George Busk

Home Archives & Manuscripts Obituaries George Busk

Obituary Notice of the late Professor Busk.

By the death on the 10th of August last of Mr. George Busk the Institute has lost one of its oldest and most valued members.

He was born on the 12th of August, 1807, at St. Petersburg, being the second son of Mr. Robert Busk, an English merchant residing in that city. He early devoted himself to the study of surgery, entering as a pupil at the Medical School, which had at that time a considerable reputation, established in Aldersgate Street, near St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. He became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1830, and was elected an honorary fellow of that body in 1843. For many years he was Surgeon to the Seamen’s Hospital established on board the Dreadnought, an old man-of-war moored off Greenwich, an office which he resigned in 1856. Although never in large practice, chiefly owing to the fortunate circumstance that he was not under the necessity of devoting himself to the drudgery of the profession, he acquired a considerable reputation as a scientific surgeon and made some important contributions to the advancement of surgical knowledge. It was, however, as a naturalist that he was best known to the world. His early predilection for microscopic research, and familiarity with the instrument at a time when it was in comparatively few hands, led him to select the lower forms of animal life, as the principal objects of his painstaking and accurate researches. The numerous memoirs which he published, especially upon the organization and classification of the polyzoa had already in 1856 made him so great a reputation that when in that year Sir Richard Owen resigned the Hunterian Professorship at the Royal College of Surgeons, which he had long held with great distinction, Mr. Busk was chosen by the Council of the College to succeed him. His strength, however, lay rather in investigation than in exposition, and his modest, retiring nature making public lecturing an uncongenial pursuit, after three years he resigned the chair. He did, however, admirable service to the college for many years, as a Member of the Council and of the Board of Examiners, and in 1871 was chosen to serve in its highest office, that of President. He was also an examiner in the University of London and the Army Medical Board; for many years Secretary to the Linnean Society, a member of the Council and Vice-President of the Royal Society, a Member of the Council and Vice-President of the Zoological Society, a Member of the Council of the Geological Society, Treasurer of the Royal Institution, a Member of the Senate of the University of London, Trustee of the Hunterian Museum, and one of the Governors of Charterhouse School. The number and variety of these appointments show the esteem in which his sound judgment, wide knowledge, excellent common sense, unwearied industry, and sterling integrity of character were held by his friends and colleagues.

For his numerous and varied researches in zoology, physiology, and comparative anatomy, the Royal Society in 1871 awarded to Mr. Busk a Royal medal, and he also received the Lyell and Wollaston medals from the Geological Society for his labours in palaeontology, mainly the description of mammalian remains found in caves. It is, however, chiefly his work in connection with anthropology, a subject to which he devoted much of his time in the later years of his life, that must be spoken of here. He was elected a member of the old Ethnological Society in 1863, and soon after became one of its Vice-Presidents. In the negotiations connected with the fusion of that society with the Anthropological, which resulted in the formation of the present Institute in 1871, he took a considerable part. Of this body he was a Member of the Council from its foundation until the advance of illness about a year before his death compelled him to cease from attending. In 1873 he was elected President, an office which he served for two years with great advantage to the Institute, having been most assiduous in the discharge of its duties.

Mr. Busk’s taste for anthropology appears to have been first roused by the opportunities for its study afforded by the seamen of the most varied races and nationalities who became patients at the Dreadnought Hospital; and a small collection of typical crania which he then formed, furnished the materials for commencing those investigations into the distinctive characters of the skulls of races, which will always be associated with his name. He was the first in this country who seriously attacked this difficult problem, and he expended a vast amount of careful observation and experiment in devising methods of measuring the external form and estimating the internal capacity of crania. Since he first took up this question, the science of craniometry has engaged the attention of numerous anatomists in all parts of the civilised world, and has made advances which naturally have left Busk’s methods somewhat in the rear, but still the ingenuity of his modes of procedure, and the thoroughly scientific and conscientious spirit in which his investigations were carried on will never fail to meet their due recognition. A large work which he had for many years in hand, entitled “ Crania typica,” containing descriptions and carefully executed lithographic figures, either by his own hand or of that of one of his accomplished daughters, was never published; but the plates, as far as they were completed, have been deposited in the library of the Institute.

The following list of Mr. Busk’s published memoirs in anthropological subjects will give some idea of the extent and scope of his researches in this branch of science.

1.    “ Observations on a Systematic Mode of Craniometry.” “Trans. Ethnol. Soc.,” I, 1861, p. 341.

2.    Translation of Schaaffhausen, “ On the Crania of the most Ancient Races of Manwith remarks, and original figures, taken from a cast of the Neanderthal Cranium. “ Nat. Hist. Review,” 1861, pp. 155-176.

3.    “ Observations on some Skulls from Ceylon, said to be those of Veddahs.” “Linn. Soc. Journ.,” VI (Zool.), 1862, p. 166.

4.    (With Carpenter and Falconer). “An account of the proceedings of the late Conference held in France to enquire into the circumstances attending the reported discovery of a Human Jaw in the gravel at Moulin-Quignon, near Abbeville; including the Procès Verbaux of the sittings of the Conference, with notes thereon.” “Nat. Hist. Review,” 1863, pp. 423-462.

5.    “Note on the Skeleton found at Bennet Hill, Elgin.” “ Journ. Anthrop. Soc.,” II, 1864, pp. 9, 10.

6.    “ On a very Ancient Human Cranium from Gibraltar.” “ Brit. Assoc. Rep.,” XXXIV, 1864 (Sect.), pp. 91, 92.

7.    “ Account of the Discovery of a Human Skeleton beneath a bed of peat on the coast of Cheshire.” “ Trans. Ethnol. Soc.,” IV, 1866, p. 101.

8.    “ Description of two Andamanese Skulls.” “ Trans. Ethnol. Soc.” IV, 1866, p. 205.

9.    “ Description of an Aino Skull.” “ Trans. Ethnol. Soc.,” VI, 1868, pp. 109-111.

10.    “ Description of, and Remarks upon, an Ancient Calvaria from China, which has been supposed to be that of Confucius.” “ Journ. Ethnol. Soc.,” II, 1870, p. 73.

11.    “ Supplementary Remarks to a note on an Ancient Chinese Calva.” “ Journ. Ethnol. Soc.,” II, 1870, p. 156.

12.    “ Remarks on a Collection of Skulls from Rothwell, in Northamptonshire.” “ Proceedings Ethnol. Soc.,” 1870, p. xci. [In “Journ. Anthrop. Inst.,” I, 1872, Appendix.]

13.    (With W. Boyd Dawkins). “ On the Discovery of Platycnemic Men in Denbighshire.” “ Brit. Assoc. Rep.,” XL, 1870 (Sect.), p. 148.

14.    “ Note on a ready method of Measuring the Cubic Capacity of Skulls.” “ Journ. Anthrop. Inst.,” III, 1874, p. 200.

15.    “Remarks on a Collection of 150 Ancient Peruvian Skulls, presented to the Anthropological Institute by T. J. Hutchinson.” “ Journ. Anthrop. Inst.,” Ill, 1874, p. 86.

16.    “Description of a Samoiede Skull in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons.” “ Journ. Anthrop. Inst.,” Ill, 1874, p. 494.

17.    “ Notes on some Skulls from Palmyra, presented to the Institute by the late Mr. Cottesworth.” “ Journ. Anthrop. Inst.,” IV, 1874, p. 366.

18.    “ Presidential Address to the Anthropological Institute.” “ Journ. Anthrop. Inst.,” Ill, 1874, p. 499.

19.    “ Presidential Address to the Anthropological Institute.”’ “ Journ. Anthrop. Inst.,” IV, 1875, p. 469.

20.    “ Notice of a Skull from Ashantee, and supposed to be that of a Chief or Superior Officer.” “ Journ. Anthrop. Inst.,” IV, 1875, p. 62.

21.    “Description of two Beothuc Skulls.” “Journ. Anthrop. Inst.” V, 1876, p. 230.

22.    “Notes on a Collection of Skulls from the Islands of Mallicollo and Vanikoro in the New Hebrides Group.” “ Journ. Anthrop. Inst,” VI, 1877, p. 200.

W. H. F.

To cite this article:

W.H.F.. 1887. ‘Obituary Notice of the Late Professor Buck’. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 16, pp. 403-407 (available on-line: