An internet search on the name “Andrew Crosse” will produce literally tens of thousands of web pages of information. Much of the content is inaccurate, and many pages appear to be the products of wildly over-active imaginations. Frequently Andrew Crosse is portrayed as the archetypal “mad scientist”, as he was in Julien Temple’s film, “Pandaemonium” (2000). In a scene supposedly set in Andrew Crosse’s laboratory he appears as an eccentric individual, with wild, untidy hair.
In reality, Andrew Crosse (1784 – 1855) was a quiet, studious man, who was fascinated by the world around him. His scientific work was well respected by his contemporaries, many of whom visited his home and laboratory at Fyne Court, Broomfield, high in the Quantock Hills in Somerset. His friends included Sir Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday, and many other leading scientists and philosophers of his day. Yet no detailed biography of Andrew has been published since 1857, two years after his death, when his second wife Cornelia brought out “Memorials Scientific and Literary of Andrew Crosse, the electrician”. It is true that in 1979 a slim volume by Peter Haining appeared under the rather sensational title “The man who was Frankenstein”, but that was heavily biased towards that author’s well-known interest in horror stories and the supernatural, and, although better than nothing, was not to be taken too seriously.
So, a biography of Andrew Crosse is long overdue, and indeed both his scientific work and his poetry deserve to be more widely known. But as virtually all of the Crosse family papers were lost in the Fyne Court fire of September 1894, the job of researching and writing such a work was never going to be easy.
Brian Wright’s book, “Andrew Crosse and the mite that shocked the world”, overcomes the problems to a remarkable degree. Above all it tells a fascinating story in a very readable way, just occasionally breaking off to give us a bit of background information, such as how a Leyden jar is constructed, but at no time does the author lose sight of his main subject – Andrew Crosse himself.
The early part of the book, dealing with the family background and Andrew’s schooldays, inevitably relies heavily on Cornelia Crosse’s “Memoirs”. Fortunately she had access to many papers and publications that have subsequently been lost to us, including letters and notes. This enables us to get to know something of the young Andrew, who was not always the model pupil one might imagine. Perhaps the most surprising incident is Andrew’s involvement in an armed rebellion against his school, as part of a campaign for longer holidays!
Once Andrew Crosse became known as a scientist and philosopher, his surviving correspondence with friends and contemporaries, in addition to the published accounts of his work in the newspapers and journals of the time, enables Brian Wright to give us a very well-rounded picture of a unique individual – scientist, republican, poet, and landowner. The notorious experiment of 1836, in which living mites appeared, is reported in some detail, as are many of Andrew’s other experiments. The author succeeds to a remarkable degree in integrating reports of the scientific work with the personal biography, so that Andrew’s life and work form a continuous story.
For several years Brian Wright worked at Fyne Court, giving guided tours and talking to visitors about Andrew’s life and work. His considerable knowledge, enthusiasm and interest in his subject are evident in the pages of his book, which would be a very valuable addition to the library of anyone with an interest in Somerset and its history.
John Porter (Andrew Crosse’s third cousin, five times removed!)
by John Porter