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A. E. Gunther

Autumn, 1998

IT is with sadness that the Museum has to report the death, on the 16th July at the age of 94, of Albert Everard Gunther, the Museum’s most generous benefactor of recent years.

Dr Gunther, son of Robert T. Gunther, the first Curator of the Museum, was a geology student at Magdalen College at the time of the Museum’s foundation, and in later life was proud to be the last survivor of those who were present at the opening ceremony on the 5th May, 1925. His first publication was an article in the student magazine The Isis describing the new museum.

He then pursued a career as a petroleum geologist, working mostly abroad. After his father’s death in 1940, followed by the tragic death of his elder brother in a wartime accident, he returned to Oxford briefly to help settle the rather chaotic state of his father’s (and thus the Museum’s) affairs.

He retired in 1961, and devoted the last third of his long life to biographical and historical work on his own family, and on areas of the history of science with which they were associated. He began with a detailed biography of R. T. Gunther, which appeared in 1967. His other projects have ranged from family biographies intended for private circulation only (though the Museum holds copies of them in its Gunther Archive), to published studies which have met with approval in the exacting book-review sections of the academic journals.

His particular interest was the history of the Natural History Museum, London, where his grandfather Albert Günther was a Keeper. His two books about the Natural History Museum (1975 and 1980) are useful contributions to the burgeoning subject of museum history, and were followed by a study of the eighteenth-century scientific antiquary Thomas Birch (published in 1984).

In the course of writing his father’s life, Dr Gunther rationalized a considerable amount of archival material which had remained unsorted since 1940, including both personal papers and Museum administrative records. They became the core of the extensive R. T. Gunther Archive in the Museum, into which many additions have flowed since. He also made a number of generous additions to the R. T. Gunther Collection of objects in the Museum.

Until 1986 most of these were part of a Gunther Loan Collection, which Dr Gunther owned jointly with his brother’s family; he thus had to balance his keenness to see it ‘assured’ (as he put it) to the Museum, against its financial value to the family. In the end he resolved the matter at his own expense, and this essential component of the Museum’s collection, library and archive became the Museum’s property as his gift.

Conscious that the Museum had very little in the way of financial endowment, he followed this benefaction with the gift in 1988 of a fund, which he particularly hoped would be used to extend the Museum’s activities in research and publication, and which remains in regular use.

In addition to these major contributions, Dr Gunther frequently made smaller gestures of support to the Museum. On one occasion, for instance, he gave money for library conservation purposes, which allowed upgrading of the storage materials used for archives and prints.

Dr Gunther paid the printing costs of one of the Museum’s publications, Robert T. Gunther and the Old Ashmolean (1985), and in 1990 he made a small contribution towards the purchase of Sir Henry Acland’s name-plate, an item of sentimental value to the history of Oxford science. He also regularly gave books and manuscripts to the Museum library, often marking his father’s birthday in this way.

R. T. Gunther’s centenary (on the 23rd August, 1969) is commemorated by a beautifully bound and hand-coloured copy of Andreas Cellarius’s huge book of cosmological illustrations, Harmonia Macrocosmica (Amsterdam, 1661), which is unquestionably one of the Museum’s most magnificent and admired books.

A. E. Gunther found rich fulfilment in exploring his own family history, and assembling what he called an ‘ancestral memory’ to pass on to coming generations. As a bachelor, this aim applied not only to his brother’s descendants but also to his father’s heirs in the ‘Old Ashmolean’, where his contributions to the record of the past and to the work of the present have ensured the continuance of his father’s legacy.

A. V. S.