UCL logo




Bloomsbury Project

Bloomsbury and the Bloomsbury Project

Bloomsbury People

What is the Bloomsbury Project?

The Leverhulme-funded UCL Bloomsbury Project was established to investigate 19th-century Bloomsbury’s development from swampy rubbish-dump to centre of intellectual life

Led by Professor Rosemary Ashton, with Dr Deborah Colville as Researcher, the Project has traced the origins, Bloomsbury locations, and reforming significance of hundreds of progressive and innovative institutions

Many of the extensive archival resources relating to these institutions have also been identified and examined by the Project, and Bloomsbury’s developing streets and squares have been mapped and described

This website is a gateway to the information gathered and edited by Project members during the Project’s lifetime, 1 October 2007–30 April 2011, with the co-operation of Bloomsbury’s institutions, societies, and local residents

Robert Edmond Grant (1793–1874)

a summary of his Bloomsbury connections

He was born in Edinburgh and educated at the University there in classics and medicine, and then in Paris immediately following the end of the Napoleonic wars

In 1827 he was appointed first Professor of Zoology at the new University of London (later University College London), which opened in October 1828

Along with his contemporaries Robert Knox and Richard Owen, he was largely responsible for the establishment in Britain of the conception of zoology as a law-based science then prevalent in Europe (James Elwick, Styles of Reasoning in the British Life Sciences: Shared Assumptions 1820–1858, 2007)

In 1825–1827 Grant published in Edinburgh journals a number of articles on the structure of, and mode of generation in, sponges, and maintained an interest in what he understood as the spontaneous generation of the simplest organic forms throughout his life

He lectured at the University of London from its opening until his death in 1874, and with his pupils amassed a teaching collection, now in the Grant Museum of Zoology, which can still be visited at UCL

He also lectured at some of the private anatomy schools, including Sydenham College

An unmarried man of simple habits, Grant lived modestly in a small house in Grafton Place, just north of the New Road (later Euston Road) and close to the station which was being built in the mid 1830s

According to E. A Schäfer, a former student writing in 1901, Grant was offered compensation by the railway company for the noise and inconvenience caused by their works, but refused it, “stating that he could not see that the change which was to be made would in any way injuriously affect him” (University College Gazette, vol. II, October 1901)

He was unusual, even radical, in other ways too

In 1836 he gave evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee on the British Museum, in which he complained of the predominantly aristocratic constitution of the Museum’s trustees and their resistance to change in the form of longer opening hours and a proper salary structure for Museum staff (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

Like all the early Professors at the University, Grant suffered from the enforced meanness of the Council in the matter of professorial salaries, which were pegged at £300 per annum for the first two years, extended to three, and thereafter calculated as a proportion of the fees brought in by students

Grant, like most of his colleagues, could not make much money from student fees, and had to teach outside the university to fund his regular summer travels in Europe, on which his students occasionally accompanied him (Sarah E. Parker, Robert Edmond Grant (1793–1874) and his Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, 2006)

He had to get permission for his outside work, and wrote angrily to Charles Atkinson, the Secretary of the University, in September 1837, complaining at the Committee of Management’s decision to turn down his request to teach at Sydenham College, a private college of anatomy in nearby Sussex Street:

“I beg leave to observe that from the period of my appointment to the University in July 1827 to the present moment I have never heard that even a wish had been entertained by our Council or its Committees to interfere with the avocations of the teachers without the walls of our unendowed establishment”

“When I left Scotland and my professional prospects, to conduct the humble department entrusted to me in the University, I anticipated (what I cheerfully encountered after the third session of our career) that I might be compelled to undertake duties out of the University to enable me to continue them in it”

(Robert Grant to Charles Atkinson, 22 September 1837, College Correspondence, no. 4166, UCL Special Collections)

Grant seems to have won the argument, and he continued to teach and to build up his zoological collection

Grant was remembered in his later days by his student E. A. Schäfer as “a lean, clean shaven old man, with a large head, sharply cut features and mobile mouth, dressed in a swallow tail coat (rather the worse for wear), with a high collar and stock, holding forth to an audience of some seven or eight lads, who were all the time strongly disposed to laugh at his peculiarities” (University College Gazette, vol. II, October 1901)

Earlier students had adopted a more reverential attitude; an entry in the diary of ‘Physiological Psychologist’ Thomas Laycock (later Professor of the Principles and Practice of Medicine at Edinburgh University) for 1834 described admiringly how Grant lectured without detailed notes:

“Dr Grant stated today that Mr Faraday, the lecturer at the Royal Institution, lectured from no other notes than ‘Not so fast!’ and ‘Hands off!’ written on a card — the former that he might not speak so fast, the latter to check a bad habit of swinging on the table with his hands.  Dr Grant informed us that at his recommendation (Mr F’s) he wrote his sole notes upon a card ‘speak louder’ that he might not mumble so”

(T. Laycock, ‘A Journal, 1833–1857’, MS Gen. 1813, Edinburgh University Library)

Grant was the unanimous choice of the Trustees of the British Museum to be the second Swiney Lecturer under the provisions of the £5,000 Swiney Fund administered by the Museum

The fund was bequeathed to the Museum by the will of Dr George Swiney, an eccentric doctor and benefactor, who died in 1844

The will stipulated that the lectures should be on geology and the appointed lecturers should have graduated MD at Edinburgh, as Swiney himself had done

William Benjamin Carpenter was appointed the first Swiney Lecturer for five years, from 1847–1848 to 1851–1852

Grant followed Carpenter, lecturing from 1852–1853 to 1856–1857

He delivered his first series from January to March 1853 at University College London, and his subsequent series at the Russell Institution in Great Coram Street (Minutes of General Meeting of Trustees, 11 December 1852, vol. VIII; minutes of Committee Meeting, 23 July 1823, vol. XXVI, British Museum Central Archive)

One member of his audience at University College in January 1853 was the Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum, Sir Frederic Madden

Madden’s diary for 4 January 1853 noted that Grant was not a good lecturer, reading his lecture in a “weak and indistinct” voice to an audience of only about twenty people (copy of Madden Diary, British Museum Central Archive; the original is in the Bodleian Library, Oxford)

Grant himself wrote to the Principal Librarian, Anthony Panizzi, in May 1856, replying to a request to inform the Trustees of the average attendance at the four courses of lectures he had so far delivered

He told Panizzi that the average number spread over the four years was eighty-seven, adding, “Small as this number is, it is about twenty times the average attendance at my Lectures on the same subject (Palaeozoology), during the last twenty-eight years at University College” (Robert Grant to Anthony Panizzi, 19 May 1856, Original Letters and Papers, vol. LIV, British Museum Central Archive)

Though in his younger days Grant had been hailed in some quarters as ‘the English Cuvier’, by the 1860s his museological approach to teaching was beginning to look old-fashioned compared with the experimental researches of rising zoological stars such as Thomas Henry Huxley, Examiner in Zoology and Comparative Physiology at University College London at this time (Adrian Desmond, The Politics of Evolution, 1989)

He did, however, enrich the University by leaving everything, including his Museum, to University College on his death in 1874

According to Schäfer, Grant was dying intestate at his house in Grafton Place when his colleague William Sharpey, hearing that Grant’s brother had died in India, leaving him money, rushed to his bedside to persuade him to make a will bequeathing everything to University College, which he duly did

Sharpey wrote to J. Robson, Secretary of University College, on 22 August 1874, the day before Grant’s death, saying he was so ill with “dysenteria diarrhœa” that he was unlikely to recover; however, Grant “scarcely believed he was dying” and had not put in writing his wishes that his papers and collections should be left to University College

Sharpey explained that if he did not make a will, his property “might be taken by the Exchequer” and so arranged for the will to be drawn up and signed just in time (William Sharpey to J. Robson, 22 August 1874, MS College Collection Sharpey-Robson [1874], UCL Special Collections)

For more general biographical information about Robert Grant, see his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

This page last modified 7 April, 2011 by Deborah Colville


Bloomsbury Project - University College London - Gower Street - London - WC1E 6BT - Telephone: +44 (0)20 7679 3134 - Copyright © 1999-2005 UCL

Search by Google