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John Grubb Richardson: The Barcrofts & 3 Generations of a Scientific Quaker Family

by Familia Ulster Genealogical Review: No. 28, 2012


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by Richard Froggatt

"It may be no more than popular imagination, or a kind of word association exercise, but many might not immediately link ‘Quaker’ with ‘science’ or ‘scientist’; hardly surprisingly, as the ‘Religious Society of Friends’ (emphasis added; the correct, full nomenclature) was originally conceived of as just that. Conceivably, a small religious movement or organisation primarily and originally founded as such will most likely be seen as such, and it may be easy to step from ‘primarily’ to ‘exclusively’.

Quakers themselves are very much aware of this Quaker-Science dissociation. The organisation ‘Quakers in Britain’ contests this unscientific reasoning view when it states that ‘religion and science are sometimes seen as opposing forces. Yet from the foundation of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in the 1650s, it seems to have produced scientists out of proportion to its size.’

In fact, the same organisation would turn the apparent disjunction on its head: ‘In both Quakerism and science you must be completely ready to revise what you hold to be the truth; you always hold things provisionally, and you are always open to revising them’ – thus the renowned Quaker astrophysicist, Ulster-born Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Or again, the Quaker pacifist Ruth Fry, as noted by Franklin, wrote that Quaker scientific training stemmed especially from their view of the natural world as a reflection of the divine, worthy of reverent admiration and intense study."

This article examines a Quaker family which produced highly accomplished members across three generations -the Barcrofts.

The three Barcroft family members covered are Henry Barcroft (1839-1905), who could best be described as an engineer and inventor; his son Sir Joseph Barcroft FRS (1872–1947), a physiologist, whose son, Professor Henry Barcroft FRS (1904–98) followed his father’s discipline.

It also examines a kind of paterfamilias, John Grubb Richardson.