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Science, Empire, and Polymathy in Victorian Society: George Douglas Campbell, The 8th Duke of Argyll - (PhD thesis completed 2022)

Full PhD thesis available here: 


My PhD thesis investigates the scientific activities of the 8th Duke of Argyll, George Douglas Campbell (1823-1900), who was an important Victorian scientific aristocrat. Today the British aristocracy are mostly perceived as a passive group whose contributions to society - predominantly stemming from the House of Lords - are at best minimal. The Victorian scientific aristocrats, in contrast, were known to be anything but passive. My thesis intends to provide a historical case study illuminating the life of one of these scientific aristocrats. Not only was Argyll a knowledge maker in his own right, I argue, but he also acted as a key facilitator, or broker, in knowledge networks dedicated to scientific and industrial advance across Britain and its growing empire.


Argyll is primarily known as an amateur gentleman of science, particularly vocal in his advocacy of theistic evolution. Yet due to this narrow conception most historians of science have largely overlooked other central aspects of his undertakings which ranged from ornithology, aeronautics, and geography, to anthropology, philosophical theology, and education. Thus, in providing a fuller picture of his engagements this case study will - for the first time - push Argyll’s image beyond simply being seen as a critical contemporary of Darwin.


My thesis makes four arguments. Firstly, prior to the twentieth century, scientific authority was a product of birth, status, wealth and ability. Over time, birth, status, (and to some degree, wealth), became less important. Ability became the primary means of securing scientific standing. As a result, the concept of the ‘scientific aristocrat’ slowly faded away. Secondly, Victorian aristocrats - theistic in their religious outlook – contributed to, and often created, the very conditions leading to the professionalisation of science and technology. Most crucially, their wealth enabled them to continue a pre-Victorian amateur tradition - known as “country house science” – whilst actively advocating for the institutionalisation of science and technology. Thirdly, in addition to the domestic space, government appointments provided key routes through which aristocrats such as Argyll could promote and legislate both science and technical education in Britain and throughout its empire. Thus, the complex and constantly shifting dynamics at play between the state and state actors, in the context of nationalism and imperialism, is an important theme in the history of late-Victorian science to which aristocrats form part of the picture. And fourthly, Argyll’s polymathic involvement in areas as diverse as science, industry, theology, philosophy and education strongly imply that we should resist applying an overtly homogenous understanding regarding the engagements of the aristocracy. An analytical approach enables us to see the Victorian scientific aristocrats primarily as individuals interested in science and technology who happened to be connected through hereditary status.

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