Welcome to the 107th update of the Oxford DNB, which adds fourteen new articles, comprising sixteen new lives, accompanied by two portrait likenesses, with a special focus on global and transnational lives.
From February 2024, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford DNB) offers biographies of 64,926 men and women who have shaped the British past, contained in 62,510 articles. 12,027 biographies include a portrait image of the subject – researched in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery, London.
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Blumer, Rodney Milnes [pseud. Rodney Milnes] (1936–2015), opera critic and translator
Cardonnel, Pierre [Peter] de (1614–1667), merchant, poet, and bibliophile
Elcock, (William) Dennis (1910–1960), romance philologist
Gambart, (Jean Joseph) Ernest Theodore (1814–1902), art dealer, printseller, and collector
Hawkins, Eric William (1915–2010), linguistic scholar and educationist
King, George (1787–1857), foundling, sailor, and autobiographer
Levers [Leavers], John (bap. 1786, d. 1848), mechanic and inventor
Myers, Naphtali Hart (1711–1788), merchant and Jewish community leader
Myers, Joseph Hart (1758–1823), physician and Jewish community leader [see under Myers, Naphtali Hart]
Seehl, Ephraim Rinhold (b. c.1718, d. 1783), chemist and copperas manufacturer
Smith [née Spear], Mary Ellen (1863–1933), suffrage activist, politician in British Columbia
Smith, Ralph (1857–1917), politician and trade unionist [see under Smith [née Spear], Mary Ellen]
Tracey, Hugh Travers (1903–1977), ethnomusicologist
Treacher, Sir John Devereux (1924–2018), naval aviator and entrepreneur
Wiener, Alfred (1885–1964), founder of the Wiener Library, London
February 2024: summary of new articles
The merchant, poet, and bibliophile Pierre [Peter] de Cardonnel (1614–1667), born in Caen, Normandy, to an established protestant family of traders, gained influential allies at court in France and England by leveraging his financial success and diverse literary interests. Among Cardonnel’s own published writings are extended poems, originally written in French and translated later into Latin and English, celebrating the coronation and foreign policies of Charles II. Cardonnel’s network illustrates how written material managed to circulate between protestants and Catholics across disparate regions, and he is considered an important vector in the early reception of the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes.
The German-born merchant and Jewish community leader Naphtali Hart Myers (1711–1788) founded a successful trading business in colonial North America with operations spanning Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. He settled in London in 1764 and, after selling his business and property in America, focused his efforts on serving the city’s Jewish community, becoming co-warden of the Great Synagogue and a member of William Shipley’s Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce. His son, Joseph Hart Myers (1758-1823), born in New York, studied medicine in London and Edinburgh, and became a physician in London, where he became librarian of the Medical Society and warden of the Great Synagogue.
A chemist and chemical manufacturer, the Swedish-German Ephraim Seehl (1718–1773) arrived in London after 1739, aged about twenty-one, where he established a successful works for the manufacture of copperas, a versatile sulphate salt used, among other industrial applications, in the cloth industry to ensure the proper absorption of dye. As a researcher and chemist, he published an article in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1744 describing the production of sulfuric acid. His unpublished writings on copperas can be found today at the University of Glasgow.
The mechanic and inventor John Levers/Leavers (1786–1846), born in Nottinghamshire, devised a lace-making machine that was widely used in the nineteenth century and, into the 1990s, was still being produced. He settled in Rouen, France, where he was lauded by a national industry and agriculture jury for his technical refinements to the large-scale manufacture of lace products.
The birthplace of the sailor and autobiographer George King (1787–1857) is unknown, although records indicate that he was admitted to the Foundling Hospital in London, aged five months, and was taught there to read and write by the reforming schoolmaster Robert Atchison. His unusual level of literacy enabled him to leave a unique record of his own life story, from his first voyages at sea to the battle of Trafalgar, and all across the globe. His account is the only surviving autobiography written by a foundling child born in the eighteenth century.
A popular volume of verse published by the poet and teacher of Hebrew Emma Lyon [married name Henry] (1788–1870), Miscellaneous Poems, was printed in Oxford in 1812. One of the earliest books of poetry written by an Anglo-Jewish woman, it earned more than £150 for the Lyon family, who emigrated from Germany. Lyon’s many notable subscribers included Princess Charlotte, to whom the book was dedicated, along with the prince regent; the heads of colleges and halls at Oxford and Cambridge; prime ministers Spencer Perceval and the earl of Liverpool; masters at Eton College (where her father had taught Hebrew); family members settled in Surinam in the Caribbean; and members of the Society of Friends of Foreigners in Distress.
The art dealer and collector Ernest Theodore Gambart (1814–1902) was born in Kortrijk, Belgium, to a family of bookbinders, booksellers, and printers. He came to London in 1837 after working for a manufacturer of paper novelties in Paris. The gallery at 121 Pall Mall that he founded in the 1850s specialized in French prints and original paintings by prominent British artists, which attracted and sustained the interest of Queen Victoria. Gambart opened new markets by capturing the public’s imagination; through a series of creatively themed exhibitions and events, he helped establish an international network for the sale and promotion of new artwork on an unprecedented scale.
A suffrage activist and politician, Mary Ellen Smith [née Spear] (1863–1933) was born in Cornwall, the daughter of a copper miner. The family moved to Cramlington, in the Northumberland coalfield. She married a coal miner, Ralph Smith (1857-1917), and followed him to British Columbia, where he was elected to the House of Commons in 1898. When Ralph died, she campaigned to succeed him in the legislature and won by a wide margin, beginning a career in politics that would see her become the first female cabinet minister in the British empire. Although she is lauded as a forceful advocate for women’s rights, her legacy is complicated by her support of eugenics and policies that restricted the employment of Asians.
Alfred Wiener (1885–1964), the founder of the Wiener Holocaust Library in London, was born in Potsdam, Germany, and relocated to Amsterdam the year that Hitler came to power, in 1933. Upon his arrival in the Netherlands, in cooperation with David Cohen, Wiener founded the largely secret Jewish Central Information Office (JCIO) in 1934, which monitored the Nazi regime and the unfolding persecution of German Jews, amassing one of the largest repositories of documents, press clippings, first-hand reports, brochures, pamphlets, and other materials. Wiener moved to Britain in 1938 and expanded the JCIO’s holdings—which eventually became known as the Wiener Library—while working for British intelligence and the US State Department.
Born in Devon, the ethnomusicologist Hugh Travers Tracey (1903–1977) was sent by his mother in 1921 to work on the family tobacco farm in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia), and soon became fascinated by the way that the Shona-speaking workers sang. He recorded and studied a variety of styles of music across southern and eastern Africa, earning a Carnegie research fellowship to support his work. He became the head of the South African Broadcasting Corporation in 1934 and released numerous recordings and books about African music traditions, attracting a wide audience of listeners and readers across Africa, Europe, and North America.
The Romance philologist (William) Dennis Elcock (1910–1960), born to a pair of schoolteachers in Upper Penn, near Wolverhampton, earned numerous scholarships and awards at Manchester University that enabled him to travel Europe in the 1930s. While teaching English in Grenoble, he became intrigued by the discrepancies in consonant voicings across Western Latin and the contemporary Romance languages. This early research formed the basis of his doctoral work at the University of Toulouse, which was published in 1938 as a book that won widespread praise. In 1947, after a brief lectureship in French philology at Oxford, he was offered the newly created chair in Romance philology and medieval French literature at the University of London, where he established the French department and took an active role in college administration.
The linguistic scholar and educator Eric William Hawkins (1905–2010) became the founding director of the language teaching centre (LTC) at the newly opened York University in 1965. He advocated for the establishment of the National Association of Language Advisers as well as, in 1988, the formation of the broader Association for Language Learning. Remembered as the ‘father of language awareness,’ in 1973 he was appointed CBE for his service and commitment to foreign language education.
A naval aviator and entrepreneur, Sir John Devereaux Treacher (1924–2018) was born in the German Clinic in Concepción, Chile, and relocated with his family to England after the Wall Street crash of 1929. He joined the Royal Navy in 1942, serving as a midshipman, and volunteered after the war for the Fleet Air Arm, where his flying ability was immediately recognized. During his military career he held all the key naval aviation appointments, including director of naval air warfare, eventually serving as a major NATO commander at the height of the Cold War. After retiring from the navy in 1977, he transitioned to the private sector, earning executive positions and directorships at a number of large international firms.
The opera critic and translator Rodney Milnes Blumer (1936–2015) was born at The Mount, Stafford, and served in Germany as a sergeant in the education corps after graduating from Christ Church, Oxford, where he performed with the Oxford Opera Society. His time in Europe nurtured a growing interest in music and, after leaving the army, he began writing criticism professionally. Known for his acute musicality and strong opinions, in 1971 he landed at the Spectator, where he established his name as one of the best of an impressive array of London music writers. He remained at the magazine twenty years. In 1992, he became the opera critic of the Times until his retirement in 2002.
The release also includes a new account of the Scottish bookseller, Andrew Millar (1705-1768).
The Oxford DNB is updated regularly throughout the year, giving you access to the most up-to-date and accurate information available. Nearly all public libraries in England, Scotland, and Wales—and all in Northern Ireland—subscribe to the Oxford DNB. This means you can access tens of thousands of biographies, free, via your local library—anywhere, anytime. Full access to all biographies is also available by individual subscription.
Discover a full list of entries added this year.