The Victorian Father-Son Duo Who Ate Their Way Through the Animal Kingdom

A few hours before Frank Buckland was due to give a lecture at the Brighton Aquarium in May 1874, his nephews came to call. They would not have been surprised to find their uncle cooking—in fact, as they passed the small menagerie of monkeys, parrots, and other caged animals that lived in Frank’s home, they might well have spotted his dish's main ingredient: an old rhinoceros, which had been a resident at the local zoo before its recent death. Frank had spent the day slicing up the animal to make a giant meat pie for his audience.

Though the dish was intended for Frank’s admiring public, he’d made enough to offer the boys a small sample. Despite its exoticism, the meat tasted familiar, they said—like tough beef.

Frank’s dietary habits were adventurous—a tendency he inherited from his father, William. Both men were accomplished (if not always respected) naturalists who left a huge mark on early zoology. But they also sampled some rather unusual meats, including giraffe, panther, and boiled elephant trunk.

Today, eating such meats isn’t just frowned upon; in many places, it's illegal due to conservation laws. But the attitude of the Victorian age was much different. Animals were, as Frank put it, “destined to multiply and to serve ... the behests of man.” No matter how scarce it was, any creature could serve as food. As William Buckland himself once declared, “The stomach, sir, rules the world. The great ones eat the less, and the less the lesser still.”

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON

Frank grew up in a household dominated by the scholarly fascinations of his father, an Anglican minister with a deep love for earth science. William Buckland’s passion had begun at a very young age: Born in 1784, he grew up near the quarries of Axminster, which were teeming with fossils. With a little help from his father, Charles Buckland, young William would gleefully gather prehistoric shells and other treasures like wild bird’s eggs.

William became an ordained Anglican priest and, in 1808, earned an M.A. from Oxford. Afterward, he spent a few years exploring the English countryside, gathering bags of fossils. He landed a dream job in 1813 when his alma mater named him professor of mineralogy. Thus began Buckland’s impressive climb up the academic ladder; in 1845, he was appointed the Dean of Westminster Abbey, a post he held for 11 years. 

Throughout his career, Buckland Senior had a real knack for making huge discoveries. In 1823, the geologist dug up Britain’s oldest known human remains; one year later, he became the first person to scientifically describe a dinosaur. He also coined the word coprolite, which means “fossilized dung,” and owned a coprolite-covered table top.

Today, William Buckland’s personal quirks are remembered in greater detail than many of his accomplishments. He and his son owned a pet bear, for example, which they dressed in a cap and gown and took to wine parties around Oxford. And every class was a performance: Lively and theatrical, the man would keep his pupils wide awake with the aid of grandiose props like a large hyena skull.

The Buckland dinner table was no less entertaining. William popularized an offbeat diet he dubbed zoophagy, which basically meant that the minister ate any creature he could get his hands on. Bear, crocodile, and hedgehog were all regular parts of the family diet. Unsuspecting guests learned the hard way that their host didn’t always bother to identify the main course by name before everyone started digging in. Still, at least one of William’s friends appreciated these bizarre meals. “I have always regretted [the] day,” wrote critic John Ruskin, “… on which I missed a delicate toast of mice.”

Apparently, though, there were still a few creatures that even William’s adventurous palate found repulsive: common mole was awful, he said, but blue bottle fly may have been even worse.

FROM THE AUTOPSY TABLE TO THE DINNER TABLE

Born in 1826, Frank was the eldest of William and Mary Buckland's nine children (only five of whom survived to adulthood), and he was very much his father's son. By 4, he could already identify fossils with ease: When a friend of his father's brought a few bones to the Buckland home, Frank correctly recognized them as the “vertebrae of an Ichthyosaurus,” a type of Mesozoic reptile that resembled a dolphin. His love of bones continued into adulthood; he loved collecting body parts from an assortment of species, and once, when a boy with an unusually shaped head walked past, Frank muttered, “What I wouldn’t give for that fellow’s skull!”

Frank’s career followed an odd path. In 1851, he put his interest in anatomy to good use by becoming a surgeon—but his love of nature far outweighed his esteem for the medical field. In 1852, the 25-year-old Buckland published “Rats” in the literary magazine Bentley’s Miscellany; readers were captivated by Frank’s lively writing style. Accessible and entertaining in almost equal measure, “Rats” was so warmly received that the publication asked Frank to pen a regular column, which would be collected into a volume called Curiosities of Natural History.

Soon, Frank had established himself as the United Kingdom’s most popular science communicator—the Bill Nye of his time, if you will. Like his father, he was a masterful lecturer. According to one journalist, “Few have excelled him in the power of conveying at once information and amusement. He inherited from his father the faculty of investing a subject, dry in other hands (and how dry lectures often are!), with a vivid, picturesque interest.” Before the year 1852 wrapped up, Frank retired from surgery to concentrate on writing, lecturing, and natural history full-time.

Of course, William’s adventurous appetite rubbed off on Frank. Nowhere was this fact more apparent than at the Royal Zoological Garden (today’s London Zoo). When a display animal died, Frank was usually on call to perform an autopsy. As he was dissecting, he gave the staff explicit instructions to save any and all remains that seemed appetizing. There was just one rule of thumb: “If they look good to eat, they are cooked; if they stink, they are buried.”

This system worked well. Over time, Frank checked off such entrées as viper, roast giraffe, bison, and a “whole roast ostrich.”

Frank preached what he practiced and proudly evangelized zoophagy. In 1860, he helped found the Acclimatisation Society of Great Britain , serving as its first secretary. The primary purpose of Acclimatisation Societies—which had also turned up in France, New Zealand, and the U.S., among other countries—was to introduce foreign plants and animals to new ecosystems. This is how starlings made the leap from Britain to America, where they are now considered invasive, and how rabbits ended up wreaking havoc in Queensland, Australia. Zoophagy was a big part of the acclimatisation platform; Frank’s group hoped to transform odd or foreign meats into familiar household staples.

To that end, on July 12, 1862, the British Society’s inaugural dinner was held in London. Attendees were served sea slug and deer sinew soup (both of which Frank called “glue-like”), kangaroo stew (“not bad, but a little gone off”), Syrian pig, Algerian sweet potatoes, and various ducks. Delighted by this exotic spread, Frank approvingly called the event “one of the most agreeable dinners … I ever was present at.”

AN ECCENTRIC LEGACY

By the standards of their day, William and Frank Buckland were considered eccentric—a reputation that has only grown with time. In The Secret History of Oxford, Paul Sullivan says that the pair "were two of the most colorful characters ever produced by the university," and the book Marylebone Lives: Rogues, romantics and rebels. Character studies of locals since the eighteenth century, edited by Mark Riddaway and Carl Upsall, called Frank "one of those true Victorian oddballs" who today "would most likely be starring in some animal-based reality show on Channel 4."

But then again, Marylebone Lives notes that Frank was "England's foremost naturalist," an opinion shared by science historian Allen Debus, who called Frank "one of Great Britain's foremost promoters of natural history" in his time. And Shelley Emling writes in her biography of early paleontologist Mary Anning that the elder Buckland was "the kind of man people were instinctively drawn to ... Graced with an agile mind, he was a great debater and a born experimenter who couldn't have cared less about what others thought of him."

Great minds often belong to unusual people, and no pair makes that clearer than the Bucklands—a father and son who, between their odd gastronomic escapades, advanced and popularized the study of our world and the life forms we share it with.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
17 Things to Know About René Descartes
iStock
iStock

The French polymath René Descartes (1596-1650) lived after the Renaissance, but he personified that age's interest in mathematics, philosophy, art, and the nature of humanity. He made numerous discoveries and argued for ideas that people continue to grapple with. (His dualist distinction between mind and the brain, for example, continues to be debated by psychologists.) Get to know him better!

1. NOBODY CALLED HIM RENÉ.

Descartes went by a nickname and often introduced himself as “Poitevin” and signed letters as “du Perron.” Sometimes, he went so far to call himself the “Lord of Perron.” That’s because he had inherited a farm from his mother’s family in Poitou, in western France.

2. SCHOOL MADE HIM FEEL DUMBER.

From the age of 11 to 18, Descartes attended one of the best schools in Europe, the Jesuit College of Henry IV in La Flèche, France. In his later work Discourse on the Method, Descartes wrote that, upon leaving school, “I found myself involved in so many doubts and errors, that I was convinced I had advanced no farther in all my attempts at learning, than the discovery at every turn of my own ignorance."

3. HIS DAD WANTED HIM TO BE A LAWYER.

Descartes’s family was chock-full of lawyers, and the budding intellectual was expected to join them. He studied law at the University of Poitiers and even came home with a law degree in 1616. But he never entered the practice. In 1618, a 22-year-old Descartes enlisted as a mercenary in the Dutch States Army instead. There, he would study military engineering and become fascinated with math and physics.

4. HE CHANGED CAREER PATHS THANKS TO A SERIES OF DREAMS.

In 1618, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Ferdinand II, attempted to impose Catholicism on anybody living within his domain. The result of this policy would be the Thirty Years' War. It would also prompt Descartes, a Catholic, to switch allegiances to a Bavarian army fighting for the Catholic side. But on his travels, he stopped in the town of Ulm. There, on the night of November 10, he had three dreams that convinced him to change his life’s path. “Descartes took from them the message that he should set out to reform all knowledge,” philosopher Gary Hatfield writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

5. HE COULD BE EASILY DISTRACTED BY BRIGHT AND SHINY OBJECTS.

In 1628, Descartes moved to the Netherlands and spent nine months doggedly working on a theory of metaphysics. Then he got distracted. In 1629, a number of false suns—called parhelia, or “sun dogs”—were seen near Rome. Descartes put his beloved metaphysics treatise on the back burner and devoted his time to explaining the phenomenon. It was a lucky distraction: It led to his work The World, or Treatise on Light.

6. HE LAID THE GROUNDWORK FOR ANALYTIC GEOMETRY ...

In 1637, Descartes published his groundbreaking Discourse on the Method, where he took the revolutionary step of describing lines through mathematical equations. According to Hatfield, “[Descartes] considered his algebraic techniques to provide a powerful alternative to actual compass-and-ruler constructions when the latter became too intricate.” You might have encountered his system in high school algebra: They’re called Cartesian coordinates.

7. ... AND THE REST OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY.

Everybody knows Descartes for his phrase Cogito, ergo sum (which originally appeared in French as "Je pense, donc je suis"), or "I think, therefore I am." The concept appeared in many of his texts. To understand what it means, some context is helpful: At the time, many philosophers claimed that truth was acquired through sense impressions. Descartes disagreed. He argued that our senses are unreliable. An ill person can hallucinate. An amputee can feel phantom limb pain. People are regularly deceived by their own eyes, dreams, and imaginations. Descartes, however, realized that his argument opened a door for "radical doubt": That is, what was stopping people from doubting the existence of, well, everything? The cogito argument is his remedy: Even if you doubt the existence of everything, you cannot doubt the existence of your own mind—because doubting indicates thinking, and thinking indicates existing. Descartes argued that self-evident truths like this—and not the senses—must be the foundation of philosophical investigations.

8. HE'S THE REASON YOUR MATH TEACHER MAKES YOU CHECK YOUR WORK.

Descartes was obsessed with certainty. In his book Rules for the Direction of the Mind, “he sought to generalize the methods of mathematics so as to provide a route to clear knowledge of everything that human beings can know,” Hatfield writes. His advice included this classic chestnut: To solve a big problem, break it up into small, easy-to-understand parts—and check each step often.

9. HE LIKED TO HIDE.

Descartes had a motto, which he took from Ovid: “Who lives well hidden, lives well.” When he moved to the Netherlands, he regularly changed apartments and deliberately kept his address a secret. Some say it's because he simply desired privacy for his philosophical work, or that he was avoiding his disapproving family. In his book titled Descartes, philosopher A. C. Grayling makes another suggestion: "Descartes was a spy."

10. HE WASN'T AFRAID OF CRITICS. IN FACT, HE RE-PUBLISHED THEM.

When Descartes was revising his Meditations on First Philosophy [PDF], he planned to send the manuscript to “the 20 or 30 most learned theologians” for criticism—a sort of proto-peer review. He collected seven objections and published them in the work. (Descartes, of course, had the last word: He responded to each criticism.)

11. HE COULD THROW SHADE WITH THE BEST OF THEM.

In the 1640s, Descartes’s pupil and friend Henricus Regius published a broadsheet that distorted Descartes’s theory of the mind. (Which, put briefly, posits that the material body and immaterial mind are separate and distinct.) The two men had a falling out, and Descartes wrote a rebuttal with a barbed title that refused to even acknowledge Regius’s manifesto by name: It was simply called “Comments on a Certain Broadsheet.”

12. HE NEVER BELIEVED MONKEYS COULD TALK.

There’s a “fun fact” parading around that suggests Descartes believed monkeys and apes could talk. He believed no such thing. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Descartes denied that animals were even conscious, let alone capable of speech. The factoid comes from a misreading of a letter Descartes had written in 1646, in which he attributed the belief to “savages.”

13. HE TOTALLY HAD THE HOTS FOR CROSS-EYED WOMEN.

In a letter to Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes explained that he had a cross-eyed playmate as a child. “I loved a girl of my own age ... who was slightly cross-eyed; by which means, the impression made in my brain when I looked at her wandering eyes was joined so much to that which also occurred when the passion of love moved me, that for a long time afterward, in seeing cross-eyed women, I felt more inclined to love them than others.”

14. WHEN HE MET BLAISE PASCAL, THEY GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT ... ABOUT VACUUMS.

In 1647, a 51-year-old Descartes visited the 24-year-old prodigy and physicist Blaise Pascal. Their meeting quickly devolved into a heated argument over the concept of a vacuum—that is, the idea that air pressure could ever be reduced to zero. (Descartes said it was impossible; Pascal disagreed.) Later, Descartes wrote a letter that, depending on your translation, said that Pascal had “too much vacuum in his head.”

15. HIS WORK WAS BANNED BY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.

Back in the late 1630s, the theologian Gisbert Voetius had convinced the academic senate of the University of Utrecht to condemn the philosopher’s work. (Descartes was Catholic, but his suggestion that the universe began as a “chaotic soup of particles in motion,” in Hatfield's words, was contrary to orthodox theology.) In the 1660s, his works were placed on the church’s Index of Prohibited Books.

16. HE REGULARLY SLEPT UNTIL NOON (AND TRYING TO BREAK THE HABIT MIGHT HAVE KILLED HIM).

Descartes was not a morning person. He often snoozed 12 hours a night, from midnight until lunchtime. In fact, he worked in bed. (Sleep, he wisely wrote, was a time of “nourishment for the brain.”) But according to the Journal of Historical Neuroscience, he may have had a sleep disorder that helped end his life. A year before his death, Descartes had moved to Stockholm to take a job tutoring Queen Christina, a devoted early-riser who forced Descartes to change his sleep schedule. Some believe the resulting sleep deprivation weakened his immune system and eventually killed him.

17. HIS SKELETON HAS TRAVELED FAR AND WIDE.

Descartes died in Stockholm in 1650 and was buried outside the city. Sixteen years later, his corpse was exhumed and taken to Paris. During the French Revolution, his bones were moved to an Egyptian sarcophagus at the Museum of French Monuments. Decades later, when plans were made to rebury Descartes in an abbey, officials discovered that most of his bones—including his skull—were missing. Shortly after, a Swedish scientist discovered a newspaper advertisement attempting to sell the polymath’s noggin [PDF]. Today, his head is in a collection at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Jack Taylor, Getty Images
8 Arresting Facts About Scotland Yard
Jack Taylor, Getty Images
Jack Taylor, Getty Images

Depicted in fiction for well over a century as the world's premier police force, Scotland Yard might be the most famous banner for law enforcement in history. Though the name itself is officially a term for the location of the London Metropolitan Police headquarters, it’s taken on a colloquial use to describe the collective brain trust of that station’s patrolmen and detectives. Here’s what we’ve deduced about the past, present, and future of this historic—and sometimes controversial—institution.

1. IT GOT ITS NAME FROM A TRICKY BIT OF GEOGRAPHY.

London didn’t have a formal police force until 1829, when Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel arranged for a squad to replace the fractured system of watchmen, street patrols, and the River Police. Colonel Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne were tasked with organizing the force: Mayne’s house at 4 Whitehall Place opened to an adjacent courtyard that had once been a medieval palace that hosted Scottish royalty while they were in London. This “Great Scotland Yard,” which was also reportedly the name of the street behind the building, became synonymous with Rowan and Mayne’s efforts to create a new era in law enforcement.

2. CHARLES DICKENS TAGGED ALONG ON PATROLS.

Author Charles Dickens poses for a photo
London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

The renowned author of Great Expectations and other literary classics wasn’t a policeman, but he did perform the 19th-century equivalent of a ride-along. Dickens was friends with Charles Frederick Field, a Scotland Yard inspector, and their relationship led to Dickens occasionally accompanying patrolmen on their nightly rounds. He even based a character in his novel Bleak House on Fields.

3. THERE WERE DIRTY COPS AMONG THE RANKS IN THOSE EARLY DAYS.

For all of the public acceptance of Scotland Yard—Londoners were initially wary of the plainclothes cops walking among them—the squad suffered a sensational blow to its image in 1877. Known as the “Turf Fraud Scandal” or the “Trial of the Detectives,” the controversy erupted after a Parisian socialite named Madame de Goncourt was conned by two men named Harry Benson and William Kurr. Scotland Yard inspector Nathaniel Druscovich was dispatched to Amsterdam to capture a fleeing Benson while others pursued Kurr. The men proved surprisingly elusive, which prompted suspicion among Scotland Yard officials. When the two con men were finally arrested, they explained that an inspector named John Meiklejohn was taking bribes in exchange for tipping off Kurr to police activity. Two other policemen were implicated; the three each received two years in prison. The high-profile breach led to a reorganization, with the Yard inserting detectives into a new Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to help minimize misconduct.

4. THEY HELPED PIONEER FINGERPRINTING.

A Scotland Yard employee examines fingerprints
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At one time, the science of fingerprinting was more of a theory than anything that could be put into practice. Most police forces instead relied on anthropometry, a system created by French police officer Alphonse Bertillon, which used 11 body measurements taken by calipers to provide a unique physical identity for an individual. While fingerprinting was beginning to take off in India in the late 1800s, the English-speaking world didn’t adopt the forensic technique of lifting and matching prints until 1901, when Sir Edward Henry, then the assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard, instituted the Metropolitan Police Fingerprint Bureau. In 1902, a billiard ball thief was convicted based on a fingerprint he left on a windowsill. In 1904, a Yard detective demonstrated the efficacy of fingerprinting at the St. Louis World’s Fair, helping spread the new science to American law enforcement officials.

5. THEIR PATROL OFFICERS DIDN’T CARRY GUNS UNTIL 1994.

The uniformed police officers who wander London’s streets with an eye on keeping the peace were unarmed for most of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1994 that select patrol officers were permitted to carry guns, a policy shift that stemmed from increased assaults on police. The addition of firearms was limited to armed response cars intended to be dispatched to high-risk calls; previously, officers were instructed to keep their weapons in a lockbox inside their vehicles. Today, 90 percent of Metropolitan police officers go on duty without a gun, a policy largely maintained in response to a relatively low number of guns carried by civilians. Less than four in 100 British citizens own a firearm.

6. THEY HAVE A SQUAD OF “SUPER RECOGNIZERS.”

A surveillance camera is posted in London
Leon Neal, AFP/Getty Images

With surveillance cameras dotting London, facial recognition for identifying criminal suspects is in high demand. But no software can outperform Scotland Yard’s team of “super recognizers,” who are recruited for their ability to match a face to a name based on their own memory. These officers are hired by administering a facial recognition test first implemented by Harvard in 2009. Those in the top percentile have an uncanny ability to retain facial feature details and are often dispatched to cull out known criminals like pickpockets at public gatherings. One such specialist, Constable Gary Collins, identified 180 people out of 4000 while examining footage of the 2011 London riots. Software was able to identify exactly one.

7. THEY KEEP A SECRET CRIME MUSEUM HIDDEN FROM THE PUBLIC.

Housed across two floors at the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police in London is the Black Museum, a macabre cavalcade of evidence from nearly 150 years of investigative work. Established in 1875, the collection houses body parts (gallstones that failed to dissolve in acid along with the rest of a murder victim) and seemingly innocuous items that take on sinister connotations: A set of pots and pans that once belonged to Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen and were used to boil human flesh. It’s closed to the public, though visiting law enforcement and sometimes celebrities can secure an invite: Laurel and Hardy and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have toured its inventory. A sample of the collection went on display at the Museum of London in 2015.  

8. YOU COULD LIVE THERE ONE DAY.

The former New Scotland Yard building at 10 Broadway
Jack Taylor, AFP/Getty Images

The Metropolitan Police have changed locations several times over the years. It was situated at its original location of 4 Whitehall Place from 1829 to 1890, then housed in a large Victorian building on the Victoria Embankment from 1890 until 1967. That’s when the operation was moved to a 600,000 square-foot building at 10 Broadway in Westminster: a famous revolving sign announced a New Scotland Yard was taking up residence. In 2014, the building was sold to investors from Abu Dhabi for $580 million: London cited operating expenses and budget cuts as the reasons for the sale. The buyers plan to mount a residential housing project in the spot. Scotland Yard staff moved to a trimmed-down facility at the Curtis Green Building in Westminster and within walking distance of the Houses of Parliament.   

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios