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Rolleston, Georgefree

  • Alex Paton

George Rolleston (1829–1881)

by William Edwards Miller, 1877

Rolleston, George (1829–1881), physician and physiologist, was born on 30 July 1829 at Maltby Hall, near Rotherham, the second son of George Rolleston (1791–1868), squire and vicar of Maltby, and his wife, Anne Nettleship (d. 1851). William Rolleston was his younger brother. Educated initially by his father, he was able to read from Homer by the age of ten, when he entered Gainsborough grammar school. Two years later he moved to the collegiate school at Sheffield, and won an open scholarship to Pembroke College, Oxford, in 1846. He rowed in the college eight, obtained a first-class degree in classics in 1850, and was elected to the Sheppard fellowship in law and physic (which he held until 1862). This determined him to study medicine, and the next year he entered St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, where he qualified MB in 1854. In the closing stages of the Crimean War (1855) he was appointed as one of the physicians to the British civil hospital at Smyrna, described by A. W. Kinglake as 'a model of what can be done for the care of troops sick and wounded' (A. W. Kinglake, The Invasion of the Crimea, 1863–87, 6.416). He made good use of his time there by writing a report on the sanitary and other aspects of Smyrna, and then toured Palestine before returning home.

For eight months in 1857 Rolleston was assistant physician at the Hospital for Sick Children, London, and had consulting rooms at 13 Henrietta Street, but was called back to Oxford on the death of James Adey Ogle, regius professor of medicine, to be elected physician to the Radcliffe Infirmary and Lee's reader in anatomy, in succession to Henry Acland, the new regius. For years the natural sciences at Oxford had been neglected in favour of theology and classics, but times were changing and Acland set about giving science a new profile. An honour school of natural sciences had been established in 1850, and he succeeded, against much opposition, in getting biology and chemistry added to the curriculum. He was also the force behind the building of the University Museum, opened in 1860, which brought together widely scattered collections of books and specimens in order to provide proper facilities for teaching and research. Rolleston therefore joined the university at a time of exciting developments.

Rolleston married, in 1861, Grace, daughter of Dr John Davy and niece of Sir Humphry Davy. Of their seven children, three sons, including Sir Humphry Davy Rolleston (1862–1944), became distinguished physicians. The family home in Oxford was at 15 New Inn Hall Street until 1868 when they moved to Park Grange, a house they had built in South Parks Road near the museum.

In 1860 Rolleston was chosen as the first Linacre professor of anatomy and physiology, a post that Acland had also been instrumental in establishing, and he held the chair with distinction until his premature death. Rolleston's breadth of learning and formidable energy resulted in a department which taught not only anatomy and physiology but zoology, comparative anatomy (his own research interest), anthropology, and archaeology. Throughout his tenure he strongly advocated that these should be divided into three separate schools; it is ironic that this happened only at his death.

Soon after his appointment Rolleston attended a lively meeting of the British Association at the new museum, where the recently published Origin of Species by Charles Darwin was debated. The attack was led by the bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, who so incensed Darwin's supporter T. H. Huxley that the latter made the well-known riposte, 'for myself I would rather be descended from an ape than from a divine who employs authority to stifle truth' (W. Tuckwell, Reminiscences of Oxford, 1901, 52). Rolleston came away impressed with Darwinism, and immediately set about studying brain development and the classification of skulls in man and animals; his extensive collection of human skulls was eventually presented to the museum. In 1870 he published Forms of Animal Life, a pioneering work on the systematic classification and comparison of animal structures. His teaching and administrative duties left little time for research and writing, but the breadth of his interests is apparent in some of the subjects of his Scientific Papers and Addresses (1884) published after his death; they include the brain of the orang-utan, the placenta of mammals, domestic cats ancient and modern, a study of dental enamel, and the domestic pig in ancient times.

Rolleston obtained the MD in 1857 and was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, London, in 1859 and a fellow of the Royal Society in 1862. For many years he was a member of the Oxford local board, helping to initiate mains drainage for the city to improve sanitation, and successfully advocating the isolation of smallpox cases during the epidemic of 1871. He was a believer in abstinence from alcohol, and became vice-president of the temperance organization UK Alliance in 1867. He was elected a fellow of Merton College in 1872, and the next year delivered the Harveian oration, the principal lecture in the gift of the Royal College of Physicians, established in 1656 by William Harvey. As a member of the council of the university he was its representative on the General Medical Council from 1875, where he was active in reform of medical education. His submission in favour of vivisection under appropriate restrictions to the royal commission on animal experimentation was incorporated in the Vivisection Act of 1876. His last address, to the Royal Geographical Society in 1879, has an interestingly modern ring to its title: 'Modifications of the external aspects of organic nature produced by man's interference'.

Rolleston was a tall, broad-shouldered man, with a large head and expressive features. He had considerable charm, was warm-hearted and honest, 'a good hater [who] never abandoned a losing cause after he had convinced himself that it was right' (Power), and an attractive conversationalist, with a gift for repartee and an extraordinary memory, which enabled him to spice his talk with quotations from the classics. His writing, on the other hand, was often turgid and long-winded, and overloaded with references. Nevertheless he was the epitome of the university professor: informed on all subjects, an enthusiastic and influential teacher of knowledge for its own sake, and a mixture of classical scholar, academic scientist, and naturalist in the widest sense. A Liberal in politics and a lifelong member of the Church of England, he was open to ideas of reform in both areas. What little leisure he had was devoted to examining local archaeological sites, and he collaborated with his friend Canon Greenwell in producing a book on burial mounds around the country, British Barrows (1877). Another friend was the archaeologist A. H. L. Pitt-Rivers, with whom he toured Sweden in 1879. Failing health, attributed to the great pressure under which he worked, forced Rolleston to spend the winter of 1880–81 in the French riviera, but he died at his home in Oxford of kidney failure at the early age of fifty-one on 16 June 1881, soon after returning to England. He was buried in Holywell cemetery, Oxford. He was survived by his wife.


  • Munk, Roll, 4.117–18
  • E. B. Tylor, Biographical sketch, in G. Rolleston, Scientific papers and addresses, 2 vols. (1884)
  • W. H. Flower, PRS, 33 (1881–2), xxiv–xxvii
  • D'A. Power, Memoir (1897)
  • BMJ (25 June 1881), 1028–9
  • The Times (18 June 1881), 12f
  • The Times (21 June 1881), 8a
  • The Times (21 June 1881), 11f
  • The Lancet (25 June 1881), 1044–5
  • bishop's transcripts, Maltby


  • AM Oxf., papers
  • RCP Lond., MSS
  • U. Oxf., department of zoology, corresp. and MSS
  • U. Oxf., Sackler Library, archaeological and anthropological papers
  • Wellcome L., corresp. and MSS
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Sir Henry Acland
  • ICL, letters to Thomas Huxley
  • Oxf. U. Mus. NH, letters to Sir E. B. Poulton
  • Pusey Oxf., letters to Edward Pusey
  • U. Newcastle, Robinson L., letters to Sir Walter Trevelyan
  • U. Newcastle, Robinson L., letters to R. S. Watson


  • W. E. Miller, pencil and chalk drawing, 1877, NPG [see illus.]
  • H. R. H. Pinker, marble bust, exh. RA 1884, Oxf. U. Mus. NH
  • Barraud, photograph, Wellcome L.
  • Beynon & co., group portrait, lithograph (with members of Pembroke College), Wellcome L.
  • W. E. Miller, drawing, other versions, Merton Oxf., Pembroke College, Oxford
  • wood-engraving (after photograph by Barraud & Jerrard), NPG; repro. in ILN (2 July 1881)

Wealth at Death

£5963 7s. 1d.: probate, 6 May 1882, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

W. Munk, , 2 vols. (1861) 2nd edn, 3 vols. (1878)
Proceedings of the Royal Society of London
British Medical Journal