‘Dictionary mongers’


This letter from Nov 1937 came to light among our archive collections. We are grateful to Dr Chris Stray for elucidating the context of this extraordinary outburst in this guest post:

The writer of this characteristic letter was Robert Gunther (1869-1940), founder of the Museum of the History of Science; it was addressed to Harold Johnson, Secretary of the Medieval Latin Dictionary Committee.

Gunther’s father, Albert Günther, was a naturalised German who had been employed at the British Museum to classify snakes in 1857, and ended up as its Keeper of Zoology 1875-95.  Gunther senior was a prolific writer, built up his department’s collections and library, and was prone to issue biting criticisms of other scholars.  In all of these aspects, his son resembled him. Robert Gunther entered Magdalen College in 1888, applying to the college because it had its own (Daubeny) laboratory. Gaining a first in morphology (zoology) in 1892, Gunther was appointed college lecturer and then tutor in natural science (1896-1920). As well as running the laboratory, he also acted as curator of the nearby University Botanic Garden for several years. Work on a history of the laboratory (published in 1904) led him into antiquarian research; meanwhile he was building up its collection of old scientific instruments and its library. During World War One, Gunther planned to open a museum of the history of science in the Old Ashmolean building, and was encouraged by his friend Lewis Evans, who in 1924 presented his valuable collection of scientific instruments to the university.  Gunther persuaded the university authorities to make two rooms on the upper floor of the Old Ashmolean available to house the collection, his leverage coming from the donation of a collection worth £12,000 to the University.

Gunther’s long-term plan was to take over the whole Old Ashmolean building for a history of science museum, but he faced resistance from several quarters. His fellowship at Magdalen had been ended in 1920, and he had had lost his main patron with the death of Sir William Osler in the previous year; but he was a vigorous and determined fighter, and battled on regardless. His opponents included the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (ironically, Lewis Evans’ brother) and D.G. Hogarth, Keeper of the (new) Ashmolean Museum, who had their eyes on the Lewis Evans collection. The Bodleian Library, which used the basement as a book stack, wanted to expand into the rest of the building. The middle floor, consisting of a single grand, pillared room, had been used since 1901 by the staff of the Oxford English Dictionary. The Dictionary reached the end of the alphabet in 1928, but a supplementary volume was then worked on till its publication in 1933. At that point Gunther, who had been pressing for more space for the collection, stepped up his campaigning, deploying the Friends of the Old Ashmolean, a pressure-group he had set up in 1928: but in vain. The OED team had already been joined by the editors of the new (9th) edition of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, which was published in fascicles between 1925 and 1940. Later on, after the completion of the OED Supplement, they were joined by a team working on the Oxford Latin Dictionary, which eventually appeared between 1968 and 1982. In his biography of Gunther, his son Albert wrote (pp.216-7):

It had always been maintained by the compilers of the [Oxford English] Dictionary that proximity to the Bodleian was essential. One lexicographer to hold most strongly to this view was Professor H. Stuart Jones (Camden Professor of Ancient History), a member of the Hebdomadal Council who, engaged on a new edition of Liddell and Scott, maintained that the work could not be done elsewhere, until, that is to say, he moved to Aberystwyth, where work on the Lexicon continued.

Gunther had secured approval of the collection as a university museum in 1933, and in 1935 was appointed (though without salary) Reader in the History of Science. But his museum was still confined to two rooms on the top floor of the building. Even here, he was apparently reminded of the dominance of the dictionary-makers. He wrote in 1933 that

The Delegates [of the Clarendon Press] never realized what a monkey house their employees made of the Old Ashmolean. How their young male assistants used to keep rushing up the stairs with their latest lexicographical slips to the upper room where shrieks of feminine laughter rewarded their lexicographical discoveries.

 (Gunther, article on the Old Ashmolean, Oxford Magazine 18 May 1933, 670, quoted by A.E. Gunther, p. 217)

The request from Johnson for Gunther’s help thus touched the tenderest of nerves. It is possible that Johnson was unaware of the history of the issue, and Gunther’s was simply one of several names written to for assistance; if not, the letter was surely with tongue in cheek. Robert Chapman, named by Gunther as chief villain, was Secretary to the Delegates of OUP from 1920 till 1942. Chapman had begun his career as Assistant Secretary in 1906 after gaining a first in Greats. His published work centred on the editing of Jane Austen and Samuel Johnson, but he had a lifelong interest in lexicography, and contributed to the revision of Liddell and Scott. As a science fellow of Magdalen, Gunther had struggled against the opposition of the classical tutors to some of his schemes; he will have seen the resistance of Chapman and his allies to his museum scheme as a continuation of this battle between science and humanities.

Gunther died in 1940, his ambitions for the Old Ashmolean still frustrated. In the following year, however, the lexicographers moved from the Dictionary Room to new quarters in the Bodleian Library’s Old Schools Quadrangle. The Museum of the History of Science now occupies the whole building, just as he had planned.


A. Gunther, Robert Gunther:  A Pioneer in the History of Science, 1869-1940 (Oxford: OUP, 1967).

J. Morrell, Science at Oxford 1914-1939 (Oxford: OUP, 1997), 263-7.

A.V. Simcock, Robert Gunther and the Old Ashmolean (Oxford: Museum of the History of Science, 1985).


My thanks to Richard Ashdowne, Peter Gilliver and Ian Jackson for their help.


Leave a comment

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s