Darwin Considered Him an Ass!

By Haydn Brown.

ROBERT McCORMICK was a British Royal Navy ship’s surgeon, explorer and naturalist. He was born on 22 July 1800 at Runham, a village near to Great Yarmouth in the County of Norfolk, England. John Marius Wilson’s 19th century ‘Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales’ described Runham as such:

“RUNHAM, a village and a parish in the Flegg district of Norfolk. The village stands near the river Bure, at the Runham-Swim Ferry, 4½ miles W N W of Yarmouth and was once a market-town. The parish includes a detached portion, called New Runham or Vauxhall, immediately adjoining Yarmouth, and on which fish-offices, manure-works, and the terminus of the Norwich and Yarmouth railway [would be] situated; and it was [to be] re-turned in the Census of 1851 as including also the extra-parochial tract of Nowhere……”

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Robert McCormick was the only son of Robert McCormick, Royal Navy, a ship’s surgeon from Ballyreagh, County Tyrone. Young Robert spent his childhood around Great Yarmouth; he was educated by his mother and sisters. His father had encouraged his son to become a naval executive officer, but the father’s death in the wreck of the HMS ‘Defence’ off the coast of Jutland on 24 December 1811 left Robert junior without the necessary influence and means by which to achieve his father’s desires.

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Two warships, the HMS St. George and the HMS Defence, both part of the British Baltic fleet, ran aground and were lost outside Thorsminde at the west-coast of Jutland on the 24th of December 1811.

It should be said at the outset that Robert McCormick junior was to turn out to be an eccentric and sometimes difficult character. His naval career would disappoint him, and promotion would be slow. Distinction also would elude him for his ambitions were greater than his application to his work. He would regularly invalid himself out of active service and only occasionally seemed to find work that he was keen to undertake. Almost certainly, his ambitions were destined to be thwarted by his own personality, and he was neither to make a great name for himself in the navy nor as a naturalist.

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Sir Astley Paston Cooper from Brooke in Norfolk. Engraved by J.S. Agar from an Drawing by A. Wivell. Image: Public Domain.

Nevertheless, in 1821 young Robert McCormick decided to enter the Royal Navy ‘as the only chance now left me of entering upon a naval life’. He asked to be trained as a surgeon and was accepted as an apprentice by the famous Sir Astley Paston Cooper, also originally from Norfolk. Following his studies in London, namely at Guy’s and St Thomas’s hospitals, he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons on 6 December 1822. The following year, he was assigned to the flagship Queen Charlotte as assistant surgeon.

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Robert McCormick, Age 25 From a portrait drawn on HMS Icarus. McCormick had been invalided out of active service for the first time and was travelling home to England from the West Indies after contracting yellow fever. Source: MacCormick (1884: 2: frontispiece). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

When Robert McCormick entered the navy, the status of a naval surgeon had risen from that of the turn of the 18th century. He always maintained, however, that his father’s death had left him without enough money or influence to join the ‘executive line’ of the navy; also, his medical training in London would have cost perhaps £200 a year, ‘much the same as a young gentleman at Oxford or Cambridge’. However, it was a fact that a surgeon who had good connections in the Admiralty would have been in a far better position to achieve a successful career – for McCormick it was not to be!

Lack of family influences or fortune aside, McCormick seemed to be incapable to make friends in high places, and it has been argued that his lack of promotion came from antagonising the powerful William Burnett (1779-1861). Burnett sat on the Victualling Board from 1822, and became Director-General of the Medical Department upon its creation in 1832. It was said that Burnett ‘despised the spectacular, the second rate, or the ’dilettante’; but Burnett was not a scientist or a literary man, and seldom promoted those whose interests obviously lay more in the field of geology or botany than medicine. Indeed, McCormick did have more enthusiasm for exploration than for medicine, or natural history – maybe, therefore, he was considered by Burnett as both a ’dilettante’ and second rate!

Certainly, McCormick’s love of the spectacular would not have endeared him to Burnett. The sum total of McCormick was that he was a man with the wrong aptitudes in the wrong place at the wrong time in history. His efforts in natural history, intended to distinguish himself on the Navy’s congested personnel list, antagonised the Admiralty’s Medical Department, and alienated those with the power to advance him. Added to this, McCormick seemed neither good at, nor dedicated to, disciplined natural history collecting. To his further detriment, his dabbling came at the time when both natural history and medicine were growing complex networks. As a qualified but unexceptional naturalist, he had limited capacity for otherwise overcoming his lack of connection to London’s scientific elite. His case reveals the tensions inherent in the position of the ordinary naval surgeon in the mid-19th century – in which one individual performed the roles of doctor, scientist and naval officer, and these roles sometimes came into conflict. These tensions were to be amplified by the presence of the young Charles Darwin on HMS Beagle’s second voyage to South America in 1831.

800px-Robert_McCormick_by_Stephen_Pearce
Robert McCormick, oil portrait by Stephen Pearce, 1856 (National Portrait Gallery, London)

But first, McCormick’s served in the Caribbean where, in 1825, he contracted yellow fever and was invalided home. He then spent two years as medical officer to shore stations. Then, in 1827, he gained his first experience in the Arctic with William Edward Parry aboard the HMS ‘Hecla’ to Spitsbergen. Although he was not a member of Parry’s unsuccessful polar sledge party, he did contribute significantly to the expedition by keeping the crew healthy and by studying the plants, animals, and geology of Spitsbergen. Following this expedition, he was promoted to the rank of surgeon and then spent a year on half pay, after which he was assigned to the HMS Hyacinth and Caribbean duty, only to be invalided home again in 1830. By May 1831 Francis Beaufort was looking for suitable personnel for a survey expedition to South America. McCormick appeared well qualified, and was recruited as ship’s surgeon for the second voyage of HMS Beagle under Captain Robert FitzRoy.

While the preparations of the Beagle progressed in late October, McCormick met Charles Darwin who had been given an unofficial place on board as a self-funded gentleman naturalist who would be a companion to Captain FitzRoy. Darwin wrote telling his university tutor John Stevens Henslow about McCormick:

“My friend the Doctor is an ass, but we jog on very amicably: at present he is in great tribulation, whether his cabin shall be painted French Grey or a dead white— I hear little except this subject from him”.

Robert McCormick (HMS Beagle)
HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan. Image: Wikipedia.

When the voyage got under way, their first landfall was at St. Jago in the Cape Verde Islands in January 1832. McCormick and Darwin walked into the countryside together, and Darwin, influenced by Charles Lyell’s ideas on geology, found the surgeon’s approach old-fashioned:

“He was a philosopher of rather an antient date; at St Jago by his own account, he made general remarks during the first fortnight and collected particular facts during the last.”

McCormick became increasingly frustrated when FitzRoy took Darwin onshore, leaving McCormick behind and thereby denying him an opportunity for collecting. The last straw came at Rio de Janeiro in April 1832, when FitzRoy arranged for McCormick ‘s collection to be packaged and sent back to England. McCormick was also invalided home; he recalled in his memoirs of 1884:

“Having found myself in a false position on board a small and very uncomfortable vessel, and very much disappointed in my expectations of carrying out my natural history pursuits, every obstacle having been placed in the way of my getting on shore and making collections, I got permission from the admiral in command of the station here to be superseded and allowed a passage home in H.M.S. Tyne.”

McCormick’s upcoming return to England on 29 April 1832 gave Darwin the chance to send post home. He began a letter to his sister, Caroline, where he referred to McCormick, his former colleague:

“I take the opportunity of Maccormick [sic] returning to England, being invalided, ie. being disagreeable to the Captain & Wickham. – He is no loss.”

When HMS Tyne sailed, McCormick was unaware that he was conveying home not only Darwin’s letter, but also his opinion of him. Probably comfortable in his ignorance of Darwin’s words, McCormick settled into yet another ‘sabbatical’ before being posted once more to the Caribbean; only to suffer a further attack of yellow fever, for which he was sent home in 1834. For the next four years he was unattached except for one month aboard the HMS Terror in relief of ice-bound whalers.

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HMS Erebus and Terror in the Antarctic ice pack, from A Voyage of Discovery and Research, by James Clark Ross, engraving, 1847 (Linda Hall Library)

In 1839 McCormick successfully applied for duty with the expedition of James Clark Ross to the Antarctic as surgeon and zoologist aboard HMS Terror. The expedition lasted from September 1839 until September 1843; during this time, it managed to undertake much important work in all branches of science from the Antarctic, through to Australia and New Zealand. The large collections of zoological materials obtained were catalogued later – but not by McCormick! The task was undertaken by John Edward Gray and Sir John Richardson, on orders from the Admiralty following the discovery that the task had been left undone after the expedition.

Here was another example of McCormick’s apparent lack of drive and skills; also, the scientific ability, to cope with such a massive collection. Small wonder then when he did gain some recognition with his election, in 1844, as an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons – a different field of course. Then, during the following year, McCormick received what he thought was a life-time appointment; that of surgeon to the yacht William and Mary. To his dismay, however, the commission was changed and he was assigned to the Woolwich Dockyard, east of London; but even in this post he was to be disappointed when, in 1849, he was superseded.

It seems not generally known that Robert McCormick was a proponent of the search for Sir John Franklin, and he was one of the first to lay detailed plans for such an expedition before the Admiralty and the House of Commons. He advocated the use of small boats and sledges to explore Wellington Channel, the Boothia Peninsula and King William Island. However, whilst his suggestions, were well based on Arctic and Antarctic experience, they were ‘unofficial’, coming as they did from a medical officer and not a line officer; inevitably, they were rejected! It was left to Francis Leopold McClintock to later demonstrate and prove that McCormick was correct!

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In 1851 McCormick was appointed surgeon on the North Star in the search fleet of Sir Edward Belcher . At last, his life-long ambition was realised: for during this expedition, he became officer in command of a party. In August and September 1852, he explored the Wellington Channel, in a boat named Forlorn Hope, covering 240 statute miles. He did not find any trace of Franklin’s ships, Erebus and Terror, but did map the east side of the channel and establish the probability of a connection between Baring Bay and Jones Sound, virtually proving that Franklin had proceeded westward from Beechey Island.

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Robert McCormick, Age 52, in Full Dress Uniform. McCormick seems to have had a lifelong interest in his appearance. His diary entry for 3 June 1832, while returning to England on HMS Tyne, reads: ‘Mustered in blue trousers’. Years later, in his early eighties, he was seen by RB Sharpe at the British Museum dressed like someone from a ‘bygone age’, in a ‘swallow-tail coat… with gilt buttons and trousers of a ‘pronounced shepherd’s plaid. Source: McCormick (1884: 1: frontispiece). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

McCormick was awarded the Arctic Medal in 1857 and then, in 1859, he was finally promoted to Deputy Inspector-General. This was his last rise in rank and he was placed on the retired list in 1865, and in 1876 received a Greenwich Hospital pension of £80 per annum through the good offices of his friend, the medical director-general, Sir Alexander Armstrong, himself an old Arctic hand. In 1884 McCormick published his ‘Voyages of Discovery in the Arctic and Antarctic seas, and Round the World’. Despite excellent illustrations, sound scholarship, and an interesting narrative, it came too late to arouse much interest – most of the information was already well known and the incidents were too remote for acclamation.

McCormick, in fact, spent the last 20 years of his life in relative obscurity. He had failed either to reach the top in the naval medical service or to become a distinguished biologist. He displayed stamina and competence in exploration but had little opportunity to engage in it except, perhaps, during the North Star expedition. His troubles in the Admiralty have been attributed to a lack of tact and a strong individualism which resulted in frequent disagreements with each of the medical directors-general of his time, especially Sir William Burnett. The yellow fever he contracted and his dislike of small ships led him to avoid assignments to the Caribbean, even to the point of insubordination. However, these characteristics do not explain his scientific failure. McCormick was on good terms with many influential scientists of the day, including Sir John Barrow, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, and Sir Charles Lyell, and had opportunities to make his mark, but he did not display the single-mindedness, patience, and learning.

McCormick’s only claim to fame was that his name was given to several natural features: in the Antarctic, to Cape McCormick by Ross; in the Arctic, to McCormick Bay by Beaufort and McCormick Inlet by McClintock; and in northwest Greenland, to a valley. McCormick was proud of having his portrait painted in 1853 by Stephen Pearce, one of a series planned on the commanders in the Franklin search. He thought it a harbinger of a distinguished future, but, in the event, the Forlorn Hope was his first, last, and only command.

In his last years, McCormick lived in a Wimbledon house he named Hecla Villa, after the ship on which he sailed with Parry, and the class of ships that included the HMS Erebus. His living companions included a duck named ‘the Duchess’, and a sparrow named Polly. McCormick died at Hecla Villa on 28 October 1890 – He never achieved the desired rank of Inspector-General.

THE END

 Sources Include:
Biography – McCORMICK, ROBERT – Volume XI (1881-1890) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography (biographi.ca)
bshs_monograph_14_9780906450185_Steel_2011.pdf

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