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Pride, Prejudice and Persistence

Colonel William Paterson’s 1799 portrait. (Courtesy State Library of NSW, Call Number DG175)

Colonel William Paterson’s 1799 portrait. (Courtesy State Library of NSW, Call Number DG175)

By Paul Edwards

It took two decades for William Paterson to persuade his patron Sir Joseph Banks to recognise his achievements through membership of the Royal Society.

Lieutenant Colonel William Paterson, Lieutenant Governor of the colony of NSW and founder of the city of Launceston, was an enthusiastic amateur naturalist. He maintained a passion for natural history all his life. When his patron, the Countess of Strathmore (the fourth great grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II), withdrew financial support after her second marriage, he joined the army and gained the patronage of Sir Joseph Banks, “the father of Australia”. Banks’ long reluctance to support Paterson’s attempts to join the Royal Society can be explained by the mix of politics, personality and social class that characterised British science, at home and in the colonies, towards the end of the English Enlightenment.

The Rise of Joseph Banks

James Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific, to observe the 1769 transit of Venus in Tahiti and then to search for the unknown southern continent Terra Australis Incognita, launched the career of Joseph Banks, then only 28 years old. Like Paterson at the same age, Banks was an enthusiastic and personable young amateur naturalist. However, unlike Paterson, he had inherited considerable wealth and property and had influential aristocratic, scientific and naval connections in London. These undoubtedly aided his election to the Royal Society at the age of 23 after his first expedition abroad to Newfoundland and Labrador. They also gained a place for him and his large party on the Endeavour 2 years later, travelling (at his own expense) on one of the most important sea voyages of discovery ever made.

Following his triumphant return from the Pacific voyage in 1772, Banks developed a cordial relationship with King George III. Thousands of the botanical specimens that he and botanist Daniel Solander had collected found their way to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and Banks became its unofficial director. Although lampooned in the press for his amorous exploits in Tahiti and as a dilettante (known at the time as the “Macaroni”), he became prominent in London society. Elected President of the Royal Society in 1778, he succeeded Sir John Pringle, who held the presidency with the support of the Whigs, who were in political decline.

The Struggle of William Paterson

Paterson, coming from a remote and humble Scottish hamlet, had to work harder for his fellowship of the Royal Society. He covered nearly 10,000 km on four physically demanding South African expeditions, penetrated further into the interior of the Cape Colony than any other botanist, and collected a rich haul of seeds, bulbs, plants and fauna for Lady Strathmore, his demanding patron. At the end, saddled with debt and in hiding from his London creditors, he was unable to present his discoveries to the Royal Society or to publish an account of them. However much of his hard-earned collection found its way into museums, plant nurseries and gardens. His giraffe skin and skeleton, the first to arrive in Britain, caused a sensation when stuffed and exhibited by surgeon John Hunter.

Trained as a horticulturalist, Paterson had optimistically planned to study botany in Sweden, home of Carl Linnaeus, famed taxonomist and promoter of the new binary nomenclature of genus and species. This plan had to be sacrificed too. Faced with financial ruin in 1781, Paterson earned himself a commission as an ensign by guiding a British squadron down the southern African coast to make a surprise attack on the Dutch fleet at the Cape. He then served with the British army in India for the next 4 years before returning to Britain.

In 1786 he wrote to Banks, “... in my way to the East Indies, with the 98th Regiment, I met with an electrical fish, which has hitherto escaped the observation of naturalists”. Paterson asked Banks to bring his letter to the attention of the Society. Banks duly obliged his protégé by publishing the letter in the Society’s Philosophical Transactions, and the fashionable Gentleman’s Magazine carried the story of the new “electric” fish on its front page. According to the magazine’s editors, the fish “gave him [Paterson] a severe electric shock, which obliged him to quit his hold”. Alas, it was all for nothing: Paterson had confused the physical sensation of the little puffer fish’s rapid vibratory spasms with the effects of electric shock.

18th Century “Electrics” Research

A decade earlier Royal Society Fellow John Walsh, a nabob who served with Robert Clive in India, had shown how to identify a genuine “electric” fish. Sir John Pringle awarded Walsh the Society’s prestigious Copley Medal in 1774 for un­ambiguously confirming the electrical nature of the shock generated by the Atlantic ray Torpedo marmorata in an expedition to Brittany. He had demonstrated that the physiological effects required an electrical conducting path between the upper and lower surfaces of the fish. When this was broken, the effects vanished.

Neither Paterson nor Banks realised the importance of this simple test, which was conceptually similar to Benjamin Franklin’s famous demonstration of the electrical character of lightning by flying a kite with a wet string during a thunderstorm. Both tests utilised the flow of “electric fluid” (charge) along an electrical conductor from a higher to a lower potential.

At Walsh’s request, Henry Cavendish successfully modelled the torpedo ray’s effects with an assembly of submerged Leyden jars, and surgeon Hunter dissected its internal “battery-like” electric organs. Twenty years later Alessandro Volta invented the voltaic pile, the progenitor of the modern electric battery, an example of man imitating nature. Walsh, worried by the absence of the visible spark that was supposedly a signature of the “electric fluid”, finally managed to raise a spark from the freshwater South American “electric eel” Electrophorus electricus. Cavendish and Volta later explained this in terms of the much higher (and lethal) potential difference (more than 500 V) between the freshwater eel’s head and long tail.

Following Franklin’s departure from England in 1775, the focus of research in animal electricity, and “electrics” generally, shifted from Britain to the continent, to return only after Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday brilliantly exploited Volta’s invention of the electric battery in the following century.

Royal Society Politics

Paterson doubtless hoped that his electric fish “discovery” would strengthen his case for Royal Society membership. Sadly, not only was he mistaken about the fish, but more importantly, newly elected president Banks was under attack from the professional mathematicians and natural philosophers in the Society with links to Oxford and Cambridge –the self-styled “men of science”.

Banks’ predecessor Pringle had blotted his royal copy book by taking rebel colonist Benjamin Franklin’s side in a quasi-scientific controversy concerning lightning conductors. He had supported Franklin’s design of a sharp-pointed lightning rod against the more politically acceptable spherical version favoured by the English “electricians” of the day. Pringle is said to have lost both the presidency and his appointment as Royal physician with the memorable words: “Sire, the prerogatives of the President of the Royal Society do not extend to altering the laws of Nature”.

The mathematicians and natural philosophers derided Banks’ attempts “to amuse the Fellows with frogs, fleas and grasshoppers” and accused him of running the Society as his private club – interfering in the election of Fellows and Council members and favouring “non-scientific” members of the aristocracy and gentry. The Royal Society of the early 1780s became polarised between the “men of science” and the “Macaronis” – the latter typically being gentleman naturalists like Banks with private incomes. “The Dissensions” came to a head in 1783 with an unsuccessful revolt against Banks’ presidency by a group that included the Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne, Walsh’s cousin. In this poisonous atmosphere Banks was bound to discourage Paterson’s application for membership.

Nevertheless, undeterred by the fiasco of the electric fish and with membership of the Royal Society still firmly in his sights, Paterson turned his energies towards publishing an account of his expeditions in southern Africa. He dedicated his Narrative of Four Journeys into the Country of the Hottentots and Caffraria to Sir Joseph, who had himself stimulated interest in the Cape hinterland after a brief stopover on his way home in the Endeavour. Once again Banks effectively blackballed Paterson’s application, but evidently used his influence to have him gazetted as a captain in the infamous NSW “Rum Corps”.

In 1790 the newly married Capt. Paterson took ship to Sydney and then to Norfolk Island, eager to explore the natural history of the new colony. Recruited into the ranks of Banks’ huge international network of scientific correspondents, he tirelessly collected and dispatched specimens back to England on behalf of his patron and other like-minded Fellows of the Royal Society, including John Hunter, for the next two decades, despite his declining health.

Banks remained at the helm of the Society for nearly 42 years until his death in 1820. Historian John Gascoigne has suggested that his long dominance of the Society retarded the advancement of mathematically based natural philosophy – “physics” in Britain. Certainly Humphrey Davy, his successor as President, computer pioneer Charles Babbage and John Herschel, son of Sir William Herschel, the first President of the Astronomical Society (the formation of which Banks vehemently opposed) were all highly critical of his presidency.

However, Banks maintained a careful balance between natural philosophy and natural history after The Dissensions, although the proportion of “non-scientific” Fellows rose as high as 72%. Reform of the Society began after his death, but the 19th century Australian colonial Royal Societies inherited much of the character of the unreformed Royal Society of London.

Final Victory

Four years after his arrival in the colony, Paterson offered Banks a Natural History of Norfolk Island and again solicited his imprimatur as Royal Society gate keeper, writing: “P.S. I hope you have not forgot my earnest wish of becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society, should you think me at all deserving of that honor”. In 1797, after Paterson had been invalided back to England, Banks replied:

I note your wishes to become a Fellow... When you return your chance of receiving that & other Literary honors must depend upon the benefit Science has received from your Labors while abroad and as the Elections into that body are carried on by Ballot I shall have no doubt of your success provided the Members are convinced you deserve their white balls.

And so William Paterson, armed with his Narrative of Four Journeys and his Natural History of Norfolk Island, finally achieved his long-sought objective. He apparently did not use the Linnaean scheme but prudently widened his scientific activities to include meteorology and geology. He returned to the colony as Lieutenant Colonel Paterson FRS, became Lieutenant Governor and briefly acted as Governor when William Bligh, another Banks protégé, was deposed by the NSW Corps.

Fellow countryman and Banks protégé, eminent botanist and microscopist Robert Brown (of Brownian Motion fame), praised Paterson’s passion for botany and named an entire Australian native iris genus Patersonia in his honour. Patersonia fragilis, the native short purple flag iris, is a prominent and attractive feature of the Tasmanian coastal bush in spring and summer.


Em/Prof Paul Edwards was formerly Professor of Electronic Engineering and Applied Physics and Director of the Centre for Advanced Telecommunications and Quantum Electronics Research at The University of Canberra.