Natural history – Brian Maye on pioneering zoologist Robert Patterson

An Irishman’s Diary

Belfast-born Robert Patterson, who died 150 years ago on February 14th, was in many ways ahead of his time. He became an eminent zoologist who did much to promote the study of and interest in natural history in Ireland and Britain in the 19th century.

He was born on April 18th, 1802, the eldest of four children of Robert Patterson, owner of an iron foundry that supplied the linen mills, and Catherine Clarke, who was from Dublin. He became one of the first pupils of the Belfast Academical Institution and, after finishing school, went into his father's business, in which he remained for the rest of his life, taking over the running of it when his father died in 1831.

From an early age he displayed an interest in natural history, exploring the botany and insect and animal life in the countryside and along the shorelines near Belfast.

At school he won a prize for an essay he wrote on the natural history of Lough Neagh.

At the young age of 18, he founded, with seven others, the Belfast Natural History Society (it became the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society in 1842) and was its president for many years.

He played a leading part in establishing its museum at the beginning of the 1830s, one of the first museums in Ireland to be built by public subscription.

Over the years, he gave many lectures to the society, which were published in its proceedings.

While still running the family business, he developed a reputation as an eminent natural historian and in 1838 published a book entitled Letters on the Insects Mentioned by Shakespeare. He took part in dredging excursions in Belfast Lough, where he discovered many marine-life forms new to Ireland and Britain.

One of the first members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, he was its natural history section secretary from 1839 to 1844. Among those with whom he corresponded was Charles Darwin.

The Reptiles Mentioned by Shakespeare was published by him in the Zoologist magazine in 1843. Two volumes of Zoology for Schools soon followed in 1846 and 1848; First Steps in Zoology, also in two volumes, in 1849 and 1851, and the extensive Zoological Diagrams in 1853. His Zoology for Schools certainly met an educational need of the time and as well as being adopted by the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland, they were also adopted by the English Board of Education. They contributed greatly to spreading the study of zoology.

Patterson was elected a Member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1856 and a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1859.

Andrew O'Brien, who wrote the entry on him in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, said that he was "in the vanguard of a generation of Ulster naturalists who through their work encouraged the study of Irish flora and fauna and the establishment of field clubs and natural-history societies".

Patterson was very active in Belfast public life and in philanthropy. He was a founder member of the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, supported the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge and Belfast Botanic Gardens, and served on Belfast Harbour Commission.

In 1833, he married Mary Elizabeth Ferrar, a descendant of Marshal Schomberg, killed at the Battle of the Boyne. She wrote poetry, as did her husband, and Verses by Robert and Mary Patterson was published in 1886. They had six daughters and five sons.

Two of the sons, Robert Lloyd and William Hugh, continued the interest in natural history and the latter also published a glossary of words and phrases from Antrim and Down. A grandson of the same name was editor of the Irish Naturalist and secretary of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society. A granddaughter, Rosamond Praeger, was a sculptor, writer and poet.

Another grandson, Robert Lloyd Praeger, was a natural historian and wrote of his grandfather: "After 75 years I can still see him – a man of middle height and rather formal manner, pursuing his country rambles on Saturday afternoons in black frock-coat and top hat, and pointing out to us delighted children ladybirds and tree-creepers."

Robert Patterson retired from the family business in 1865 and following his death seven years later at his home in College Square North, Belfast, he was buried in the city cemetery, where there is a monument to his memory.

He had been a member of the Unitarian congregation and as well as contributing in many ways to the betterment of life in his native city, he contributed in no small measure to the advancement of scientific knowledge in Ireland and Britain.