A Pioneer Who Deserves More Recognition

By Bernard Wood
November 06, 2013

If you are in an aircraft that is landing at London Heathrow Airport from the east (i.e., approaching over London) and you are sitting on the left side of the ‘plane, and it is a clear day, just before you land you will fly over the world’s largest rugby stadium at Twickenham. This is where England’s international rugby union football matches are played. If you then quickly look to its left you may just glimpse a tall Baroque bell tower standing rather incongruously next to a much newer church1. The mismatch between the bell tower, which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1670, and the 1940s church is because in 1939 the tower was moved, stone by stone, from its previous home, All Hallows in Lombard Street in the City of London2. Among the monuments that were also moved from Lombard Street into the new church is a fine funeral monument to “Edvardi Tyson, M.D.” It was initially installed in St. Dionis Backchurch, the church where Tyson was buried, but it was transferred to All Hallows when St. Dionis was demolished in the 19thC. Tyson and Wren were Londoners and friends so it is ironic they should be reunited in a town that in the early 1700s was half a day’s journey from London by stage coach.

Edward Tyson (1650-1708) was born in Bristol to a well-to-do merchant family, but he spent much of his childhood at the family’s country house in nearby Clevedon, a genteel town on the southern shore of the Severn Estuary in the West Country. When he was only 16 years old Tyson entered Magdalen Hall, Oxford where he spent six years studying ‘physick’ and learning a good deal of anatomy. Robert Plot, one of his teachers, recalled that Tyson and he dissected polecats and civet cats, paying special attention to their scent glands. After Tyson received his Bachelors degree from Oxford he moved to London where he devoted as much, if not more, time dissecting at Gresham’s College (then the home of the Royal Society) as he did to his medical practice, so it is not surprising that he gained recognition as a scientist before being given the same level of recognition as a physician and barber-surgeon. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1679 and in 1682 he became its first anatomical curator and prosector. In 1680 Tyson enrolled in Corpus Christi College Cambridge where he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Physick and in 1683 he was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians3 (there was no Royal College of Surgeons at the time). In 1684 he was appointed a Reader at Surgeons Hall in London and in the same year he was appointed a Physician at Bethlehem (aka Bethlem) Hospital4,5 (the institution that is the source of the colloquial term “bedlam” for chaos or madness).

Tyson’s publications during this time include careful and beautifully illustrated dissection studies of a porpoise (1680), rattlesnake (1684), tapeworm (1684), and an opossum (1698). But his magnum opus (and the long overdue topic of this blog) is his monograph entitled Orang-Outang, sive Homo Sylvestris: or, the Anatomy of a Pygmie, compared with that of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man: with an Essay concerning the Pygmies of the Ancients published in 16996. In this monograph Tyson reports the results of his meticulous dissection (carried out in April 1698) of the cadaver of what was almost certainly a juvenile chimpanzee brought back to England from what is now Angola. The skeleton of the dissected chimpanzee is now displayed in London’s Natural History Museum7.

Edward Tyson’s monograph is a remarkable piece of research and scholarship in which he takes pains to explicitly compare the anatomy of his ‘Pygmie’ with that of modern humans and monkeys. The detailed report of his dissection takes up no less than 108 pages of the monograph; the remaining pages are devoted to “Philological (aka Philosophical) Essays” on “Pygmies”, “Cynocephali”, “Satyrs” and “Sphinges”.

To illustrate how acute and profound Tyson’s observations were I focus on just two of many possible examples. With respect to the brain he writes “when I am describing the brain of our Pygmie, you may fully suspect I am describing that of Man, by allowing only for the magnitude of its parts”, but he then goes on to qualify this by observing that “the brain of Man, in respect of his body, be much larger than what it is to be met with in any other animal” (The Anatomie of a Pygmie, pp. 54-55). So way back in 1699 Tyson discerned that the brains of modern humans and his Pygmie (aka chimpanzee) are structurally very similar. But he had also alighted upon the significance of relative brain size, for he goes on to qualify his previous observation by noting that “the brain of Man, in respect of his body, be much larger than what it is to be met with in any other animal” (ibid, pp. 54-55). Tyson’s monograph also includes what must be the first illustration of a section through the brain of a chimpanzee (ibid, p. 156). As for the pelvic bone, Tyson writes that “there was no part I think of the whole skeleton where the Pygmie differed more from Man, than in the structure and figure of the Os Ilium” (ibid, p. 74). From my own experience I can attest that Tyson’s descriptions of the muscles are remarkably accurate.

Very few contemporary writers refer to Tyson’s work; Colin Groves (2008) is an exception and so is the author of this blog8. Ashley Montagu (1943) wrote an appreciative biography of Tyson, but it did not bring Tyson the attention he deserved. It is not difficult to see why; it is very long, it verges on hagiography and it was published when the world was distracted by WWII.

So why has it taken so long for most of us to recognize Tyson’s contributions? First, only a few copies of his original monograph are available and even though it was later republished9 that is also rare (N.B., a review in Medical History is an authoritative source about Tyson10). So until Tyson’s original monograph was digitized it was difficult to consult. Second, we are all in such a rush (the writer included) that few of us have the time to make our way through more than 200 pages of a book with a strange title written at the close of the 17thC by a physician who dressed in funny clothes3.

More’s the pity, for Tyson has a just claim to be the one of the fathers, if not the father, of comparative anatomy, and an irrefutable claim to be the father of primatology.

Going forward we should all be sure to give Edward Tyson the recognition he richly deserves.

References and links









9Orang-Outan, sive Homo Sylvestris: or, the Anatomy of a Pygmie compared with that of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man. London, 1699. A facsimile with an introduction by Ashley Montagu. (1966) Dawsons of Pall Mall, London.


Groves, Colin (2008) Extended family: Long lost cousins. Pp. 1-227. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Montagu, Ashley (1943) Edward Tyson, M.D., F.R.S. 1650-1708 and the rise of human and comparative anatomy in England. Pp. 1-488. The American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.