Papers of George Busk

Scope and Content

This collection features a large number of items relating to natural history including notes, sketches, photographs and measurements of osteological specimens, German to English translations made by Busk and his lecture notes. The majority of the papers cover Busk's work on invertebrate zoology and comparative osteology in humans and mammals (with particular emphasis on bears). Also includes significant photographic, illustrative and biometric content on palaeontological specimens.

Administrative / Biographical History

George Busk was born 12th August 1807 in St. Petersburg, Russia. He was the second son of Robert Busk (merchant of St. Petersburg) and Jane (daughter of John Westly). George Busk was educated at Dr Hartley's School, Bingley, Yorkshire and then spent six years as an articled student at the College of Surgeons under George Beaman. He was also a student at St Thomas's Hospital, London and for one session at St Bartholomew's Hospital. He became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1830 and was stationed on board the Grampus, the seamen's hospital ship at Greenwich. In 1832, he was transferred from the Grampus to the Dreadnought, where he acted as assistant surgeon. As time went on, he became resident surgeon by 1837, first surgeon in 1841, visiting surgeon in 1854 and then consulting surgeon from 1866. During his service, he made successful use of the microscope in the investigation of pathological subjects such as cholera, and also made some important observations on scurvy. On these subjects, and on cases of smallpox and typhus fever, he contributed a number of reports to the Seamen's Hospital Society.

In 1855, after spending twenty-five years at Greenwich, Busk retired from active service and settled in Central London, at 15 and later 32 Harley Street. He withdrew from private practice in order to focus on natural history. Around 1861, he became interested in palaeontology. In April 1861, his translation of a paper by D. Schnaaffhausen appeared in Natural History Review and dealt with an unusual crania recently discovered in the Neander valley, sparking debate as to whether it was a deformed Homo sapiens or some new type of species of hominid. Busk was convinced of its similarity to a cranium found some years previously in Gibraltar and decided to conduct further investigation. A visit to the Gibraltar caves in 1864 convinced him that the crania were not the result of some deformity but bore characteristics of modern man. After his belief that this was a modern bone fraudulently placed in by someone in an attempt to gain recognition was proved to be correct, he devoted much time and attention to the study of cave fauna. A monograph, Crania typica, a work that focused on human and animal skulls, was planned and the plates were drawn but the work was never completed.

Busk's early natural history studies centered on the microscopic investigation of the lower forms of life. He was the first to formulate a scientific arrangement of Bryozoa (Polyzoa) for an article in the English Cyclopedia (1856).He wrote some seventy to eighty papers on botany, zoology, and medicine and published translations of various important reports and papers. Busk was editor of the Microscopical Journal (1842), the Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science (1853-68), Natural History Review (1861-5) and the Journal of the Ethnological Society (1869-70). He was elected FRCS in 1843, Hunterian professor from 1856 to 1859, a member of council from 1836 to 1880, examiner from 1868 to 1872, president in 1871 and vice-president (1872-73, 1879-80).

He was a founder of the Microscopical Society in 1839, and was the society's president (1848-9) and an honorary fellow from 1869. In 1846, he was elected FLS; he acted as the society's zoological secretary from 1857 to 1868 and was vice-president between 1869 and 1882. On 6 June 1850 he was elected FRS; he served on the society's council four times and in 1871 received the royal medal. He was for some years treasurer of the Royal Institution, and was the first Home Office inspector of laboratories under the cruelty to Animals Act. He was a member of the Geological Society from 1859, and was the recipient of Lyell medal in 1878 and the Wollaston medal in 1885. He was also a member of the X Club formed in 1863 to bring together like-minded science enthusiasts.

Busk married his cousin, Ellen, on 12 August 1843 (the youngest daughter of Jacob Hans Busk of Theobalds, Hertfordshire) and had two daughters. Busk died at his home, 32 Harley Street, on 10 August 1886. A bed at the Dreadnought Hospital was endowed in his memory by his daughters, and his collection of Bryozoa was presented to the British Museum (Natural History), South Kensington, London.

A Catalogue of Marine Polyzoa in the Collection of the British Museum ( 3 vols., 1852-75)
Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake (1852)
Catalogue of the Collection of Mazatian Shells, in the British Museum (1857)
A Monograph of the Fossil Polyzoa of the Crag (Palaeontological Society Monograph, 1859)
Catalogue of the Cyclostomatous polyzoa in the Collection of the British Museum (1875)
Report on the Polyzoa Collected by H.M.S. Challenger during the Years 1873-1976 (2 vols. 1884-6)

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

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