The Scientific Thinking of Dr Thomas Quiller Couch: a study


This is a study of the scientific thinking of Thomas Quiller Couch of Bodmin and its impact upon his son Q.

Thomas Quiller Couch was born in 1826 as the fifth child of Jonathan and Jane Couch nee Quiller of Polperro. He was baptised at the Wesleyan chapel in the village, although later became an Anglican, and was educated at home. Natural history and medicine took priority, although he also had a knowledge of Latin and Greek. His personal bent was towards art and he later illustrated some of his father's scientific work. In later life he became a Fellow of the Society of Artists, some thinking art to have been his real calling. In Memories and Opinions (1945, p.15), Q gives a vignette of his father, microscope in hand, searching the pools for plants and shells when acting as surgeon to the Royal Cornwall Rangers Militia during exercises on Cardinham moors.

Thomas Quiller Couch may have failed to make an original contribution to botany and zoology equal to that of his father, Jonathan Couch, or his brother, Richard Q. Couch, but a contribution he did make. In July 1841, Jonathan was made one of the local secretaries of the British Association, coming into contact with the Revd L. Jenyns , who was himself in contact with M. Quetelet of the Academy of Brussels. By 1848 Thomas was providing Quetelet with information about climate and botany in the Polperro area.

Today, Thomas' scientific works are best known for three local studies in botany, apparently inspired by M. Quetelet of the Academy of Brussels and carried out in regard to his methodology as translated by Jenyns. They were published in the journals of the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society and the Royal Institution of Cornwall.

  • The Botany of Polperro and Its Neighbourhood, plus Addenda (RCPS, 1848)
  • The Botanical Register for Polperro (RCPS, 1848)
  • On the Observation and Record of Natural Periodic Phenomena; with a Calendar Kept at Bodmin (RIC, yearly from 1864 to 1875)

The work on Polperro concluded with his transfer from Polperro to London in 1848. The work on Bodmin commenced after Thomas had successfully established a medical practice in Bodmin. 

The Botany of Polperro and its Neighbourhood

The study opens in 1846 and closes in 1848. It commences with a description of the area similar to the descriptions found in the writing of Richard Quiller Couch and William Pengelly in their geological surveys for the journals of the RCPS and the RIC, But while Richard Couch and William Pengelly concentrate on the underlying rock structures, Thomas Couch investigates the surface phenomena, although with a recognition of the relationship between botany and geology.

Thomas Couch defines the area under investigation as a coastal strip of south-east Cornwall, six miles in depth, running from the Looe River in the east to the Fowey and Lerryn Rivers in the west.

The coastal strip 'is formed by bold, abrupt hills, about four to five hundred feet in height, ending in craggy ridges of grey and red slate, which are intersected by occasional, though inconsiderable, interruptions of beach.'

'The country, for some little way inland, is a succession of hills and quickly repeated that the latter may be said to be but the acute junctions of the bases of the former. These coombs, which further in the county expand in width, are generally threaded by rivulets, which unite the brooks, or rivers, as they approach the coast. The locality is well wooded in comparison with Cornwall generally; and on the banks of the rivers mentioned as our limits, are woods of considerable extent...'

After the introductory description is a list of botanical items, their location and abundance, with the following as the opening and closing items.

Zostera marina, Polperro harbour, rarely uncovered by the tide, abundant.

Osmunda regalis, Trelawny, and East Court Woods, locally plentiful.

This extensive list is followed by the Addenda, where items are placed in twenty botanical families under three Series headings.

An Addenda to the Botany of Polperro and Its Neighbourhood (1848)

SERIES I: Melanospermeae

Family 1, Fucaceae;F2, Laminariaceae; F3,Sporochnoideae; F4, Dictyoteae; F5, Ectocarpeae; F6, Chordarieae.

SERIES II: Rhodospermeae

F7, Ceramieae; F8, Gloiodadeae;F9, Nemastomeae;F10, Spongiocarpeae; F11, Gastrocarpeae; F12, Coccocarpeae;F13, Sphaeococcoideae; F14, Delesserieae; F15, Chondrieae; F16, Corallineae; F17, Rhodomeleae.

SERIES III: Chlorospermeae

F18, Siphoneae;F19, Conferveae; F20, Ulvaceae.


The Botanical Register for Polperro

The second major study covers similar ground to the first but is related to climate using the methodology of M. Quetelet of the Academy of Brussels. It is part of an international study being conducted by Quetelet, with Polperro as the most southwesterly location, and therefore of particular significance.

 M Quetelet has:

'exerted himself to obtain records from every portion of the Continent, as well as from the British Isles.' From these he has drawn the conclusion that 'the mean temperature of the winter months at Brussels being 2° C, the situation most favoured by nature in the reviving of plants from winter activity, in comparison with the capital of Belgium, are Naples, Alais and Polperro – 6 to 41 days in advance of Brussels.'

There follows a quotation from M. Quetelet:

'...we find the first traces of vegetation manifesting themselves at an earlier period (in Cornwall) than on the opposite coast, or even than in the north of Italy.' However this '...endures only till about the end of March; in April they have become equal, and for the following months the variation is on the opposite side, till the mildness of winter again restores the balance.'

(Vide Brussels Trans. Vols 18 & 20, and Sur le Climat de la Belgique, par A. Quetelet, 1846).

The observations recorded by Thomas Couch follow the instructions of M. Quetelet as translated by the Revd L. Jenyns and M. Selys Longchamps for the Report of the British Association in 1845. Each year is divided into months with an average temperature calculated from daily readings at 9 am. Also recorded are ‘Days in which Rain Fell’, ‘Dry Days’, ‘Wet Days’ and ‘Snow Days’. In 1848, the highest daily temperature in Polperro was 67°F on July 15; and the lowest of 32°F on January 28.

The Botanical Register for the Polperro area contains 273 botanical items, with a date for when a plant first came into flower and for when it went out of flower, and other related details. For example:

Galanthus nivalis January 15    March 15
Scrophularia aquatice June 13  October 24
Saponaria officinalis July 30  October 21


The Botanical Register was the last botanical study Thomas made of the Polperro area. Twelve months later he was in London and after that in Bodmin. It was important for the information it contained and because it made his name known in natural history circles. 

Guy's Hospital, London

It appears that Jonathan Couch prepared for the transfer of Thomas from Polperro to London by two visits to the capital, the first for two weeks in May 1848, and the second later in the summer, with Thomas commencing his studies at Guy's Hospital in late September or early October, 1849.

Guy's Hospital in London had a tradition of political radicalism dating back to the time of the French Revolution. When Jonathan Couch entered the combined medical school of Guy's and St Thomas' in 1808, he was tutored by Astley Cooper, who had been in Paris shortly after the commencement of the Revolution. When Thomas entered Guy's there was a similar revolutionary atmosphere throughout Europe. During 1848, commonly known as the 'Year of Revolutions', there were revolutionary outbreaks in Galicia (1), Austria (4), Hungary (1), Germany (2), Prussia (2), Italy (5), and France (2), with constitutional assemblies granted in five states. In  Hungary. A Short History by Norman Stone (2019), Protestants in general and Calvinists in particular are identified as leading actors in European democratisation at the time. The Couches were Protestants but not Calvinists. The role of radical Protestantism in the English Civil War is obscured by Q in his novel The Splendid Spur, even though he supported liberalism.

When Thomas arrived in London in the autumn of 1849, his father and his older brother were well known figures in zoology, botany and geology. The records of Jonathan Couch name some of the leading scientific figures he associated with during his two visits to London in the summer of 1848. This would have opened doors to Thomas that were closed to others. According to Bertha Couch, Jonathan had not infrequent trips to London, one being in August 1835, when he met Bransby Cooper of Guy's, nephew of his former tutor Sir Astley Cooper.

Scientists encountered by Jonathan Couch

There follows a list of scientists Jonathan Couch met in 1835 and 1848 and in some cases corresponded with. The names were found in Jonathan Couch's Memoirs and Bertha Couch's Life (1891). Information is drawn from the Dictionary of National Biography.

Sir Henry J. De La Beche (1796-1855) The first director of the Geological Survey. 1840-50, the director general of the mining records office, and who helped establish the royal School of Mines and in 1851 the geological museum in Jermyn Street. He gathered around him men such as Edward Forbes and Robert Hunt (see below). The president of the Geological Society in 1855.

Professor Thomas Bell (1792-1880) of 17 New Broad Street, London. A dental surgeon and Professor of Zoology at Kings College, London. A correspondent of Jonathan Couch.

John J. Bennet (1801-1876) A Fellow of the Linnean Society and the Royal Society. Successor to Brown as Keeper of the Botanical Department at the British Museum.

Robert Brown (1773-1858) First Keeper of the Botanical Department at the British Museum.

Professor E. Forbes (1815-1854)  A Fellow of the Linnean Society. Professor of Zoology at Kings College, London, and of Natural History at Edinburgh.

John Edward Gray (1800-1875) Keeper of the Zoological Department at the British Museum, with an interest in social, educational and sanitary reform.

Robert Hunt (1807-1887) Born at Devonport. He was in charge of the medical dispensary in London for four years, the secretary of the RCPS and from 1845 the Keeper of Mining Records at the Museum of Practical Geology and lecturer at the Royal School of Mines. In 1859 he was President of the Miners' Association of Cornwall and Devon, for whom, Richard Q. Couch produced his 'Statistical Account of Mortality in Miners'. As a folklorist he was a friend of Thomas Q. Couch.

Mr Mitchell Librarian to the Duke of Bedford.

Professor Sir Richard Owen, KCB (1804-1892). He was London's most distinguished surgeon, comparative anatomist and lecturer. He had absorbed John Hunter's belief in fact and observation over theory and speculation as an assistant at the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons to William Clift, who had been educated at Bodmin Grammar School shortly before Jonathan Couch. As a palaeontologist he doubted Darwin's interpretation of evolution. A correspondent of Jonathan Couch.

John Van Voorst (1833-1886) A publisher and bookseller dealing with Bell, Forbes and Yarrell.

William Yarrell (1784-1856) of 6 Little Ryder Street, St James, London. Treasurer of the Linnean Society and a member of the Zoological Society. A close friend and correspondent of Jonathan Couch.

No doubt Thomas had direct or indirect access to many of these individuals through his father and his brother. Yet this access was supported through the work he had done on botany in the Polperro area.

Doctors at Guy's Hospital, 1849-1852

When training at Guy's Hospital, Thomas would have come into contact with a number of distinguished doctors, most of whom would have taught his brother Richard. Two of these were Thomas Addison and Richard Bright, FRS, who combined in publishing Elements of the Practice of Medicine. Both emphasised the importance of fact, observation and experiment over theory and speculation. A third was Sir William Gull, who lectured on physiology and comparative anatomy in Guy's medical school. He also championed the rational treatment of the insane, with considerable success. In relation to theory Gull said: 'We have no system to satisfy; no dogmatic opinions to enforce.'

One remarkable resident at Guy's Hospital was Alfred S. Taylor, an expert on poisons and medico-legal questions. In 1842, he published the ground-breaking The Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence. Thomas was able to put this specialism into practice in the law courts of Bodmin. J.R. Johns informs us that after passing his examinations as a Licentiate of the Apothecaries Company and at the College of Surgeons, Thomas remained in London for a further six months, acting as dresser (assistant) to John Hilton, according to some the finest anatomist of his time.

Two letters made available by Johns (2010) reveal something of Thomas' life in London. Firstly, he lodged at 6 Union Street, Horsemonger Lane. Secondly he dined at a nearby coffee house. As well as medicine Thomas took every opportunity of advancing his art and his zoology. He visited the Royal Academy around the beginning of June 1852 to see an exhibition, but was unimpressed by the Pre-Raphaelite contributions. As he was probably short of money, training being expensive, he was pleased to get a free ticket to a watercolour exhibition, a form of painting in which he specialised. His botanical knowledge came into effect with a picture Ophelia, being able to identify purple loosestrife, forget-me-not and duck weed floating in a brook. A second letter of a few days later, centred on the bone structure of fish to which Jonathan was making reply, reveals that Thomas was suffering from dyspepsia through overwork, with Jonathan advising air and exercise.

On leaving London Thomas spent some time as locum for his brother Richard, facilitating the honeymoon of Richard and Lydia in June 1853. At the time Thomas was offered a position with the forces in the Crimea, but Jonathan thought his son's health not up to a wartime role. Instead he took a position as assistant to John Ward in Bodmin, with temporary charge of the lunatic asylum in the absence of Dr T. Boisragon. Maybe he followed Dr Gull's methods.

It was not until 1864 that Thomas appears to have recommenced serious work in natural history, with his Bodmin Calendar. Establishing a medical practice, marrying and starting a family, and developing his watercolouring appears to have taken up his time. It was not until a year after Q's birth that the first Calendar was published in the journal of the RIC. The last was in 1875 when Q was twelve. The publications in the RIC cover the early years of Q's life and are therefore of particular interest.

The Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall

Thomas made eleven reports to the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall between 1864 and 1875.

On the Observation and Record of Natural Periodic Phenomena; with a Calendar kept at Bodmin for the year 1864

The first study, that of 1864, opens with a quotation from M. Quetelet.

'Il semble, en effet, que les phenomènes périodiques forment, pour les êtres organisés en dehors de la vie individuelle, une vie commune dont on ne peut saisir les phases qu'en l'étudiant simultanément sur toute la terre.'

 Thomas Quiller-Couch continues with his understanding of the nature of science.

'The Earth, in its yearly circuit round the sun, and its daily turn upon its own axis, presents us with a series of phenomena, which occur in stated order and repeat themselves with unvarying regularity. Summer and Winter, Night and Day, do not fail, but succeed each other with a precision which the most perfect human mechanisms fail to follow. The exactitude which would infallibly ensure in the sequence of all periodic phenomena, if subject only to those grander influences which act upon our globe as a member of the great solar system, is, however, liable to disturbances from other causes which, though inferior in scope, are, notwithstanding, powerful from their proximity of action. Hence, we have, with that admirable order which marks the processes of Nature in the main, a delightful variety in detail which will ever leave us, however close may be our study, much that is past finding out. While the Seasons follow each other with unfailing method, their character takes an almost endless diversity, from influences which have their origin in the Earth itself, and in the Atmosphere which surrounds it.'

'A close and accurate observation and record of vital actions and re-actions which these several causes concur to produce...will aid us in deducing the laws which govern their periodicity, and will help to an understanding of the life of the cosmos as a whole.'

'M. Quetelet in his Instructions pour l'Observation des Phenomènes Périodiques has propounded certain Rules, which have received high scientific sanction, and have moreover guided the labours of many fellow-workers in various parts of the world.'

The study proceeds to a description of the Bodmin area, latitude 50° 32N, longitude 4° 40W; highest and lowest points 650' and 50'. this is followed by a key: fl- flowering; fol – foliates; defol – defoliates.


A representative sample:

January 29 

Corylus avellana, fl.

Frog, Rana temporaria, spawns.

March 23

Horse Chestnut, AEsculus hippocastanum, fol.

March 30

Man. Whooping-cough appears in Blisland, in the latter half of this month.

April 21

Syringa vulgaris, fl.

Cuckoo, Cuculus canorus, heard.

August 1 Sorbus aucuparia, ripens fruit.
September 25 Quercus pedunculata, drops its acorns.
October – third week: 

AEsculus hippocastanum, defol.

Fagus sylvatica, defol.

Man. Scarlatina prevalent.

December 13 A Tufted Duck, Fuligula cristata, seen.


The last calendar dates to 1875 and has a slightly different form.

A Calendar of Natural Periodic Phenomena, Kept at Bodmin for the year 1875.

I           Summary of weather

II         Crops in the Bodmin District, 1875

III        Rainfall of Bodmin

Month/Total Depth/ Greatest Fall in 24 hrs/ No. Days with 0.1 or more/ Remarks

For the 11 year period from 1864 to 1875

Av. 49.20 & 211 wet days

1872 the wettest year with 71.34 & 255

1864 the dryest year with 38.42 & 202

September 17, 1875 wettest day of 11 years with 2.57 inches

 IV Fauna & Flora, Sample:

January 2  Snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, fl.
April 9 

Swallow, Hirundo rustica, arrives

April 20 Hazel, Corylus avellana, fol. 
May 30 Columbine, Aquilegia vulgaris, fl.
July 1  Disease in potatoes appears
August 9  Ling, Calluna vulgaris, fl.
November 6    Hazel, Corylus avellana, defol.
December 19  Grey Wagtail, Motacilla boarula, appears.


The Calendar of 1875 was the last Thomas published. Q must have been aware of and even involved in the process of gathering information. He would certainly have been aware of the methodology his father was employing, with it becoming part of his own mental equipment. Whether this was conscious or unconscious is not important. 

The Influence of the Botany and Zoology of Thomas Q. Couch on Q

As with Thomas Hardy and to a lesser extent R.S. Surtees, Q had a profound knowledge of the natural world, but it was a different kind of knowledge. Thomas Hardy had the intuitive knowledge of a countryman, something passed on through the generations. Q was not a countryman. He was the product of a town, a public school and a university. His forebears had been men of the sea. His understanding of seamen and the sea outstripped that of rural workers and the land. The knowledge he possessed of fauna and flora was largely learned, and learned in the context of a scientifically trained mind, his father's. Yet his knowledge was quite extensive, maybe uniquely so for a novelist outside of the likes of Hardy. Novelists tend to a gloss, romantic or anti-romantic. Q's knowledge was precise and accurate.

Q had knowledge but did not parade it. He also possessed a method of writing in relation to topography gained from science as much as from literature. Q took the methodology of works such as The Botany of Polperro and Its Neighbourhood and the geological works of Richard Quiller Couch and adapted them for his novels and short stories. The contrast with Hardy is clear. With Hardy we are looking from the inside out, with Q we are looking from the outside in.

This can be seen in the prologue of the novella Ia, published in 1896. It is set in the St Ives region of West Penwith. Q must have researched it while staying with his Couch relations in Penzance. At the time his uncle, Dr John Q. Couch, was still alive, but it was probably with the children of Richard that he stayed.

The novella opens with a description of St Ives Bay, from The Island around to Godrevy lighthouse off Godrevy Towans. The Island is of slate; it extends in a north north-easterly direction into the Atlantic Ocean; it is a peninsula connected to the mainland by a ridge of gravel and sand; and it shelters the harbour. The slate outcrop is covered by a bed of turf and a variety of plants. Between The Island and the lighthouse are sand-dunes (towans in Cornish), exposed in places and secured by sea-rush in others. The dunes or towans are broken in one place by a river (the River Hayle) which flows to the bay over a sand -bar (Hayle-Bar). In the prologue and in Chapter VII Q describes the moor above the fishing village of Ardevora (St Ives).

Just as Thomas gathered botanical information on his medical rounds in the Bodmin area, so Q gathered the same in the St Ives area when researching Ia. In particular, he notes the plants growing on The Island at St Ives and on the Towans which stretch from St Ives to Godrevy.

vernal squills

Spring squill, blue & white (not pink), white, pink and blue

Liliaceae; Scilla verna, fl. Apr-June, blue & white

 gentians Gentianaceae; Spring Gentian, Gentiana verna, fl. Apr-June, blue

Field Gentian, Gentianella campestris, fl. June-Oct, blue-mauve

sea-lavender Plumbaginaceae;Common sea-lavender, Limonium vulgare

fl. July-Sept, lilac-lavender

succory Compositae; Lamb's Succory, Arnoseris minima, fl. June-Aug, yellow
scarce balm-leaved   Scrophulariaceae; Balm-leaved Figwort, Scrophularia 
figwort scorodonia, fl. June-Sept, red-brown with white edge 
wall-mustard  Cruciferae; unidentifiable
fennel    Umbelliferae; fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, fl. July-Sept, yellow
valerian Valerianaceae;Common Valerian, Valeriana officinalis, fl. June-Aug, pink

Red Valerian, Centranthus ruber, fl. May-Sept, red, pink, white

sea-rush unidentifiable

possibly Yellow-wort Gentianaceae;Yellow-wort, Blackstonia perfoliata, fl. June-Nov, yellow

gentians as above

Ranunculaceae; Columbine, Aquilegia vulgaris, fl. May-July, violet, pink, white

broad-leaved centaury

Gentianaceae; Common Centaury, Centaurium erythraea, fl. June-Sept, pink


In his last and unfinished novel, Castle Dor, Q looks at the species found in the Fowey valley, near his home.

Wild vines    Vitaceae; Vitos vinifera, fl., green

CaprifoliaceaeHoneysuckle, Lonicera      periclymenum, fl. June-October, cream to orange

valerian as above
scarlet poppy Papaveraceae;Common Poppy, fl. June-October, scarlet
blue flax Papaveraceae;Common Poppy, fl. June-October, scarlet
thyme Linaceae;Perennial Flax, fl. May-August, blue
furze eguminosae; Ulex europaeus; Gorse, fl. Apr, yellow 


The detailed nature of Thomas's influence on Q can be seen in the opening pages of 'From a Cottage in Gantick', a short story from 'The Delectable Duchy' of 1893.

The location is a lane bank and a spring at a village in mid-Cornwall.


Lane bank:

primroses  Primulaceae; Primula vulgaris, fls. March-May, yellow

Caryophyllaceae;Greater Stitchwort, Stellaria holostea, fls April-June, white.

ragged robin

  Caryophyllaceae; Lychnis flos-cuculi, fls May-August, pink.



hart's-tongue fern    
specific gravity of the water 1.000° (as distilled water)  
after thunderstorm  1.005  

temperature of water and air at 6 am

June 12  air 62°F water 51°F
Aug  25       73°F 52°F
Nov  2 43° 52°F
at 12 noon    
Jan 1 53°F 52°F


A copse on higher ground included trees.

Oak – foliated April 28

Ash – foliated April 29

Bluebell – Liliaceae; Endymion non-scriptus, April-June, blue



oak foliating before ash is a sign of a hot summer

cuckoo spit appears as a signal for sheep shearing


Q's interest in botany extended to areas outside of Cornwall, as can be seen in the short story 'A Jest of Ambialet'. Interestingly, Q relates plant location to height above sea level and soil.


'A Jest of Ambialet', from 'Merry Garden'

Set in the valley of the River Tarn in south-west France. The marjoram is found by the river and the thyme at the summit of the mount.

purple marjoram Labiatae;Marjoram, Origanum vulgare, fl. July-Sept, purple
golden St John's wort Gottiferae;St John's Wort, type unidentifiable

Leguminosae; Broom, Cytisus scoparius, fl. Apr-June, yellow

heathers Ericaceae, Heather, Calluna vulgaris, fl. July-Sept, purple

bracken, oak , juniper box & chestnut


Labiatae;poss. Basil Thyme, Acinos arvensis, fl. June-Sept,violet & white


It was not just a knowledge of botany that Q gained from his father. It was also a knowledge of medicine. This knowledge is accurate and is accurately presented, although the contexts are fictional. It gives us a window into the past that is invaluable, just as Richard Q. Couch did with his study of mortality in miners.

Q's Knowledge of Diptheria, Typhus and Scarlet Fever

Bodmin was subject to epidemics of diptheria, typhus and scarlet fever during the early years of Q's life with Dr Thomas Q. Couch and his wife as central figures in prevention and amelioration. Q's Memories and Opinions (1945) gives us an insight into this.

On one occasion there was an epidemic of typhus. Thomas was called to attend the local Wesleyan minister, his wife and daughter, the latter being beyond recovery. The minister and his wife were taken into the doctor's home and nursed by Q's mother, with Q and his sister removed elsewhere. The two eventually recovered (ibid., p. 10). The second epidemic involved scarlet fever in 1870 (ibid., pp. 25-6). 

We also learn from Memories and Opinions of Thomas' continuing conflict with Bodmin council over sanitation in the lower part of the town where diptheria and typhus were endemic.

From Memories and Opinions we learn four important facts about Thomas:

  • He was in conflict with the local council
  • He was sceptical over certain aspects of medical practice and followed his own line
  • He believed in nursing, cleanliness and fresh air
  • He believed that being exposed to infection strengthened resistance to it (in contrast to the desire for anti-septic environments today!)

From various sources we can construct the basis for Q's understanding of medicine and the importance of his father in this as it appears in his novels and short stories. This is particularly true of the novella Ia, although doctors appear as characters in many of Q's stories.

We can trace the nature and development of Diptheria or French Croup and Typhus in the novella Ia, from Chapter II, set in February, to Chapter XVI, set in October.



A dry February causes diptheria to ferment in the drains and refuse piles of the lower alleys of Ardevora (St Ives). The first three cases of diptheria are diagnosed by Dr Hammer.



An epidemic of diptheria takes hold in the lower part of Ardevora, along with the first signs of typhus.

Diptheria in Susie Treleaven:

i  short, painful breath

ii swollen tonsils, one showing a grey patch.

 Ia Rosemundy is taught the art of nursing by Dr Hammer.


Late June

Diptheria is at its height.



Diptheria declines while typhus spreads.

Week 1:  Typhus deaths  5
Week 2:  Typhus deaths  12
Week 3: Typhus deaths  23
Week 4: A religious service is held on The Island by the Rev Paul Heathcote at which Dr Hammer speaks on the medical aspects.


He says that a human being is body and spirit and cannot be treated simply from the physical point of view. Although not overly religious, if religious at all, Hammer does not see humans as merely material. The world is not simply matter , but matter and spirit.

Hammer describes the epidemics of diptheria or French Croup in France from 1855 to 1857 and how they spread to Britain.

Lastly, Hammer blames the introduction and spread of diptheria on: landlords, local councils, overcrowding, pollution, refuse in the streets and homes and poor sanitation.



By week 2: Total of dead 130

Typhus in Baragwaneth:

Day 1: headache
Day 3: typhus rash, treated with diluted salts of potash as a febrifuge (reduces fever)
Day 4: delirium
Day 5: delirium is replaced by mutterings
Day 9: patient half-comatose with eyes half-open
Day 11: death



Deaths by typhus:

Week 1: 14
Week 2: 8
Week 3: 3
Week 4: 2



Epidemic declared ended.

The Couch Influence on Sir John Constantine

In no work of fiction is the Couch influence more in evidence than in Q's novel Sir John Constantine. The influence drew not only from the botany and climatology of Dr Thomas Quiller Couch, but also from the geology and topography of Dr Richard Quiller Couch.

Although the first ten chapters of the novel are set in Britain, Chapter XI sees Sir John Constantine and his son Prosper set sail aboard the Gauntlet for the island of Corsica in the western Mediterranean, off the coasts of France and Italy. The plot, in part, is woven around the geology, botany and climate of the island. Relevant interest begins, however, at the Straits of Gibraltar and shows Q's knowledge of winds and tides.

Q describes how the Gauntlet partly sails and partly drifts through the Straits. At the Straits of Gibraltar there is a sill, making the channel shallow as well as narrow. The surface current is from west to east, with a deeper saline undercurrent running from east to west. Once the Gauntlet has navigated the Straits and is entering the Mediterranean, the Atlantic breeze and the surface current become imperceptible, resulting in the becalming of the Gauntlet and its vulnerability to attack from a xebec sail and row-boat. The Gauntlet is saved from capture by a thunderstorm during a sultry night. This is the product of the Sirocco from Africa, a wind which can be dry or humid. The Sirocco coming onto the Gauntlet's starboard side blows the vessel 'north-east'. Subsequently, the vessel comes under the influence of the Libeccio, a wind blowing onto the coast of Corsica from the west or south-west, with the Sirocco diverted into the channel between the eastern coast of Corsica and the western coast of Italy. Two miles from the shore the wind reverses, bringing with it the scent of the vegetation. This is an off-shore wind, resulting from the land at evening cooling more quickly than the sea.

At the conclusion of Chapter XII the Gauntlet rounds Capo di Feno and anchors in the Golfe de Sagone on the western coast of central Corsica. A landing party discovers a deserted village which the novel calls Paomia but is actually Cargèse in Paomia. From the shore the land rises to Monte Cinto of 2706m, Monte Rotondo of 2622m and Monte d'Oro of 2389m. These are the three highest points, seen as white peaks from the deck of the Gauntlet, of a huge granite boss; similar in some respects to the smaller granite bosses of Dartmoor, Bodmin Moor and West Penwith. 

The action from Chapter XIII to Chapter XXI takes place between the shore line at Cargèse and the snow lines, approximately at the 2250m level, of Monte Rotondo and Monte d'Oro. The rivers and streams flowing down from the peaks to the River Liamone, create deep granite clefts and gullies, with ridges and pinnacles above them. The River Liamone deposits granite silt into the Bay of Sagone.

As the rock is universally granitic, vegetation is determined by climate and climate by altitude. There are five identifiable zones in the novel and in fact: coastal, chestnut wood, pine forest, grassland and snow peak. The monthly mean temperature on the coast in January is approximately 10°C and in July is 25°C. Temperature declines with altitude. The Libeccio delivers about 29" of rain per year on the west coast, preventing the desiccation common to Mediterranean coastlands. Inland, Vizzavona, which lies at the 300m level, has 65". The western funnel-shaped valleys, with their granite ridges and precipitous clefts which Prosper encounters after his capture by Princess Camilla, receives even more.

From sea-level to 200m, the context for Chapter XIII, the climate consists of hot summers moderated by sea-breezes, and warm winters. From 200m to 1000m, the context for Chapter XIV, the summers are cooler and the precipitation greater. From 1000m to 2000m, where the hut in the forest is located, the summers are still warm but the winters are colder, hence the need for a brushwood fire. Above 2000m, glimpsed at times by Prosper , the summers are cold and the winters are severe, with snow cover for nearly six months of the year. The forest clearing, in which Prosper is imprisoned by Princess Camilla, is at the margin of the chestnut and the pine forests.

As the climate can be divided into zones in relation to altitude, so can vegetation, although with considerable overlapping. According to standard texts, the lower coastal slopes on the western side of Corsica grow oaks of various types, olives, figs and vines, interspersed with green aromatic shrubs such as oleander, myrtle, heath, rosemary and lavender, along with herbaceous and bulbous plants. This vegetation and the aroma it produces comes under the term 'macchia', which the crew of the Gauntlet detected two miles out to sea from the off-shore breeze.

Up to the 1000m level there are woods of sweet chestnut, beech and wild olive. At about the 1000m level this gradually gives way to pine forests. However, as the novel suggests, ridges, hollows and clefts produce micro-climates with their own botanical mix. Over the 2000m level the pine forests give way to grassland, which is snow-covered in winter but comes to life in spring with melt-water. The highest slopes, observed as white from the deck of the Gauntlet, are always covered with snow and have minimal vegetation.

This is the zoning found in the novel. Whether Q visited Corsica, and he was a considerable traveller in his younger days, or whether he obtained this knowledge from books is unclear.

A reconstruction of the geology, botany and climate of Corsica, based on information provided by the text, from 2500m to sea-level

Altitude: Over 2250m
Location: Summits of Monte Rotondo and Monte d'Oro as observed by Prosper from the deck of the Gauntlet
Vegetation:  Minimal owing to almost permanent snow cover
Altitude: 2250m to 2000m

The higher slopes of Monte Rotondo and Monte d'Oro as seen by Prosper from the margin of the pine forest

Vegetation: Grassland from late spring to early autumn, otherwise snow-covered 
Altitude: 2000m to 1000m
Location:   Ridges, clefts, hollows, precipitous and funnel-shaped valleys, all tributaries of the River Liamone
Vegetation:  Pine forests

Border of the pine forest and chestnut woods









Location: Micro-climate in a hollow on a ridge where Prosper is imprisoned in Chapter XX.

Plants – Berry Colour etc


arbutus – scarlet

sarsaparilla – carmine 

lentisk – duller in colour

phillyrea – olive

myrtle – purple and scented

 arbutus – yellow and scarlet fruit


Location:  Main tributary valleys, with clefts and chasms strewn with granite boulders

lentisk thickets

cactus clumps


Altitude:  1000m to 2000m
Location:  Lower valleys and coastal slopes around Cargèse.


ilex – oak






Altitude:  Coastline to low-tide line.
Location:  Bays, promontories, pinnacles of  granite and creeks, with fine granite alluvium and sandbanks.


Thomas Quiller Couch's approach to biology differed little from his approach to medicine, a concentration on fact and observation. In the words of Dr Gull: 'We have no system to satisfy; no dogmatic opinions to enforce.' Thomas may have had preferences, but he did not let them influence his observations or his conclusions. In the instructions of M. Quetelet he discovered an objective and dogma free structure for these observations, one feeding into an international framework.

In medicine, the condition improved or deteriorated, the patient recovered or died. Thomas realised that in biology a similar level of verification was impossible, reinforcing his scepticism regarding theory, and providing him with a yardstick for judging the Darwinian debate swirling around him. When coming from a poor household burdened with debt and disease, the disputes of affluent scientists must have appeared trivial by comparison. Medicine not only provided him with a methodology, it also provided him with perspective.

Q was in many ways his father's son. The biographies of Q by Rowse and Brittain pay scant attention to Thomas. They could have made no greater error.