Patricia Fara

Bird Man

The Wonderful Mr Willughby: The First True Ornithologist


Bloomsbury 353pp £25 order from our bookshop

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.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • ‘At every waking moment Barbara Hepworth was aware of herself as a woman paving the way in a man’s world’ From the… ,
    • The entertaining Howard Jacobson is in conversation with Prof John Mullan at the Queen’s Park Book Festival on Sund… ,
    • 'A modest and retiring man, Thompson spent his life describing apple varieties and recommending the best – Ribston… ,
    • 'Macfarlane is a poet with the instincts of a thriller writer, an autodidact in botany, mycology, geology and palae… ,
    • 'Some scholars attribute Shakespeare’s pre-eminence to four centuries of propaganda and not to the fact that Hamlet… ,
    • RT : We would appreciate any retweets ,
    • We've just stumbled on a gem from the LR archive. The emoluments page from May 1995, in which one reviewer asked to… ,