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Reading Anatomy in Francis J. Cole’s Collections

Francis J Cole Source: Franklin, K. J
Francis J Cole
Source: Franklin, K. J

Professor Francis J. Cole loved to read. And while this might seem a prerequisite for a professor, it was Cole’s way of reading that first got me interested in him. Despite studying Zoology, Cole didn’t just read for scientific information, but seemed constantly fascinated by how knowledge itself travelled, writing on subjects as diverse as A History of Comparative Anatomy (1949), to how Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut Rhinoceros (1515) became the dominant image of the rhino long after its errors were widely known.

So who was Francis Joseph Cole (1872-1959)? A zoologist, comparative anatomist and, later in life, science-historian, Cole’s contribution to his fields of research has been thus far historically overlooked. The value of his findings, does, however, appear to have been appreciated during his own lifetime, since he was awarded the Rolleston Prize (1902), the Neill Gold Medal (1908) and was later elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (1926). His first lecturing position was in the Department of Zoology at Liverpool University, from 1897 until 1906, but it was in his next post that evidence of Cole’s interest in anatomy, collecting and the dissemination of knowledge becomes more apparent. Installed as the first Professor of Zoology at the University of Reading (then known as University College, Reading) in 1906, Cole began to set up a Museum of Zoology. Encouraging visitors (from the UK and abroad) to donate zoological specimens, Cole positioned practical teaching in a museum environment as an important step towards gaining anatomical knowledge.

Cole’s own scientific education developed through diverse channels, rather than through a traditional progression in the education system; his secondary school offered either chemistry or physics, with no possibility of taking both and no dedicated science master. Instead, he and his schoolfellow J.O. Borley ‘dissected animals together, acquired an ancient microscope, and devoured [scientific journal] Nature every week … they had been inspired to dissect earthworms “after reading Darwin’s work on that despised annelid.”’ It’s notable that even at this early stage, Cole’s growing scientific fascination is influenced in equal measure by practical anatomical research, and by ‘devouring’ scientific literature, with his interest in getting ‘hands-on’ inspired by reading Darwin. Cole’s lifelong fascination with science writing, knowledge and collection also stems from these intertwined beginnings; ‘at the cost of some weeks’ pocket money,’ Cole and Borley purchased a copy of Edmund B. Wilson’s The Embryology of the Earthworm (1889) but were disappointed to discover an inability to comprehend its contents. Although it was not the first book he had purchased, K.J. Franklin (biographer of the Fellows of the Royal Society), noted that Cole always regarded it as the first to rouse the fascination with reading and collecting that dominated the rest of his long life.

Durer's Rhino (1515)
Durer’s Rhino (1515)

Cole’s fascination with the relation between anatomy and text is perhaps best embodied by his own collections. While Cole’s Museum was modeled on John Hunter’s Museum of Comparative Anatomy, it appears that his inspiration for this structure was also derived from his own library of works on collecting, bibliography, and on the Hunters themselves. This mutual influence can be perceived in an exhibition about Cole’s Library held shortly after his death, the texts displayed like an eerie echo of the anatomical specimens of Cole’s Museum. Moreover, the exhibition literature noted that ‘Cole was a collector of books all his life, with a knowledge not only of their contents, but of their physical aspects as well, believing that a collector should be able to bind and repair his own acquisitions,’ language which suggests Cole as a kind of book biologist, preserving and exploring the textual body. Even after Cole’s death, the University arranged for essential additions to keep the collection up to date for the science-historian, as what they termed ‘a very living memorial to Dr Cole,’ and a counterpoint to the static specimens in Cole’s Museum.

Consisting of about eight thousand volumes dealing with early medicine and Zoology (from the fifteenth century to the present day), and collected from his schooldays onwards to the end of his long life of nearly eighty-seven years, Cole’s library is a bildungsroman in books, an evolving monument to his understanding of science and narrative. Advocating the benefits of mutual inspiration, Cole’s Museum and Library place the insight drawn from the analysis of specimen and text on a level playing field, continuing to establish the place of literature in the field of science (and vice versa) during the long nineteenth century. His interest not solely in scientific knowledge, but in how the language with which it was written transmitted meaning, and shaped the facts or fictions it could convey, continues to fascinate me. Although the number of scientific, zoological and medical texts has been influential in shaping the identity of this library as overwhelmingly scientific, the archive’s contents range from a first edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) to a multitude of Charles Dickens’s novels; and the way Cole read them highlights the relationship between story-telling and anatomy, and casts new light by which we might read a nineteenth-century understanding of the body.

About Verity Burke

Verity Burke is a doctoral student at the University of Reading, working on the Cole Library of Early Medicine and Zoology. Her project is an interdisciplinary study of the representation of medical and scientific anatomies in nineteenth-century fiction, and their effect on the popular imagination. Her wider research interests include Charles Dickens, surgery, forensics and the body. She loves a good taxidermy squirrel.

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