Sunday, December 22, 2013

An Assault on Astrology

Successive entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 's  Life of the Day were particularly hard-hitting for me this week.

19 December is the birthday of John ("Johnnie Moon") Duncan, hand weaver and self-taught botanist. Born illegitimate in Kincardineshire and unschooled, he had help learning to read but did not learn to write until he was 34 years old.

He got little money from weaving but thanks to "extreme frugality" he saved enough to buy for £1 a copy of Culppeper's Herbal. "He collected over two-thirds of the British flora and, despite having only a tiny loft area to live in for many years, found space for his specimens." And that's despite being so shortsighted he had to "crawl along the ground when botanizing".

He lived in penury his whole life, especially in his later years until a public appeal brought him a few hundred pounds in donations.

The very next day's entry is for the birthday of Dame Margaret Helen Greville,  a society hostess who cultivated the company of aristocrats and royalty. She seems a thoroughly revolting figure. Sir Cecil Beaton said of her: "‘Mrs Ronnie Greville was a galumphing, greedy, snobbish old toad who watered at her chops at the sight of royalty … and did nothing for anybody except the rich."

Let's compare what the ONDB says about their bequests made at death.

Greville: "In her will ... she left Marie Antoinette's necklace to Queen Elizabeth, £25,000 to the queen of Spain, £20,000 to Princess Margaret, and £10,000 to Osbert Sitwell. Polesden Lacey [her estate] was bequeathed to the National Trust." In constant money terms, those 1942 bequests to royals are the equivalent to millions of pounds today. Apparently she did leave "smaller bequests to different charities."

For his part, Duncan presented his herbarium sheets to the Aberdeen University and "His pleasure in knowing his gift might inspire students to study botany was also reflected in the use of the remaining portion of the money raised for him to found prizes to encourage botanical studies by local schoolchildren."

 I particularly encourage you read the John Duncan entry this holiday season. It's well written, as is typical of ONDB, by Anne Secord.

The fact that these two were born on 19 December and 20 December is an assault on astrology.

The ONDB links expire with time. Here are Wikipedia entries for John Duncan and Margaret Greville.
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