The history of anthropology was once a genealogy of silverbacks: Elsie Clews Parsons, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead excepted, a genealogy of venerated men who contributed something perceived definitional to the field, worth rearticulating in the present. The histories of those who died early or outside of institutions, who had written or done something that no longer squared with anthropology’s rapidly swinging moral arc (such as practicing as an ethnologist), or who had the misfortune of being born female, non-white, or outside of Europe and the United States, were often left forgotten, and their recovery more recently has changed the field and its historical accounting.
It might further be said that the history of anthropology, as a subfield of the history of science, has its own practitioners to find beyond the silverbacks, whose works—sometimes because of where we look—have gone unrecognized. A case in point is “The Gorilla Comes to Darwin’s England: A History of the Impact of the Largest Anthropoid Ape on British Thinking From its Rediscovery to the End of the Gorilla War, 1846-1863,” the thesis of Homer Rushing (1943-2012), who studied at the University of Texas at Austin in the 1980s. I first learned about Homer in the office of a shared mentor in the history of science, Bruce Hunt, in a moment in which I was grappling with a doctoral thesis that was ballooning beyond a page-count that any advisor would wish upon their student. But no matter how much I wrote, Homer would likely have me beat. “The Gorilla Comes to Darwin’s England” was a twenty-chapter-long, 668-page-long master’s thesis on how the arrival of gorilla specimens to England—and the controversy over whether man had been “transmuted from an ape-like forebear”—shaped reception of Darwin’s evolutionary theories in the Origin of the Species. Bruce lent it to me, a double-sided, two-pages-to-a-side brick of a manuscript in a cardboard box labeled ‘Homer tome.’
How did it get so big? As Bruce notes in a warm, recent tribute, Homer was a retired Navy chief petty officer “and very much his own man,” who “had his own vision of what his thesis ought to be.” Bruce tried to convince him to save something for a dissertation, but Homer “carried it resolutely to completion.” Homer’s vita of himself, offered on the last page of his thesis, adds further insight: born in Seguin, Texas, he graduated high school and attended two colleges without receiving a degree before joining the U.S. Navy in 1965. After a decorated twenty-year career on ships off the coasts of Vietnam and Libya and in the North Atlantic, he entered UT Austin as an undergraduate. He received a Bachelor of Science in Education with Highest Honors in August 1987 and then entered the graduate program in history. But after he completed his monumental master’s in 1990, he went no further. Troubles with his eyes took him out of the graduate program, Bruce remembers, “and he devoted much of his later years to serious birdwatching.” Rushing died in Austin in 2012, at the age of 68, and was likely the first and only historian of science to be buried with full military honors at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio.
Bruce had urged Rushing to submit parts of his thesis for publication before his passing to no avail. Perhaps writing it was enough. Homer did, however, take pleasure in hearing how others benefitted from the work. Over the years, Bruce shared copies of Rushing’s thesis around, leading to its citation as “the best general history of the ‘gorilla war,’” by Greg Radick in The Simian Tongue (2007), and its use by students in the institutions lucky enough to have a physical copy. In the interest of sharing it still further, Bruce has made a PDF of the thesis, available by clicking through to the aforementioned tribute.
I’m amplifying Bruce’s post because Rushing’s work is as broad and wooly as the ape it describes, and should be of interest to historians not only of evolution but also of primatology, a field that so easily shaded into the racializing sciences and human ethnologies of the day in taking Africans and Irish as akin to apes (as Rushing explores most directly in his thirteenth chapter). By mapping the wider sphere of that debate, from Richard Owen’s antagonism of the scientific community—Darwin’s champion T. H. Huxley especially—to the 1861 arrival in London of the hunter Paul Belloni Du Chaillu and his gorilla specimens, Rushing reconstructs a broader field of actors—the Great Ape included—whose actions complicate the Darwin-centered narrative of humanity’s relationship to animals in that moment. Homer also permitted himself the pleasure of coining terms like “gorillamania,” and “Gaboon Tornado,” to get at the often bumptious nature of the scene, whose stakes for the hunted gorillas in question, and the non-English people they were made to imply, remained serious. Its visual archive (some 75 illustrations!) and collection of gorilla poems in Punch are worth the price of admission alone.
That Homer drove himself so deeply is worth remembering. Others have written more pointedly on the subjects within, and will hopefully continue to do so, but likely never at such length and with such curiosity. As Bruce writes, the further use and citation of Homer Rushing’s work would be welcome. I share it too, as testament to a mentor’s care for his students. Both should expand the history of the field in which we forage. Lesser apes like us deserve no less.