Papers of William Clift

Scope and Content

The collection is divided into four main groups:

  • The first group contains papers relating to William Clift's work as conservator of the Hunterian Museum. This is the largest of the four groups and contains a number of sub divisions such as explanation and display of specimens, expanding the collections, administration of the museum, and correspondence. This group also contains the transcripts made by Clift and others of the Hunterian manuscripts.
  • The second group contains work carried out by William Clift as an illustrator for publications.
  • The third group contains a small amount of personal material that is in the collection.
  • The fourth group contains transcripts and copies of manuscript material by William Clift that is held in other repositories such as the Natural History Museum.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Clift (1775-1849), museum curator and scientific illustrator, was born near Bodmin in Cornwall on 14 February 1775. He was the youngest of the seven children of Robert Clift (1720–1784), a miller, and his wife Joanna, a seamstress. Clift went to school at Bodmin, where he demonstrated his ability in illustration. This attracted the attention of Walter Raleigh Gilbert and his wife Nancy, who had been a schoolfellow of Anne Home who had married John Hunter in 1771. On the Gilbert's recommendation, Clift was apprenticed to John Hunter as an anatomical assistant, employed to make drawings, copy dictation and assist in the care of Hunter's anatomical specimens. Until Hunter's sudden death in 1793, Clift assisted him with dissections and often wrote from dictation from early morning until late at night.

After Hunter's death, his collection of specimens was offered for sale to the government. During the period of negotiations, Clift was employed to look after the collections for a small income. He did this diligently from 1793 to 1799 when the collections were eventually purchased by the government. During this period, Clift feared for the safety of the collection, and copied out many of Hunter's unpublished manuscripts. This meant that much of the content of the collection was saved from loss through Sir Everard Home's destruction of his brother-in-law's manuscripts in 1823.

In 1799 the government asked The Company of Surgeons (soon to become the Royal College of Surgeons in 1800) to look after the John Hunter collections. The Trustees of the College then made Clift conservator of the new Hunterian Museum paying him £80 per annum. Under Clift's supervision the collections were twice moved without damage into storage and then to new premises, and were greatly enlarged and enriched. Clift was a prolific record keeper and his diaries are a valuable resource for information about the workings of the College and Museum as well as wider social life in London.

Clift married Caroline Harriet Pope (1775-1849) in January 1801. They had a son, William Home Clift (1803-1832) and a daughter, Caroline Amelia Clift (1801-1873). William Home Clift died after a carriage accident in 1832 and Caroline Amelia Clift married William Clift's assistant Richard Owen in 1835.

William Clift was well known and highly thought of in the scientific community. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1823, was a member of the Society for Animal Chemistry, and also a fellow of the Geological Society.

His skills as an illustrator were demonstrated through his work for Matthew Baillie's "A series of engravings… to illustrate the morbid anatomy of some of the most important parts of the human body," and also his work on illustrations in Sir Everard Home's numerous papers in the Philosophical Transactions. Clift submitted some papers to the Philosophical Transactions (1815, 1823), the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal (1831), and to Transactions of the Geological Society (1829, 1835). William Clift and Richard Owen also published the "Catalogue of the Hunterian Collection of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of London (1830-1831), and then the "Descriptive and illustrated catalogue of the physiological series of comparative anatomy contained in the museum of The Royal College of Surgeons (1833-1840).

Clift retired from the museum in 1842, when he was replaced by Richard Owen as curator. His wife died on the 8th May 1849 and Clift died shortly afterwards on 20th June 1849, both being buried in Highgate cemetery.

[Source: Edited from the entry by Phillip R. Sloan, 'Clift, William (1775-1849)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 7 March 2005]


The collection is divided into four main groups. The first of these is the largest and contains 7 further sub-divisions. Most of these are then divided further into series of records. Within each series the records are arranged largely chronologically. The other three main groups are not large and are therefore not sub divided further.

Access Information


Other Finding Aids

For a more detailed description of this collection, please see the RCS England Archives online catalogue .

Custodial History

The Clift manuscripts held by the College include those left in the College following William Clift's death, and also some papers that obtained by the College in 1945 from materials that had been in the possession of Thomas Madden Stone, assistant librarian to the college from 1832 to 1853. [Richard Owen had many Clift manuscripts which are now in the Natural History Museum as part of the Owen papers.]

Related Material

At The Royal College of Surgeons of England:

  • MS0233 Sherborne Collection Papers;
  • MS0122 Manuscript notes of lectures delivered by Joseph Henry Green;
  • MS0128 Maiden, William (1768-1845) collection including letters and papers by William Clift;
  • MS0234 Autograph letters from William Clift to Dr Usher Parsons of Boston;
  • MS0235 Autograph letter from William Clift to Philip Syng Physick;
  • MS0237 Scrappiana or extracts various by William Clift;
  • MS0238 Correspondence and Papers of the Clift and Owen families.

Held at other repositories:

  • British Museum Manuscript Collections: Family correspondence and papers, 1792-1849 (Reference: Add MSS 39954-55);
  • Natural History Museum: Correspondence and papers (Reference: L MSS CLI), Correspondence with Sir Richard Owen, 1826-1848, Correspondence (113 items) mainly with his wife and sisters, 1812-1848 (Reference: L OC62), Drawings and paintings by Clift to illustrate the papers of Sir Everard Home (Reference: L OC71).
  • Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine: Correspondence (Reference: MS 5609).