Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Stomach Rules the World

Rev Dr. William Buckland

A few months ago I talked about the delights of nutty academics, a subject I have fond memories of from my times at University. Recently I've been reading about the eminent Geologist Dr William Buckland - a man who on one hand was a marvellously intelligent scientist, but on the other a complete loon - yet in that kind of eccentric way only 19th Century Britons could manage. In his sadly brief life, he managed - amongst other things - to discover the first known dinosaur (before they were so called), champion theories like Glaciation, become the trusted friend of a Prime Minister - and also become fascinated with fossil poo, eat the heart of the King of France, and piss off Charles Darwin (who called him a 'vulgar and coarse buffoon').

Buckland was born in 1784 in Devon, and thanks to a spirited father became interested enough in the sciences to win a scholarship to Oxford in 1801. Studying the fledgling science of Geology (he was their first ever reader in the subject), he excelled, and was awarded an MA in 1808, the same year he was ordained as a priest. He moved on to lecturing, and delighted in unorthodox teaching methods that made him a firm favourite with his students - famously one described a typical lecture of his...

“He paced like a Franciscan preacher up and down behind a long showcase ... He had in his hand a huge hyaena’s skull. He suddenly dashed down the steps - rushed skull in hand at the first undergraduate on the front bench and shouted ‘What rules the world?’ The youth, terrified, answered not a word. He rushed then on to me, pointing the hyaena full in my face - ‘What rules the world?’ ‘Haven’t an idea’, I said. ‘The stomach, sir!’, he cried ‘rules the world. The great ones eat the less, the less the lesser still!’”

In 1824 Buckland became President of the Geological Society, and announced the discovery of the bones of a giant reptile, which he named Megalosaurus, or “great lizard”, on account of its vast size. He published a paper later that year, thus describing the first ever dinosaur - although that term had yet to be coined. This made his name, and he went on to lecture regularly at the British Association, Royal Society and the Geological Society.

However, despite his scientific merits, Buckland is infamous for one special wish - his resolution to eat one of every type of animal. Not surprisingly, his dinner parties were legendary - toasted mice were a favourite of his - which he happily chewed on whilst his guests made excuses about being full, I imagine. Hedgehog, guinea pig, alligator, sea slug, ostrich - the menu at his house was eclectic to say the least. He became a sort of Anti-Noah, living near London Zoo meant he could turn up when something died he had yet to sample. Apparently on holiday when the zoo's Leopard died, he returned to find it buried, but dug it up and tried it anyway.

Sadly I've yet to find an exact list of everything he tried - but I do know that his two least favourite snacks were Mole and the humble Bluebottle, which he thought was 'disgusting'. He obviously had an effect on his son, Frank, as he carried on his father's passion for unusual foodstuffs. However, although Frank managed to plough through a whole Porpoise, he never matched his father's greatest triumph -

"Talk of strange relics led to mention of the heart of a French King [Louis XVI] preserved at Nuneham in a silver casket. Dr. Buckland, whilst looking at it, exclaimed, 'I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before,' and, before anyone could hinder him, he had gobbled it up, and the precious relic was lost for ever."

I'm not entirely convinced by this, but other stories I've read about Buckland have referred to him buying the embalmed heart of a French king and eating it in front of shocked guests at one of his parties, so you never know. My favourite anecdote about this remarkable man sums him up well, showing his ability to use unusual methods to get to the bottom of a scientific mystery...

..."Visiting a cathedral at which spots of saints' blood were said to be always fresh on the floor, never evaporating or vanishing, Dr. Buckland, with the use of his tongue, determined that the "blood" was in fact bats' urine."

Dr William Buckland's Biography can be found here (.pdf file)