George Rolleston received a grounding in classics from his father, George Rolleston, vicar of Maltby in Yorkshire, to such effect that he was able to read Homer at the age of ten. He attended schools at Gainsborough and Sheffield, and won a scholarship to Pembroke College, Oxford, when he was seventeen. At the University, he took a first-class degree in classics in 1850. His election to the Sheppard fellowship in law and physic decided him to enter the medical profession, and in October 1851 he began to study at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. Having graduated as B.M. in 1854, he was appointed in the next year to the staff of the British Civil Hospital at Smyrna, and remained abroad to compile a report on the sanitation there and to make a tour of Palestine before returning home in 1857. His first post in England was that of assistant physician at the Hospital for Sick Children; but, before the end of 1857, he removed to Oxford to become physician to the Radcliffe Infirmary and Lee’s reader in anatomy at Christ Church. Three years later, on his appointment as Linacre professor of human and comparative anatomy, he abandoned the practice of medicine and devoted himself to biological research. The historic meeting of the B.M.A. at Oxford in 1860 inspired him to tackle the problem of brain classification — his conclusions were announced in a lecture at the Royal Institution in 1862 — and on the renewal of the Owen-Huxley dispute at the Cambridge meeting in 1862, he declared himself a supporter of Huxley.
Rolleston, as keeper of the anatomical and physiological collections in the Christ Church Museum, supervised their removal to the University Museum, in which he retained a personal interest to the end. His major work on The Forms of Animal Life, the first example of instruction by study of series of types, appeared in 1870. His increasing fame was marked by his election as an honorary fellow of Pembroke and as an F.R.S. in 1862 and as fellow of Merton in 1872, his delivery of the Harveian Oration at the Royal College of Physicians in 1873 and his nomination as his University’s representative on the General Medical Council in 1875. The city of Oxford owed to the advocacy of Rolleston — an enthusiast for efficient sanitation — its modern system of main drainage; and another of his interests was revealed in his book British Barrows in 1877. In politics a Liberal, he was by nature liberal in sympathies and generous in his relations with his fellows. As a teacher, he infected his pupils with a love of learning for its own sake; but his learning was the rare blend of classical culture and enlightened science. He was more effective as a talker than as a writer; for, although his conversation was enlivened by wit and informed by quotation, his written works were encumbered by a weight of references and confused by a complexity of detail. Rolleston married in 1861 Grace, daughter of Dr. John Davy and niece of Sir Humphry Davy. Among their seven children were Sir Humphry Rolleston, President of the Royal College of Physicians, and J. D. Rolleston, F.R.C.P.
G H Brown
[Lancet, 1881; B.M.J., 1881; A. G. Gibson, Radcliffe Infirmary, 1926, 134; D.N.B., xlix, 167; Al.Oxon., iii, 1222]