Among the many intriguing characters making their appearance in Deborah Cadbury’s engaging Terrible Lizard: The First Dinosaur Hunters and the Birth of a New Science is Oxford’s colorful William Buckland:
“In the heart of Oxford, under the watchful eye of the deans and canons at the university, the Reverend William Buckland’s enthusiasm for ‘undergroundology’ was beginning to attract wider support. As Reader in Minerology he had expanded the course to debate the latest geological ideas: whether the ‘days’ of creation could correspond to lengthy ‘eras’; the nature of Noah’s Flood; the order of Creation. According to one reviewer, Buckland was so inspiring as a speaker that ‘he awakened in the University and elsewhere, an admiration and interest in Geology’. He told his friend the amateur geologist Lady Mary Cole that he had been lecturing to an ‘overflowing class . . . amongst whom I reckon the Bishop of Oxford, four other Heads of Colleges and three Canons of Christchurch’.
“His idiosyncrasies were becoming almost as famous as his lectures and were accepted at the university as part of his brilliance. Anyone passing through the neatly trimmed rose gardens of the quad at Corpus Christi to Buckland’s rooms, expecting to find the usual happy amalgamation of elegance and learning fit for a don, would soon discover that the professor had different priorities. ‘I can never forget the scene that awaited me on repairing from the Star Inn to Buckland’s domicile,’ recalled Robert Murchison, an undergraduate at Oxford. ‘Having climbed up a narrow staircase . . . I entered a long corridor-like room filled with rocks, shells and bones in dire confusion. In a sort of sanctum at the end was my friend in his black gown, looking like a necromancer, sitting on a rickety chair covered with some fossils, clearing out a fossil bone from the matrix.
“In addition to fossils strewn liberally on almost every surface and the stuffed creatures in the hall, Professor Buckland was a keen naturalist and kept a number of unusual pets. There were cages full of snakes and green frogs in the dining-room, where the candles were placed in Icthyosauri’s vertebrae. Guinea-pigs roamed freely throughout his office. Walter Stanhope, a tutor at Oxford, described an evening in Buckland’s apartments: ‘I took care to tuck my legs on the sofa, for fear of a casual bite from a jackal that was wandering around the room. After a while I heard the animal munching up something under the sofa and was relieved that he should have found something to occupy him. I told Buckland. “My poor guinea pigs!” he exclaimed, and sure enough, four of the five of them had perished.’
“By far the most splendid creature in Buckland’s menagerie was a bear, rather grandly named Tiglath Pileser, after the founder of the Assyrian Empire in the Old Testament Book of Kings. Unlike his namesake, who was renowned for his brutal punishment of his opponents, Tiglath the bear was ‘tame and caressing’. Buckland even went so far as to provide the bear with a student costume in which he participated fully in university life, especially the wine parties. ‘We had an immense party at the Botanic Gardens,’ Charles Lyell, one of Buckland’s undergraduates, recalled. ‘Young Buckland had a bear, “Tig” dressed up as a student complete with cap and gown.’ Tiglath Pileser was formally introduced to senior figures at the university. ‘It was diverting to see two or three of the dons not knowing what to do for fear their dignity was compromised.’
“Most perplexing of all for visitors to Buckland’s apartments was the menu, since Buckland, a born experimentalist, had decided to eat his way through the animal kingdom as well as study it. ‘I recollect various queer dishes which he had at his table,’ recalled his friend John Playfair. ‘The hedgehog was a good experiment and both Liebig and I thought it good and tender. On another occasion I recollect a dish of crocodile, which was an utter failure . . . though the philosophers took one mouthful, they could not be persuaded to swallow it and rejected the morsel with strong language.’”