We are most grateful to be able to reproduce here material from Jane Rupert's edition of Letters of a Distinguished Physician from the Royal Tour of the British North American Colonies, 1860 written by Henry Wentworth Acland. The whole edition is available on the web by clicking here.

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younger son of landed gentry, Henry Wentworth Acland was born in 1815 among the rolling hills of Devon on the large family estate near Exeter. Although destined for a medical career, on the advice of a prominent physician he first began studies in the liberal arts in 1835 at Christ Church, the same Oxford college attended by the Duke of Newcastle, the colonial secretary who headed the royal tour, and many other nineteenth-century parliamentarians, civil servants, and colonial administrators from among the aristocracy and gentry. By this time, Oxford had well recovered from its eighteenth-century laxness, offering an education that instilled an appreciation of fundamental principles. Its students were taught to think through reading the poetry, history, philosophy, and ethics of the Greek and Latin classics: Thucydides’ factual and astute account of the Peloponnesian War and its causes in the fifth century BCE; Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics; Greek tragedies that plumbed human depths; Cicero’s letters of advice to his son and his meditation on friendship. Because of this experience in the liberal arts as a development of his intellect and his humanity, Acland remained convinced throughout his life that aspiring doctors should also have a grounding in the humanities.

Acland’s studies at Oxford in the 1830s also took place at a moment when the university was profoundly stirred by the intelligent, deeply religious members of the Oxford Movement, the Tractarians. In their tracts, its leaders like John Henry Newman and the scholarly John Keble were seeking to revitalize the Church of England through a reinstatement of some older Christian traditions of faith and a restoration of the vigour of the first centuries of Christianity. Henry Acland’s father and siblings were among those who supported projects associated with this religious revival: the translation of the rich Scriptural commentary of the Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church, the investigation of councils and controversies in the early Church, and the production of a Lives of the English Saints that captured the imagination of readers. While he was a student at Oxford, Henry Acland walked and talked with John Henry Newman and committed to memory John Keble’s Christian Year, a collection of poetic meditations on the seasons of the Christian liturgical year that accompanied many Victorians on their spiritual path through life. Newman’s ideas on education for which he is equally remembered are also kindred to Acland’s understanding of the importance of the liberal arts for the full development of the human being and his conviction that newly evolving disciplines like the physical sciences should become part of a general education.

In 1840, the day after he finished his exams at Christ Church, Acland began his medical studies at St. George’s, the large London hospital where he walked the wards and attended lectures. The decision to study medicine had been taken for him by his father, Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, who had been impressed during the Congress of Vienna in 1814 by an Austrian nobleman who gave his life to the care of the poor. During his studies in London, Acland was also introduced to the important anatomical collection at the Royal College of Surgeons arranged by Richard Owen, pre-eminent comparative anatomist and future founder of the Natural History Museum in London. Owen also introduced him to the advantages of the microscope which was just beginning to be accepted in medical studies after a significant improvement in lenses in the 1830s.

Acland completed further medical training in Edinburgh in 1845 and in the same year was appointed to teach anatomy at Christ Church. Although the teaching of science was still incidental in the literary world of Oxford, Acland breathed life into its study. To improve the College’s anatomical collection, he went to Scotland to dredge for marine specimens, then a relatively new scientific endeavour. He arranged the specimens in the collection according to their various functions, like the digestive or reproductive processes, following Owen’s system of classification that made anatomy into an intelligible science. Amid some controversy, he also introduced the microscope into the Oxford classroom.

Acland’s teaching of anatomy at Oxford was coincidental with the development in the nineteenth century of various physical sciences. By the 1840s, sciences like geology and chemistry had begun to establish principles that made them less empirical and more fully teachable as university subjects. Acland believed that knowledge of these principles, like knowledge of the liberal arts, should now be part of a general education. He soon became a tireless advocate for the introduction of the physical sciences within the formal curriculum at Oxford. After his appointment as Radcliffe librarian, he furthered this aim by centralizing into one location the various colleges’ collections of scientific texts and the many periodicals which flourished at that time as an important means of communication among international scientific researchers.

His advocacy culminated in 1861 in the official opening of the Oxford University Museum, now the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, which also housed the relocated Radcliffe science library. The enduring Neo-Gothic museum, for which Acland was largely responsible, brought under one roof the university’s collection of fossils, rocks, flora, and fauna that were the object of the nineteenth century’s scientific investigation into the natural world. By bringing all the sciences into a single centre, the museum articulated an idea of science, promulgated especially by the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), which had animated scientists in the first half of the nineteenth century and was fully embraced by Henry Acland. In Humboldt’s idea of the cosmos, the physical sciences were understood as a complex whole, and each of the separate sciences was understood in relation to this whole. Zoology and botany, for example, were connected in the mutual relation of plants and animals; geography and meteorology were determinants in the vegetable world. Acland’s centralization of all the sciences at the Oxford University Museum and Darwin’s theory of evolution alike were rooted in this unitive idea of the cosmos.

Like other deeply religious people in the period, for Acland the cosmos included not only the physical sciences but human life and the arts as well. All were parts of a whole illuminated by the sunlight of divine grace. For Acland, there was no conflict between science and religion. However, at the same time, he was made increasingly aware of the emerging divide between religion and the necessarily material view of the world of the physical sciences. At a legendary meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held at the Oxford University Museum just days before the departure of the royal tour in 1860, the theory of evolution in Darwin’s recently published Origin of Species (1859) was the subject of much conversation among the gathered scientists. It included an exchange between T.H. Huxley, the comparative anatomist who was Darwin’s champion, and Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, who was a member of the Royal Society and son of William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery politician. In their exchange, the materialist facts of physical science were pitted against the spiritual nature of humankind. Because, like Darwin and Huxley, Acland knew that the animating spirit in the debate was not Bishop Wilberforce but Richard Owen, he attempted vainly in subsequent years to reassure the distinguished but intransigent anatomist that his understanding of the spiritual nature of humankind was not diminished by the incontrovertible fact of the close similarity between the human brain and the brain of an ape. He urged Owen not to persist in denying this anatomical fact or to conflate the demonstrable and often provisional material truths of science with the perennial truths of the soul and religion.

Amid the unrelenting demands made on Acland’s time in 1850s, as he fought for the inclusion of the physical sciences at Oxford and attended to the construction of the University Museum, he was also a busy practising physician. His large clientele included Pre-Raphaelite artists, patients from the surrounding countryside, the Bishop of Oxford, and university deans. In 1856, he earned an international medical reputation with the publication of Memoir on the Cholera at Oxford in the Year 1854. Based on his work as consultant to the Board of Health and on his active involvement in the practical organization and treatment of cholera patients during the epidemic at Oxford, Acland’s work contributed not only to the literature on the administration of a pandemic but was also a model of medical research. His carefully recorded data, topographical medical map, and analysis of medical statistics, including the connection between a higher incidence of mortality and polluted water sources, continued the search for the cause of cholera which thirty years later was discovered in microscopic bacteria or bacilli. In 1857, both his medical research and his influential contribution to the university made Acland the obvious choice for the appointment of Regius Professor of Medicine, traditionally a royal (Latin, regius: royal) appointment.

Links to Related Material

Works by Acland

Acland, Henry W. Feigned Insanity, How Most Usually Simulated and How Best Detected. London: R. Clay, 1844

------. Ground-Work of Culture. Oxford: Parker & Co., 1883.

------, preface. Handbook for Hospital Sisters. Florence S. Lees. London: W. Ibster, 1874.

------. Harveian Oration. London: MacMillan and Co., 1865.

------. Memoir on the Cholera at Oxford in the Year 1854. London: John Churchill and J.H. & J. Parker, 1856.

------. National Health. Oxford and London: James Parker & Co., 1871.

------. Synopsis of the Pathological Series in the Oxford Museum. Oxford: Clarendon P., 1867.

Acland, H.W., and John Ruskin. The Oxford Museum. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1859.


Atlay, J.B. Sir Henry Wentworth Acland. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1903.

“Chronology, Sir Henry Wentworth Acland” in Letters of a Distinguished Physician: Sir Henry Wentworth Acland from the Royal Tour of the British North American Colonies, 1860. ed. Jane Rupert, web janerupert.ca

Created 4 July 2023