it all, but Flower and Rolleston are too savage. No doubt it is very irritating when Owen will not take the slightest notice of all they have done and proved, and Owen does it all in such a happy manner, that he almost carries conviction from those who "know" how utterly wrong as to facts he is." [W p123: letter to Edward dated October 8 1862]

See also
*T.H. Huxley#Debate with Wilberforce
*T.H. Huxley#Man and ape
*1860 Oxford evolution debate
*Reaction to Darwin's theory#The British Association debate


Some other publications

Newton A. 1861. Abstract of Mr J. Wolley's researches in Iceland respecting the Gare-Fowl or Great Auk ("Alca impennis", Linn.) "Ibis", Oct 1861.

Newton A. 1862. The zoology of ancient Europe. "Cambridge Philosophical Society".

Newton A. 1864–1907. "Ootheca Wolleyana: 1. An illustrated catalogue of the collection of birds' eggs formed by the late John Wolley 2. Eggs of the native birds of Britain and list of British birds, past and present".
The first part was published in 1864; it was not until 1902 that Newton was able to resume the work and the next parts appeared in 1902, 1905 and 1907. The work is illustrated with colour lithographic plates and with black & white illustrations. Artists include Newton, Balcomb, Grönvold, M. Hanhart, J. Jury, and Joseph Wolf. Complete sets of the work are rare.

Newton A, Rev HB Tristram and Dr P.L. Sclater 1866. Report on the extinct birds of the Mascarene Islands. "British Association".

Newton A and E. 1868. On the osteology of the Solitaire or Didine bird of the island of Rodriguez. "Proc Royal Soc". 103.

Newton A. 1874. "Manual of Zoology". SPCK, London.

Newton A and Parker W.K. 1875. Birds. "Encyclopædia Britannica", 9th ed.

Newton A. 1877. The Dodo. "Encyclopædia Britannica", 9th ed.

Newton A and E. 1880 [1881] List of the Birds of Jamaica. "Handbook of Jamaica".

Newton A. 1880. Report on the practicability of establishing a 'Close Time' for the protection of indigenous animals, by a Committee appointed by the British Association, 1869-1880. "British Association Reports", London.

Newton A. 1881. The Wild Birds' Protection Act 1880, with explanatory notes. London ("Field" Office) 1880. "Quarterly Review", 151, 301, Jan 1881.

Newton A. 1884. Ornithology. "Encyclopædia Britannica", 9th ed.

Newton A. (assisted by Hans Gadow, with contributions from Richard Lydekker, Charles S. Roy and Robert Shufeldt) 1893-96. "A Dictionary of Birds". Reprinted in one volume (1088 pages) Black, London, 1896.

Newton A. et al 1896-1903. Bird migration in Great Britain and Ireland. Reports of the Committee... "British Association".

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