Eyton, T. C. (Thomas Campbell), 1809-1880

Alternative names
Birth 1809-09-10
Death 1880-10-25

Biographical notes:

Epithet: of Eyton, county Shropshire

British Library Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue : Person : Description : ark:/81055/vdc_100000001188.0x000279

Thomas Campbell Eyton was an English naturalist.

From the description of Correspondence, 1836-1874. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122523683

Thomas Campbell Eyton (1809-1880) was a British naturalist and agriculturist. While he also studied cattle, and fishes, Eyton is particularly well-known as an ornithologist. His most important work focused on ducks. Eyton was a friend and correspondent of many eminent naturalists of his day, including Charles Darwin (1809-1882, APS 1869), John Gould (1804-1881), Louis Agassiz (1807-1873, APS 1843), Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913, APS 1873), Richard Owen (1804-1892, APS 1845), and Sir William Jardine (1800-1874, APS 1845).

Eyton was born in Eyton Hall, near Wellington, Shropshire. His parents were Thomas Eyton, recorder of Wenlock, and later High Sheriff of Shropshire, and his wife Elizabeth. He studied at St. John’s College, Cambridge, but did not take a degree.

Eyton published his first significant ornithological studies in the 1830s. The first two, issued in 1836 and illustrated with elaborate woodcuts, were a History of the Rarer British Birds and Catalogue of British Birds . Two years later followed a book on ducks. Eyton named several birds himself, including the Dendrocygna eytoni, the plumed whistling duck from Australia, which is also called Eyton's tree duck. Several fellow ornithologists, such as Philip Lutley Sclater, the first editor of the ornithological journal Ibis, honored Eyton by naming birds after him. One example is a Brazilian woodcreeper ( Xiphorhynchus guttatus eytoni ).

In 1855 Eyton inherited his father’s estate, Eyton Hall. He expanded the manor house to found a large natural history museum. His collection of skins and skeletons of a great variety of birds was the finest of its kind in Europe. The illustrations in his large ornithological study Ostealogia Avium, published between 1871 and 1888, were based on the skeletons in his museum. Eyton prepared many of the specimens himself, and also catalogued the drawings, engravings and portraits in the museum. The collections were dispersed after Eyton’s death; many of them eventually came into the possession of the Natural History Museum at Tring in London, the Liverpool Museum, Cambridge University Museum of Zoology, and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

Eyton’s research interests extended beyond the study of birds. In 1858 Eyton’s friend Charles Darwin admiringly commented in a letter to him about the “splendid collection of skeletons you have, & how many good irons you have in the fire, for I see that you are, also, going to publish a Book on the Oyster.” Eyton’s study of oysters, published in 1858, was based on his research of the oyster fisheries of the British islands. His other “irons in the fire” included his work in agriculture, more specifically, livestock. He was particularly concerned about improving the Hereford cattle breed. From 1842 to 1860, he published the Herd Book of Hereford cattle which has been used, since its closing in 1886, to preserve the purity of the breed. An avid hunter and sportsman, he also wrote about fishing and fox-hunting. Finally, he published essays about ozone and scent (1870). Eyton was also an active magistrate in his home town of Wellington, and in 1859 he joined the yeomanry cavalry of Shropshire, a volunteer movement that was formed in response to the threat of invasion by France.

Throughout his life, Eyton was generous with support and advice for fellow naturalists, even when he disagreed with their conclusions. For example, Darwin frequently asked Eyton for his advice on matters relating to animals that Eyton had studied. Eyton happily complied by sending information and specimen to his friend. He also helped Darwin prepare descriptions of the birds that were collected on the Beagle voyage. However, Eyton was not pleased to see that Darwin used some of his own observations on the habits of pigeons in support of the hypothesis of natural selection, which Eyton largely rejected. Indeed, Darwin knew that Eyton would not agree with Origins ; in 1859 Darwin wrote to his friend in a letter that the “Book will horrify & disgust you.” Nevertheless, their friendship, which dated to Darwin’s undergraduate days at Cambridge, continued until Eyton’s death in 1880.

Eyton was married to Elizabeth Frances, a daughter of Robert Aglionby Slaney, who was a Member of Parliament for Shrewsbury. The couple had seven children.

From the guide to the Thomas Campbell Eyton correspondence, 1836-1874, 1836-1874, (American Philosophical Society)


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