William Clift (1775-1849), museum curator and scientific illustrator, was born near Bodmin in Cornwall on 14 February 1775. He was the youngest of the seven children of Robert Clift (1720-1784), a miller, and his wife Joanna, a seamstress.
Clift went to school at Bodmin, where he demonstrated his ability in illustration. This attracted the attention of Walter Raleigh Gilbert and his wife Nancy, who had been a schoolfellow of Anne Home who had married John Hunter in 1771. On the Gilbert’s recommendation, Clift was apprenticed to John Hunter as an anatomical assistant, employed to make drawings, copy dictation and assist in the care of Hunter’s anatomical specimens. Until Hunter’s sudden death in 1793, Clift assisted him with dissections and often wrote from dictation from early morning until late at night.
After Hunter’s death, his collection of specimens was offered for sale to the government. During the period of negotiations, Clift was employed to look after the collections for a small income. He did this diligently from 1793 to 1799 when the collections were eventually purchased by the government. During this period, Clift feared for the safety of the collection, and copied out many of Hunter’s unpublished manuscripts. This meant that much of the content of the collection was saved from loss through Sir Everard Home’s destruction of his brother-in-law’s manuscripts in 1823.
In 1799 the government asked The Company of Surgeons (soon to become the Royal College of Surgeons in 1800) to look after the John Hunter collections. The Trustees of the College then made Clift conservator of the new Hunterian Museum paying him £80 per annum. Under Clift’s supervision the collections were twice moved without damage into storage and then to new premises, and were greatly enlarged and enriched. Clift was a prolific record keeper and his diaries are a valuable resource for information about the workings of the College and Museum as well as wider social life in London.
Clift married Caroline Harriet Pope (1775-1849) in January 1801. They had a son, William Home Clift (1803-1832) and a daughter, Caroline Amelia Clift (1801-1873). William Home Clift died after a carriage accident in 1832 and Caroline Amelia Clift married William Clift’s assistant Richard Owen in 1835.
William Clift was well known and highly thought of in the scientific community. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1823, was a member of the Society for Animal Chemistry, and also a fellow of the Geological Society.
His skills as an illustrator were demonstrated through his work for Matthew Baillie’s “A series of engravings… to illustrate the morbid anatomy of some of the most important parts of the human body,” and also his work on illustrations in Sir Everard Home’s numerous papers in the Philosophical Transactions. Clift submitted some papers to the Philosophical Transactions (1815, 1823), the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal (1831), and to Transactions of the Geological Society (1829, 1835). William Clift and Richard Owen also published the “Catalogue of the Hunterian Collection of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of London (1830-1831), and then the “Descriptive and illustrated catalogue of the physiological series of comparative anatomy contained in the museum of The Royal College of Surgeons (1833-1840).
Clift retired from the museum in 1842, when he was replaced by Richard Owen as curator. His wife died on the 8th May 1849 and Clift died shortly afterwards on 20th June 1849, both being buried in Highgate cemetery.
[Source: Edited from the entry by Phillip R. Sloan, ‘Clift, William (1775-1849)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [ http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/5668, accessed 7 March 2005]
From the guide to the The Papers of William Clift, 1780-1849, (Royal College of Surgeons of England, London)