February 2013: Sir John Lubbock PLS

Published on 4th February 2013

Sir John Lubbock, PLS

Sir John Lubbock

This year marks the centenary of the death of Sir John Lubbock, the first Baron of Avebury, and we remember the remarkable achievements of this President of the Linnean Society of London (1881-1886).

Lubbock was a banker, Member of Parliament, archaeologist and naturalist. In addition to introducing the August bank holiday and other achievements in his political career he also made some important contributions to biological study, providing strong archaeological evidence in support of the theory of evolution presented by Darwin and Wallace, helping to establish archaeology as a scientific discipline and also publishing the archaeological text book ‘Pre-historic times, as illustrated by ancient remains, and the manners and customs of modern savages’.

In addition to his significant achievements in archaeology and building on the theories of evolution, Lubbock was an amateur biologist who took a keen interest in hymenoptera. He had a particular interest in the study of ants and used some peculiar methods to study their behaviour. In 1878 Lubbock appears to have carried out the first study on the effects of intoxicating ants, an account of which can be found in his book Ants, Bees and Wasps. His experiments aimed to ascertain whether ants use a sign or password to identify friends from strangers. Having tried chloroform to conduct his experiment and finding that ants considered their fellow kind to be dead and threw them in the moat; he turned to the use of alcohol for further experimentation. He continued with his investigations using the method of intoxication in an attempt to find whether ants could recognise friends in a state of insensibility.

Lubbock was widely accepted as a great populariser of science and had a close relationship with many other gentleman scientists of his time from Thomas Henry Huxley to Charles Darwin. He was President of the Ethnological Society and British Association, a founding member of the elite X Club and also Vice-President of the Royal Society. In celebration of Lubbock’s achievements the Royal Society will be holding a one-day event ‘Avebury's Circle: the Science of John Lubbock FRS (1834-1913)’ on Friday 22nd March, which is supported by the Linnean Society of London. To find out more about this conference and to register you can visit their website.

In addition to this event, on the evening of Thursday 21 March delegates will also have the opportunity to attend a private viewing of the English Heritage exhibition, ‘The General, The Scientist & the Banker: The Birth of Archaeology and the Battle for the Past’, held at the Quadriga Gallery at Wellington Arch. The Linnean Society portrait of Sir John Lubbock will be hanging within the exhibition.