The Wonderful Mr. Willughby by Tim Birkhead

by Tim Birkhead
Bloomsbury, 2018

Mr Willoughby.jpg

Tim Birkhead wrote wonderfully and lovingly about 17th-century naturalist Francis Willughby in his 2008 book The Wisdom of Birds, but that earlier book was also a broader study of ornithology, the great love of Willughby's life. In Birkhead's new book, The Wonderful Mr. Willughby, the distractions are dispensed with and the focus is turned solely on providing Willughby with his very first full-length free-standing biography.

Willughby was born in Warwickshire in 1635 and attended Trinity College in Cambridge, where he was instructed in the natural sciences by John Ray, one of the founding fathers of modern taxonomy. The two men traveled for years all over Europe, tramping through marshes, collecting countless specimens, talking to local experts, gossiping over dissections, and keeping voluminous notes the whole time. When Willughby died suddenly at age 36 in 1672, Ray set about bringing out Latin and then English-language editions of his friend's various writings, but Ray's own Historia Plantarum overshadowed it in the annals of science, and Willughby was sometimes lost in the shadow of his old friend and mentor.

Since Willughby's actual books – his Ornithology, his History of Fishes, his surprisingly enjoyable work on games – will never have modern English-language popular editions, Birkhead's The Wonderful Mr. Willughby is probably the best attempt that will ever be made at drawing Willughby out of the shadows.

It's a gentle, slightly idiosyncratic biographical performance, one that thankfully makes only understated claims for its hero. “History tends to celebrate those who make discoveries that change the world: the laws of gravity, natural selection, penicillin and the structure of DNA,” Birkhead writes. “Willughby and Ray changed the world, but without making a single major discovery. What they did do, and it was just as valuable, was to create through their schemes of classification and scholarship a way of studying the natural world.”

Birkhead has done all the traditional biographer's legwork that so few have bothered to do before him. He's consulted family records and consulted the family themselves, and he brings back details that add an immediacy to his pages. Shown Willughby's various cubby-holes by his descendant Lady Middleton, our author is able to give the impression that the centuries are mere months:

Willughby's cabinet still exists in the family home. This beautiful piece of walnut furniture consists of fifteen drawers elaborately divided by curved or linear metal strips into numerous compartments, and, miraculously, given the passage of time, most of them still contain seeds, and there has been very little spillage.

The odd thing about The Wonderful Mr. Willughby is how seldom its subject actually makes a real human appearance. By the time we're done with Birkhead's book, we know everything about the early days of the Royal Society, the early days of ornithology, and the early days of scientific printing in England. We also, in a sharp little twist of irony, know everything about John Ray. But Willughby himself remains largely elusive in these pages. He's clearly absorbed by his naturalist interests, but he's never illuminated by them. He's clearly loved by his friends and relatives, but he's never explained by them. Birkhead has crafted as caring and complete a portrait as the reading world will ever get, but as good as his book is, it'll leave many readers hoping a personal diary turns up one of these days in one of those dusty home cabinets.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is