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Biographical entry Flower, Sir William Henry (1831 - 1899)

CB 1887; KCB 1892; MRCS March 27th 1854; FRCS May 23rd 1857; FRS 1864; Hon LLD Dublin and Edinburgh; DCL Durham.

30 November 1831
Stratford-on-Avon, UK
1 July 1899
London, UK
Museum director


The second son of Edward Fordham Flower and Celina, the eldest daughter of John Greaves, of Leamington. He was born at Stratford-on-Avon on Nov 30th, 1831. His father was founder of the brewing business known as Flower & Sons, which continued to be carried on at Stratford-on-Avon. The elder brother was the founder of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, and his younger brother was Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trustees.

William Henry Flower was educated at University College, and graduated MB at the University of London in 1851 after studying at the Middlesex Hospital. At University College he won the Sharpey Gold Medal in Physiology and the Grant Silver Medal in Zoology. He volunteered during the Crimean War in 1854, saw active service in the field, and held a hospital appointment at Scutari. On his return home he was elected Assistant Surgeon, Lecturer on Anatomy, and Curator of the Museum at the Middlesex Hospital.

In 1861 he became Conservator of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of England in succession to John Thomas Quekett, holding the post until he was succeeded by Charles Stewart in 1884. He served the office of Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Physiology at the College from 1870-1873, the previous occupant of the chair being T H Huxley (qv); and a second time from 1876-1884, replacing William Kitchen Parker. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1864, served as a Member of the Council, was a Vice-President and was awarded a Royal Medal in 1882.

When Sir Richard Owen (qv) retired from the Directorship of the Natural History Museum at South Kensington, Flower was appointed in his place in 1884, and held the post until 1898, when he resigned on account of ill health, and was succeeded by E Ray Lankester, FRS. He was elected to the Council of the Zoological Society in 1862 and served continuously until 1869; he became Vice-President in 1870 and acted as President for twenty years from Feb. 5th, 1879. He was also President of the Anthropological Institute from 1883-1885 and was more than once President of the Anthropological Section of the British Association. He was President of the British Association at the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Meeting in 1889.

Flower was decorated CB in 1887 and was promoted KCB in 1892; he was a corresponding member of the Institute of France, and received the Prussian order 'Pour la Mérite'. He was also an Hon LLD of Dublin and Edinburgh and a DCL of Durham.

He married in 1858 Georgiana Rosetta, daughter of Admiral William Henry Smyth (1788-1865), one of the founders of the Royal Geographical Society, and by her he had three sons and three daughters. He died after some months of ill health at Stanhope Gardens on July 1st, 1899, was cremated at Woking, and was buried at Stone, Buckinghamshire.

A portrait by the Chevalier Schmidt, of Berlin, was given to Lady Flower, and there is a bust in the Natural History Museum at South Kensington. A small engraving representing Flower in middle life hangs in the Conservator's room at the College of Surgeons. An enlarged photograph by Messrs. Elliott and Fry was presented to the College in 1918.

Urbane, easy of access, a good administrator, and an inheritor of his father's capacity for business, Flower was excellent as the Director of a large museum, whilst his scientific ability was of the greatest service to the two great institutions he was called upon to serve - the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, and the Natural History Collection which was housed in the noble building at South Kensington. As guardian of a national collection he was successful in the difficult task of making it interesting to the general public without destroying its utility for scientific students, and he was thus justly pronounced to be "an originator and inventor in museum work". He was a morphologist and a comparative anatomist, as is shown by his Osteology of Mammalia published in 1870, by his work on the Monotremata and Marsupialia, and by his important contributions to the anatomy of the Cetacea, the outcome of which is to be seen in the 'whale room' in the College of Surgeons.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Dict. Nat. Biog., xxii, Supplement et auct. ibi cit. Midland Medical Miscellany, 1883-4, with portrait. Personal knowledge].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England