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Sir Baldwin Spencer, Anthropologist, Biologist, and Lincoln’s Forgotten Fellow

Jack T. Norris

  • DPhil candidate, University of Melbourne; MSc in Visual, Material and Museum Anthropology, Lincoln College, Mat.2021.

Professor Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer KCMG FRS (1860-1929), commonly referred to as Baldwin Spencer, was a British-Australian anthropologist, biologist, as well as a University, Museum, and government administrator. Spencer was the first Biology Fellow at Lincoln College in 1886, and one of the College’s earliest Honorary Fellows in 1916.

Sir Baldwin Spencer, 1917 print of portrait in oils by E. Philips Fox, 1915. In the collection of the author.

Spencer initially begun his Oxford career studying Natural Science at Exeter College (1881-1884) for his BA. During this period, he was introduced to the field of anthropology by Henry Moseley (1844-1891), Professor of Comparative Anatomy, and Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) Oxford’s first Professor in Anthropology. After graduating, Spencer worked as Moseley’s teaching assistant, holding his own lectures and laboratory classes, as well as working on the reorganisation of the Natural History Museum’s zoological collections. It was during this period that he lived at number 5 and later number 9 Museum Terrace, now Museum Road, and what is now part of Lincoln’s Museum Road accommodation. Another of Spencer’s duties during this period was aiding in the setting up of the Pitt Rivers Museum, which was a donation of some 26,000 objects to the University by archaeologist and ethnologist Lieutenant-General Augustus Pitt Rivers. Spencer would maintain links with the Pitt Rivers Museum for the rest of his career.

Listing of Baldwin Spencer’s election as Fellow in the Lincoln College Register 1739-1978. (LC/A/R/3), Lincoln College Archives.

Fellow of Lincoln

Spencer was elected the first Fellow in Biology (officially called Animal Physiology and Animal Morphology) at Lincoln in February 1886, which he held briefly until his departure for Australia in early 1887. Spencer in his correspondence comments that the Lincoln Fellows were ‘a very happy family’ where ‘very little drinking [and] much more reading is done’. The youngest of the Fellows, Spencer was affectionately named ‘Chick’ by the other Fellows for his youthful appearance. During his Fellowship Spencer originally occupied some cramped rooms facing Brasenose Lane, later moving to more comfortable rooms closer to Turl Street. Spencer’s Turl Street rooms, as noted by his biographers John Mulvaney and John Calaby, are according to Spencer ‘family tradition… the rooms which John Wesley occupied during his period of residence as a college tutor from 1729, but as college records are lacking, this cannot be substantiated.’ Spencer in his correspondences laments the state of Lincoln as one of the poorer colleges, complaining how his ceiling leaked during stormy weather, and of the constant invasion of mice in his rooms. Spencer would also complain in his correspondence that Turl Street was exceedingly noisy, and the College cat was an abundant nuisance.

Photograph sourced from ‘So Much That is New’: Baldwin Spencer 1860-1929, by D.J. Mulvaney and J.H. Calaby, (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1985).

During this period at Lincoln, Spencer became lifelong friends with William Warde Fowler, a Lincoln Fellow and noted classicist and ornithologist. Spencer, a talented artist, would provide a pencil drawing ‘The weir at Cherwell’ as the frontispiece for Warde Fowler’s first edition of A Year with the Birds (1886). Warde Fowler would also anonymously use Spencer as a character in his Tales of the Birds (1888).

Spencer left Lincoln after his brief Fellowship due to the opportunity to take up the inaugural Professorship in Biology at the University of Melbourne in the colony of Victoria. He also sought to marry his fiancée, which was a breach of his probationer-fellow status. These factors would see him leave Lincoln and his Fellowship terminated. Spencer would go on to have career in Australia, as a Biology Professor, an anthropologist producing world-renowned work with Frank Gillen (1855-1912) on Indigenous communities in central and northern Australia. He also became a senior University administrator, and director of the National Museum of Victoria, and within the latter overseeing much of the anthropological displays. Spencer would return to Lincoln as one of its earliest Honorary Fellows in 1916. His alma mater Exeter College elected him to an Honorary Fellowship in 1906, and Spencer was celebrated as an alumnus and man of science by a stain glass window honouring him in Exeter’s Hall in 1914. The University of Melbourne crest was used, as Spencer had no coat of arms himself.

Spencer’s window in Exeter. Photo by Maria Murad, 2023.

Spencer’s Mixed and Troubled Legacy

Spencer had a noted career in many fields, which has won him both renown and infamy. His diverse career has led him to have a very mixed legacy. In some instances, Spencer is remembered for his championing of women in science and academia, getting institutional support for Australian-based artists, and his hard dedicated work to University and Museum administration. While in other instances, there is a dark aspect to Spencer’s career and legacy. Spencer, an evolutionary biologist, was a staunch advocate of scientific racism and eugenics. This is present throughout his anthropological works, which degrades Indigenous peoples in Australia as the lowest points within imagined racial and cultural hierarchies of humanity. Such ideas advocated by Spencer, now identified as scientific racism and racial tropes, still linger today. In response to this troubling legacy, contemporary Indigenous artist Christian Thompson utilised Spencer’s photograph in his 2016 work Museum of Others, which can be seen on the first floor of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum today. Despite, the problematic nature and legacy of Spencer’s anthropological works and photographs, they also prove to be important pieces of cultural and Ancestral knowledge for many contemporary Indigenous communities. Spencer, through his anthropological work was an immense acquirer of Indigenous cultural objects, which were utilised in his anthropological and museum practice, also actively ransacked Indigenous burials to obtain human remains, for academic and museological purposes. A prominent eugenicist, Spencer, who initially  was offered the position of President of the Eugenics Education Society of Melbourne in 1914, actively advised and instigated social Darwinian evolutionary policies within Australian government. In this capacity Spencer, worked as Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory in 1912-13, and implemented the removal of Indigenous children of mixed descent, deemed ‘half-castes’ at the time, from their families on the now false racial pretence it was for their benefit, as they would be superior to their ‘full blood’ community. Such assimilative policies had genocidal intent, which led to the breakup and destruction of families and communities, leading to decades of anguish in what is known as the Stolen Generations.

Recently, Spencer has been remembered as part of the troubling legacy of the University of Melbourne’s relations with and treatment of Australian Indigenous peoples and cultures, recognised as such in Melbourne’s truth telling book Dhoombak Goobgoowana. Increasingly institutions like universities need to reflect on their darker histories, and their entangled legacies with empire and colonialism. Spencer forms very much part of the colonial legacy of Lincoln as he does the University of Melbourne. As Lincoln leads up to its 600th anniversary, jubilation is to be had, but also needed is research, reflection, and acknowledgement of the more troubling histories associated with the College, whose legacies still reverberate until today, and which deserve to be in the conversation.

1976 ‘Famous Australians’ series Australian Postage Stamp featuring Spencer. In the collection of the author.

Further Reading:

D.J. Mulvaney and J.H. Calaby, ‘So Much That is New’: Baldwin Spencer 1860-1929 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1985).

D.J. Mulvaney and J.H. Calaby, ‘Fellow of Lincoln’, in ‘So Much That is New’: Baldwin Spencer 1860-1929 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1985), pp.54-70.

Vivian H.H. Green, The Commonwealth of Lincoln College (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 514-515, 627, 634.

Ross L Jones, James Waghorne, and Marcia Langton, Dhoombak Goobgoowana: A History of Indigenous Australia and the University of Melbourne Volume 1: Truth (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2024).

ALISON Petch, ‘Walter Baldwin Spencer and the Pitt Rivers Museum’, Journal of Museum Ethnography, no. 21 (2009): 254–65. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41505556.

Philip Batty, Lindy Allen, and John Morton (eds.), The Photographs of Baldwin Spencer (Melbourne: The Miegunyah Press and Museum Victoria, 2008).

Baldwin Spencer Papers at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford: https://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/spencer-papers

Links to Christian Thompson’s Museum of Others (2016) works at the Pitt Rivers Museum: https://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/australia  Thompson’s Spencer work: https://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/collections-online#/item/prm-object-470479

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