Queen's University

A man with a mission

Evolutionary biologist George John Romanes and mystery writer Grant Allen are two early Kingstonians with strong family ties to Queen’s. Their names are not nearly as well-known as they should be, but now a retired Biochemistry professor hopes to change all that.

Professor Emeritus (Biochemistry) Donald Forsdyke is working hard to promote awareness of the ­accomplishments of pioneer evolutionary biologist George John Romanes and scientist-author Grant Allen. Both men were born in Kingston, but left to make good in Victorian England. For that reason, both Romanes and Allen have been largely forgotten locally – apart from an award named after Allen, which is given out at the Scene of the Crime mystery writers’ festival that’s held on Wolfe Island each summer.

“It’s important to recognize these two men and the significance of their contributions to science and literature and to ­remember their Kingston beginnings,” says Forsdyke. With that goal in mind, he’s lobbying to have a couple of downtown laneways named in honour of these two “Kingston lads.”

[Prof Emeritus Forsdyke]Prof. Emeritus Forsdyke (Lindy Mechefske photo)

George John Romanes was born in the Limestone City in 1848 to Isabella Smith and the Rev. George Romanes, LLD 1866, a Professor of Classical Literature, Curator of the Library, and one of the first Senators of Queen’s College, as the school was then known.

When George John was two years old, his family inherited a fortune, and so they packed up and returned to England. Eventually, George John studied at Cambridge, where he became a protégé and research associate of famous biologist Charles ­Darwin.

Building on what he learned from working with Darwin, Romanes went on to make fundamental contributions to neuroscience, comparative psychology, and evolution – contributions that resonate to this day.

Little has been made of George John Romanes’ early years in Kingston, and Forsdyke feels this is an unfortunate oversight. He hopes to convince City officials to name the laneway behind the location of the old Queen’s College building on William Street as “Romanes Lane.” Doing so, he says, would pay tribute to the Romanes – both father and son, the latter of whom The Times of London hailed in 1886 as “the scientist upon whom the mantle of Darwin had most conspicuously descended.” That was a lofty accolade for the younger Romanes, whose ­accomplishments are not widely known nor celebrated locally.

Forsdyke also hopes to see Grant Allen’s local ties recognized more fully. With that in mind he has proposed that a second downtown laneway – one that runs from Clergy Street to the old front doors of the Hotel Dieu Hospital – be named in Allen’s honour.

Like Romanes, Allen was born in Kingston in 1848. And like Romanes, his ­father was also a clergyman – though an Anglican rather than a Presbyterian – and a professor at Queen’s College. Grant Allen’s family also left town, moving back to England after a brief residency in the U.S. However, when his parents later returned to Canada, Grant Allen stayed behind in England, attending Oxford, and – again like Romanes – studying evolutionary biology.

Cities and universities the world over recognize those individuals who have made important and significant contributions. It’s time we honoured our history.”

Allen was fascinated by evolution, but unlike the wealthy Romanes, he needed to earn a living. When Allen turned to writing he emerged as an important literary figure in Victorian London, becoming a friend of Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and writing popular works of science and about 30 novels – including science fiction and mysteries. A collection of his books are housed in the Special Collections room of the downtown branch of the Kingston Public Library.

Donald Forsdyke has made honouring the memories of both George Romanes and Grant Allen his personal mission. With that in mind, he has been busy in recent months writing letters and articles, gathering names on petitions, and amassing an impressive amount of historical information about both men.

“Cities and universities the world over recognize those individuals who have made important and significant contributions,” says Forsdyke. “It’s time we honoured our history.”

Queen's Alumni Review, 2011 Issue #3Queen's Alumni Review
2011 Issue #3
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