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The packing case that changed the world

PhillipsGeologist and science writer Nina Morgan celebrates an archive found in an attic

Few people were more knowledgeable about the methods and achievements of William Smith than his nephew, John Phillips (pictured).  Orphaned at the age of seven, John and his sister Anne were taken in by their uncle.  Smith paid for John's education and 1815, John began working as his uncle's scientific assistant, sorting and cataloguing Smith's fossil collection.  Together they travelled through England, and John became, in effect, the first "apprenticed" geologist. 

Phillips, a great champion of his uncle's work, later went on to do great things, rising through the geological ranks to become the first Professor of Geology at Oxford University in 1860.  He also helped to plan and arrange what is now the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and became its first Keeper. 

Literary executor

When Smith died, Phillips also served as his uncle's literary and de facto scientific executor - as well as his 'official' biographer.  Phillips's Memoirs of William Smith LL.D., first published in 1844, was the first biography of William Smith to appear.  The book, Phillips noted, was "...drawn from authentic materials principally in the possession of the compiler [John Phillips], who, after witnessing the workings of Mr. Smith's mind and changes of his fortune during the last five and twenty years of his life, was called upon to perform the duty of examining his voluminous unpublished papers."

Hidden treasure

This reference to 'voluminous unpublished papers' caught the eye of Leslie Reginald Cox (1897-1965), a researcher at the Natural History Museum in London, when he was preparing a lecture about William Smith and his work in 1938.  "This statement attracted my attention...," Cox wrote, "...for it occurred to me that there was a remote possibility that the documents mentioned by Phillips might still be in existence....  Accordingly I enquired of Professor J A Douglas, who had recently been appointed to the Oxford Chair of Geology, if anything  was known at Oxford of Smith's MSS."

With this enquiry, Cox hit paydirt.  "As it happened," Cox wrote, "Professor Douglas had already decided that the contents of a packing-case which had long lain uncovered and neglected in an attic in the Oxford University Museum urgently required attention.  It proved, on examination, to contain the greater part of the indeed voluminous manuscript mentioned by Phillips."  It was, for Smith scholars, truly the packing case that changed their world. 

This treasure trove – most likely tucked away by Phillips himself – now forms the basis of the Smith Archive at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, the most comprehensive Smith archive in the world.  The contents - much of which have been digitised and are being made available at - have kept Smith and Phillips scholars busy for years and are still being studied.  But even so, many aspects of Smith's life remain a mystery.  Surely there MUST be another dusty packing case hidden in the attic of the Oxford Museum.  One can only hope!


Information sources for this vignette include:  John Phillips and the Business of Victorian Science by Jack Morrell, Ashgate Publishing, 2005, ISBN 1840142391; Memoirs of William Smith, LL.D by John Phillips,(especially the Introduction, Lecture and additional material by Hugh Torrens), re-published by The Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, 2003; ISBN 0954494105; L R Cox, 1942, New light on William Smith and His Work, Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society, vol 25, 1-99; J M Edmonds, 1982, The first apprenticed geologist, Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, v.76 pp. 141-154; Nina Morgan, 2006, Anne Phillips and the mystery of the Malverns,  Geoscientist 16.7, pp. 6-7 & 12-15.

* Nina Morgan is a geologist and science writer based near Oxford, and is one of many who have studied some of the contents of that packing case.  She is currently working on a book about the Geology of Gravestones.