Decorated initial P

atrick Matthew was born on 20 October 1790, the second son of parents who were descended from prosperous gentleman farmers. Their estates were in the Carse of Gowrie in Perthshire, between Perth and Dundee. His mother was related to Admiral Viscount Duncan, the victor at the naval battle of Camperdown in 1797, an admiral who was as unorthodox and famous as Nelson at the time. Patrick Matthew was educated at Perth Academy and Edinburgh University, where his name appears in the Matriculation Index for 1804-05 and 1808-09. He studied anatomy, surgery, chemistry and medical practice but he did not practice medicine and he does not appear to have graduated because he had to leave the university when he was 17 years old to take over the management of his mother’s estate at Gourdiehill following the death of his father.

He was fluent in French and German and travelled widely on the continent between 1807 and 1831 where he learned much about the latest ideas in science and economics. A visit to Paris in 1815 had to be terminated because of the unexpected return of Napoleon from exile on Elba. It was when he was in Paris and Germany that he was introduced to the evolutionary ideas of Jean Baptist de Lamarck and Geoffrey St Hilaire, and the anatomy and palaeontology of Baron Georges Cuvier. Matthew planted over 10,000 fruit trees on his estate, including apples and pears and was largely responsible for the development of the fruit growing industry in this part of Scotland in the nineteenth century. A researcher and proponent of horticulture and silviculture, he became an authority on both as a consequence of his work. His practical experience provided the basis for the theories he published in On Naval Timber and Arboriculture(1831). He travelled widely in Schleswig Holstein in what is now northern Germany between 1840 and 1850, and he bought two farms there so that he could develop fruit farming in that region. Later when the Prussian Minister President Bismarck annexed the province from Denmark, Matthew wrote letters and a book in support of Bismarck’s move. He also wrote a review of Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man in The Scotsman newspaper.

While he was a younger man Matthew was a strong supporter of colonisation of foreign lands and the establishment of a British global maritime empire. Like Carlyle, he believed that the problems of unemployment and poverty caused by the Britain’s rapidly growing population in the early nineteenth century could be solved by emigration to “under-populated” parts of the world, especially North America, Australia, and New Zealand. In 1839 he wrote Emigration Fields in which he advocated this policy, with particular respect to New Zealand. which he considered a very desirable place for colonists. He thought that white Europeans, especially English people descended from the Anglo Saxons, were inherently superior to other human races, and that they were best “circumstance suited” to the temperate climates of the mid-latitude regions of the world. In his view it was therefore natural that people of Caucasian descent should go to other parts of the world, take with them their superior traits, replace or interbreed with the native peoples, and in doing so improve humanity globally. In his view such emigration and imperialism was merely the process of natural selection operating on humanity. He encouraged two of his own sons to emigrate to New Zealand where they established some of the earliest commercial orchards in that country, using seeds and seedlings from Gourdiehill. In addition he established the New Zealand Land Company to organise and encourage emigration from Britain, but this venture collapsed and he suffered severe financial loss as a result.

Matthew was interested in politics and was an advocate of Parliamentary reform and a meritocratic system of government and administration, also based on his idea that natural selection, if allowed to operate freely, would bring about the best possible outcomes. He joined the Chartist Movement in 1830 and became the representative for his area for the Great Convention of 1839. However when the fiery and revolutionary leader of the Chartists, Feargus O’Connor spoke at the Convention, Matthew was alarmed and left the movement in order to campaign and agitate for more peaceful methods of change.

In January 1864 the combined armies of Prussia and Austria invaded the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, at that time part of southern Denmark: these were incorporated into the Prussian empire. These duchies were German speaking and there had been an unsuccessful uprising in 1852 by the inhabitants to secede form Denmark. The annexation by Bismarck of these territories caused a major political disturbance in Europe: some considered that there was a real possibility of war involving Russia and or France against Prussia. The British prime minister Lord Palmerston was also alarmed and made bellicose remarks against Prussia, but in the end peace prevailed and Prussia retained its new territories. Public opinion in Britain was divided for and against Prussia. Matthew supported the Schleswig-Holsteiner’s who wished to become part of greater Prussia, and wrote a long letter to Lord Palmerston in which he stated: “The people’s sense or right is the best guarantee of the rights of princes. Under the pretence the rights of princes the Duchies have been oppressed by the Dane, and under a prince they shall be righted.”

Matthew owned some farms in the region and therefore had some local knowledge of the German nationalist feelings, and the opposition to Danish rule which was lacking for most people in Britain. He also believed that the Anglo-Saxons had originated in this area and that they were superior to the Danes, who were supposedly descended from the Vikings. In Matthew’s view the Saxons had been the builders of civilisation whereas the Vikings had been destroyers. Therefore the annexation of what he considered to be a German group into the greater Germany of Otto von Bismarck was desirable as it would help to consolidate a more superior human group. These racist ideas were not at all uncommon in the mid-nineteenth century and were considered by many to be based on scientific evidence and were used to justify the colonisation of non-European lands and the establishment of overseas empires.

In the late 1860s The North British Railway Company announced its plans to build a two mile long bridge over the river Tay. The bridge was to have 80 spans and be constructed from cast iron. Matthew objected to the plan for several reasons which he explained in a letter to the Prime Minister William Gladstone in 1869, and in letters to the Dundee Advertiser. Although not opposed to the construction of a bridge, he thought that the railway chose the wrong site, a better one would have been upstream near Newburgh, (the site of a modern road bridge), thereby saving cost and making the structure safer. Matthew understood that casting iron was an imperfect process at the time: “Cracks, flaws, and inequalities of crystallisation and extension of crystallisation in cast iron, and what is termed brunt, burned in malleable iron, are often imperceptible by the eye, and cannot be tested. In an extent of bridge such as this, about three miles, where hundreds of beams are employed, and where the defect in one may ruin the whole, destructive accident is highly probable.”

When Darwin’s Descent of Man was published in 1871, Matthew wrote a long review which was published in The Scotsman newspaper in March 1871. It was not critical because what Darwin had written broadly reflected his own views, many of which he had published in the 1830s. Matthew agreed with Darwin that competition between the different races of men was natural and he also agreed with Darwin that “the most able should not be prevented by laws and customs from succeeding best.” This of course reflected Matthew’s radical political views, but as he had pointed out in his letter of 1860 and quoted above: “The age was not ripe for such ideas.” Matthew did point out that in the past there must have been many varieties of hominids, a fact that Darwin had not commented upon.

Matthew died in 1874 and was buried in the parish church at Errol on 15 June. His Gourdiehill estate was sold by his second son Robert in around 1880 and the orchards, which at one time contained over 10000 apple and pear trees, have now gone. His priority for being the first to publish the idea of natural selection as a process in evolution can only be contested because others had made reference to it before him, but he was the first to use the phrase in print. However there can be no doubt that he was the first to fully recognise and state explicitly its importance as a process in evolution, and to provide observational evidence to support it. He claimed that it was a universal process, a “law of nature,” at a time when in Britain others were only prepared to discuss evolution in private, if at all, and many educated individuals were still holding to ideas based on Natural Theology. His overt integration of scientific and political ideas contributed greatly to his being ignored: it was only when Chambers and later Darwin presented their views on evolution with less radical political messages that evolution became acceptable to a broad spectrum of the educated middle class in Britain and America. He did not leave a body of students to keep his name and ideas alive, so he gradually became forgotten, even though Wallace described him as “one of the most original thinkers in the first half of the nineteenth century”. It is only in recent years that scientists and historians have started to appreciate his significance in the history of evolutionary ideas.

Sadly Matthew’s prediction that the Tay bridge structure was inherently unsafe was proved 5 years after his death on the evening of 28 December 1879 when a train passed over it during a violent storm. The bridge collapsed plunging the train and its passengers into the Tay below with a complete loss of life.


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Last modified 27 February 2018