William Clift, (1775–1849), British naturalist, born at Burcombe, about half a mile from the town of Bodmin in Cornwall, on 14 February 1775, was the youngest of the seven children of Robert Clift, who died a few years later, leaving his wife and family in the depths of poverty.
The boy was sent to school at Bodmin, and his taste for drawing came under the notice of Colonel Walter Raleigh Gilbert of the Priory, Bodmin, and his wife, ‘a lady of great accomplishments,’ with whom he was soon established as a great favourite. Mrs. Gilbert had been a schoolfellow of Miss Home, and kept up a correspondence with her friend after her marriage to John Hunter, the celebrated physician. She recommended Clift as an apprentice to Hunter, stating that he was qualified by his quickness and by his natural taste for drawing, which was shown in his eagerness ‘to come into her kitchen in Cornwall and make drawings with chalk on the floor.’
Clift arrived in London on 14 February 1792, his own and Hunter's birthday, and as he at once gave satisfaction to Hunter, was apprenticed without the payment of a fee, on the understanding that he was ‘to write and make drawings, to dissect and take part in the charge of the museum’ which his master had formed at the back of his house in Leicester Square. While Hunter lived this system of labour proved satisfactory to both of them. The pupil waited on his master at his dissections or wrote from his dictation from early morning until late at night. Hunter died on 16 October 1793, but his death made no difference in Clift's attachment to his master's memory. So long as life lasted Clift used to call him a truly honest man, and to ridicule the slanders that envy endeavoured to fasten on his character.
For six years he was engaged by Hunter's executors to watch over the collections, living with an old housekeeper in the house in Castle Street, his pay being limited to ‘seven shillings a week,’ although bread had risen to war prices. For the safety of these specimens he was solely responsible, and he kept zealous guard over his charge, copying and preserving many, probably a half, of Hunter's manuscripts which would otherwise have perished. Clift was unwearied in cleaning, and on the purchase of the collection by parliament it was in a better state than at its owner's death. When the Corporation of Surgeons agreed to undertake the charge of the collection, and was incorporated by a charter dated 22 March 1800 as the Royal College of Surgeons, one of its first acts was to retain Clift in his place, dignifying him with the title of conservator of the museum, and rewarding his services with a salary of about £100. a year. From that date his time and talents ‘were exclusively devoted to the advancement of comparative anatomy and physiology.’ His pride was in his daily work, and he lived to see the museum ‘enriched, enlarged, and worthily displayed and illustrated.’ Under his supervision Hunter's collections were twice removed without the slightest damage, first in 1806 to a temporary place of deposit, and on the second occasion in 1813 to the museum of the college, and the whole of the specimens were more than once numbered by him.
Retirement and death
After he had been more than fifty years connected with the discoveries and studies of John Hunter, he retired into private life on his full salary of £400. a year. He married, at St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, London, in 1799, Caroline Amelia Pope, who died in April 1849. A few weeks later, on 20 June 1849, Clift died at Stanhope Cottage, Hampstead Road, London, and they were both buried in Highgate cemetery. His only son, William Home Clift, who assisted his father in the museum, was born in 1803 and died in 1833. His only daughter, Caroline Amelia Clift, was married at New St. Pancras Church on 20 July 1835 to Professor (now Sir Richard) Owen, and died at Sheen Lodge, Richmond Park, on 7 May 1873, aged 70. A pleasing glimpse into her character is afforded by a passage in Caroline Fox's Journals (first ed. p. 137).
Character and achievements
The praises of Clift's character were in the mouth of every man of science. Dr. South spoke of him as ‘a kindly-hearted creature, always ready to impart and not to appropriate information,’ and with a ‘head crammed full of knowledge.’ Sir Benjamin Brodie the elder praised his industry and his thirst for the acquisition of knowledge, qualities which he found to be combined with great sagacity and keen observation. He was highly esteemed by Sir Joseph Banks, Dr. Wollaston, and Sir Humphry Davy, and through the influence of the latter was elected F.R.S. 8 May 1823, being the last to receive that honour before the increase in the admission fees. He was also a member of the Chemical Society, a small body of savants within the ranks of the Royal Society, who dined together as a pleasure, and communicated papers to the parent institution with the object of promoting the study of animal chemistry (Weld, Royal Soc. ii. 237–43). Clift's stores of knowledge were open to every one who visited Hunter's museum, and most of the contemporary works or memoirs on the ‘fossil remains of the higher classes of animals’ were improved by his information. Gideon Mantell acknowledged his help to Clift in the original memoir on the Iguanodon (Philosophical Transactions 1825, p. 181), and Baron Cuvier owned to a similar debt in the concluding volume of his work on fossil remains. His knowledge of osteology is referred to in deferential terms by Sir Charles Lyell, and his researches in anatomical science proved of much profit to Sir Benjamin Brodie. In 1803 there appeared a volume divided into ten fasciculi (the first of which had been issued in 1799), and entitled A Series of Engravings … to illustrate the Morbid Anatomy of some of the most important parts of the Human Body, by Matthew Baillie. The advertisement to the first fasciculus announced that ‘the drawings will be made by a young man, who is not only very well skilled in his own arts, but who possesses a considerable share of knowledge in anatomy.’ This was Clift, and all the drawings in Baillie's book were made by him, as were most of the illustrations of Sir Everard Home's numerous papers on Comparative Anatomy in the Philosophical Transactions. He contributed papers to the Philosophical Transactions for 1815 and 1823, to the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal for 1831, and to the Geological Society's Transactions in 1829 and 1835, his paper On the Fossil Remains … found on the left bank of the Irawadi in the Transactions of the latter society for 1829 being reprinted in an appendix to Mr. John Crawfurd's Journal of an Embassy to the Court of Ava. His son-in-law, Sir Richard Owen, published in 1861 two volumes of Essays and Observations on Natural History, Anatomy, &c., by John Hunter. These were printed from copies of Hunter's manuscripts, which were made by Clift between 1793 and 1800. Some of them had previously been published in Owen's Descriptive Catalogue of Physiological Series of Comparative Anatomy, but the whole collection was not placed in his hands until a short time before the death of Clift, who had himself contemplated their publication and drawn up some notes for that purpose. These are printed with his initials or full name. The original manuscripts were by Sir Everard Home's orders removed to his house in a cart shortly before 1800, and were most of them destroyed by him in 1823. When Clift was told of this destruction, he said to its author, ‘Well, Sir Everard, there is but one thing more to be done, that is to destroy the collection,’ and burst into tears. He was the compiler of the catalogue of the osteology in the Hunterian Museum, and he gave some valuable evidence to the parliamentary committee on medical education in 1834. Dr. Westby-Gibson is the owner of two manuscripts in shorthand, giving the particulars of forty-nine lectures delivered by Dr. Haighton at Guy's Hospital 1814–15, which are believed to be the work of Clift. His portrait, from a daguerreotype, is in Claudet's Historical Gallery and his bust in plaster, with the date 1843, is placed on the entrance door to the western museum of the College of Surgeons.
- Gentleman's Magazine. August 1849, pp. 209–10
- Appendix to Owen's edition of Hunter's Essays and Observations, ii. 493–500
- Owen's Descriptive Catalogue of Comparative Anatomy in Museum of Surgeons, v. pp. xii–xiii
- Abstract of Papers of Royal Society, v. 876–80
- Sir James Paget's Hunterian Oration, 51–2, 60–1
- Sir W. Lawrence's Hunterian Oration, 18, 59–64
- Brodie's Autobiog. 65–7
- Lyell's Letters, i. 116, 172, 176
- South's Memorials, pp. 73–5
- Lancet, 1849, i. 685
- Boase and Courtney's Bibl. Cornub. i. 72, iii. 1121.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: "Clift, William". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.