Alfred Newton bigraphy, stories - English zoologist and ornithologist

Alfred Newton : biography

11 June 1829 - 7 June 1907

Alfred Newton FRS (Geneva, 11 June 1829 – Cambridge, 7 June 1907) was an English zoologist and ornithologist. Newton was Professor of Comparative Anatomy at Cambridge University from 1866 to 1907. Among his numerous publications were a four-volume Dictionary of Birds (1893–6), entries on ornithology in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (9th edition) while also an editor of the journal Ibis from 1865 to 1870. In 1900 he was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society and the Gold Medal of the Linnaean Society.


Alfred Newton was the fifth son of William Newton of Elveden Hall in Suffolk, sometime MP for Ipswich and a Justice of the Peace for the County of Norfolk. Alfred's mother Elizabeth (1789–1843) was the daughter of Richard Slater Milnes of Fryston (sometime MP for York). The family wealth was founded on sugar plantations in the Caribbean, where Alfred's grandfather Samuel Newton had a sugarcane plantation in St Kitts, and a property in St Croix (both in the West Indies). With the abolition of slavery the golden days of sugar were over, and William sold up and returned to England, purchasing the property of Elveden, near Thetford from the Earl of Albermarle. Elveden (pronounced and sometimes spelt 'Eldon' and often improperly spelled as "Elvedon") was a house and estate built in 1770 by Admiral Augustus Keppel (Lord Keppel) on land where James II had hunted game. After the comparatively humble Newtons left, Elveden Hall and the estate was bought by Prince Duleep Singh in 1863, the exiled Sikh ruler and last Maharajah of Lahore, and later by the Guinness family (Earl of Iveagh).

In 1828 the Newton family, complete with children and servants, made a lengthy trip to Italy. On the way back Alfred was born on 11 June 1829 at Les Délices, a chateau near Geneva that had once been owned by Voltaire. Alfred had a lively childhood, but suffered an accident when about five or six, which left him somewhat lame in one leg. He went to school in 1844 to Mr. Walker's school at Stetchworth near Newmarket, and was keeping birds in cages and looking after various other animals from quite a young age.

As with Charles Darwin, a youth spent shooting game birds – black or red grouse, common pheasant, partridge – led to a more general interest. Unlike Darwin, however, Newton's interest stayed with birds, some of which were rare even in those days. They included the Great Bustard (Otis tarda), Montagu's Harrier (Circus pygargus), ravens, buzzards (Buteo sp.), redpolls, wrynecks (Jynx), which are small woodpeckers that specialise in feeding on ants. "The vast warrens of the 'Breck', the woods and water-meadows of the valley of the Little Ouse, and the neighbouring Fenland made an ideal training-ground for a naturalist". This enthusiasm he shared with his younger brother Edward: the two carried out bird observation when they were together and corresponded whenever they were apart.

In 1846 he went to a tutor in Biggleswade for a few months, and in 1848 Newton entered Magdalene College, Cambridge as a pensioner or commoner. In Cambridge jargon, this meant a student who paid for both his education and his lodgings. Newton graduated BA in 1853. He took a particular interest in zoology and corresponded with many ornithologists of the time. A meeting with John Wolley at Cambridge in 1851 made them lifelong friends. He spent the rest of his life at Magdalene, and never married. A fall later in life, when he was on a trip to Heligoland, further crippled him, and he then walked with the aid of two sticks, instead of one, as formerly. "From a three-legged, he has become a four-legged man" commented a friend.

He died on 7 June 1907 of heart failure at the Old Lodge in Magdalene. He was buried in St Giles's cemetery, Huntingdon Road, Cambridge. He is buried in the St. Giles's cemetery in Cambridge.


In 1853 he was awarded the Drury Travelling Fellowship of Magdalene College but he took it up only in 1855 when the grant became available. Between 1855 and 1864 he visited many parts of the world, including Lapland, Iceland, Spitsbergen, the West Indies and North America. In 1858 he made a trip to Iceland with John Wolley with the hope of rediscovering the Great Auk. Shortly after their return Wolley died and upon suggestion of P.L. Sclater wrote up Wolley's notes and catalogued his collection in Ootheca Wolleyana which was published in four parts from 1864 to 1907. In 1866 he became the first Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy at Cambridge, a position which he retained until his death. He was one of the few British Professors of Zoology of his time in whose appointment Huxley did not have a hand. Both Darwin and Huxley declined to support his application, on the grounds that his interests and publications were too narrowly focussed on ornithology. The procedure was for candidates to canvass for votes (presumably amongst the MAs of the University). The result of the poll was Newton 110; Dr Drosier 82. Newton was one of the first zoologists to accept and champion the views of Charles Darwin, and his early lecture courses as professor were on evolution and zoogeography.

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