Francis Willughby may well deserve to be celebrated in a book called The Wonderful Mr Willughby, but he did little in his lifetime to protect his future reputation: he died young, failed to provide for the preservation of his notebooks and supported a research companion whose fame came to overshadow his own. Before being rescued from obscurity by his fellow bird-lover Tim Birkhead, Willughby enjoyed a dubious status among historians as the author of an unsuccessful but lavishly illustrated book on fish that emptied the coffers of the Royal Society, which then refused to fund the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia. If it had not been for Newton, Willughby’s existence would have attracted even less attention.
In the absence of intellectual copyright protection, cut-throat tactics flourished around the end of the 17th century. Newton dedicated great energy and vitriol to marginalising his competitors. Determined to secure his fiefdom against invaders, he connived at court to ensure that the German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz – his arch-rival for recognition as the inventor of calculus – was left behind in Hanover after his employer, the Elector George, succeeded to the British throne. As president of the Royal Society, Newton allegedly destroyed portraits of Robert Hooke, who repeatedly accused Newton of plagiarism and has only relatively recently been rescued from obscurity.
Is Willughby another Hooke, a casualty of deliberate repression and unjust exclusion from the historical record? Birkhead’s ambition is to establish him as an unsung hero of the biological sciences, but the surviving evidence makes it hard for him to clinch his case. Even though Willughby had no Newton