It is easy to imagine that the greatest minds of the nineteenth century spent their time thinking, inventing and making discoveries. However, they were just as likely to be involved in petty sniping and point-scoring as anyone else.
In 1832, the Council of the Royal Society appointed Anthony Panizzi, then assistant librarian at the British Library, to make a new Catalogue of the Scientific Books of the Society’s Library. He was to be paid thirty pounds for every thousand titles catalogued, his final salary not exceeding £500, and it was understood by Council that Panizzi would work following the existing arrangements adopted by the Society.
But once Panizzi’s work was finished in 1835, the arguments between him and the Society began. Smaller concerns about access to the catalogue proofs quickly escalated into a bigger dispute. Panizzi demanded that no one else should have any access to his work, and that no changes to it should be allowed. But Council had found issues with the Catalogue, especially with Panizzi’s method of adding notes wherever he pleased. It was basically an issue of lack of communication, with both sides refusing to compromise in any way.
Despite Peter Mark Roget FRS, then Secretary of the Royal Society and a personal friend of Panizzi’s, asking him not to get involved in a fight with Council, Panizzi still sent the Society a series of letters so exaggerated and over-dramatic that “not a soul” could understand the exact nature of Panizzi’s issues with the Catalogue, or “penetrate the motives which prompted the vague and unlooked for complaints” he had named. Panizzi groused about the Royal Society demanding he make “further sacrifices without regard either to [his] interest or to [his] feelings”, and was even frustrated with Roget’s comment that no one could understand what he had meant: “that letter was understood and approved of by at least three persons, on the judgment of every one of them you would yourself fully rely.” You can almost hear his passive-aggressive tone!
Throughout the summer of 1836, Panizzi’s letters to Roget and other Fellows of the Royal Society became more and more angry and frustrated. Instead of pointing out what the issues really were, Panizzi focused on how he was right, and on being deliberately unhelpful:
“I cannot help thinking that the terms of our contract are misunderstood by the Council, not by me” … “I do not know what information the Council want from me and therefore cannot give any” … “You say I do not state the reasons of my objections: to which I answer I am not bound to state them” … “Feeling fully convinced that my view of the case is correct the Council will see that I could not act any differently from what I have done.”
The argument culminated with Panizzi publishing a 56-page letter of complaint to the Duke of Sussex, President of the Royal Society. The members of the Society, of course, would not take this lying down. Stephen Peter Rigaud FRS was tasked with writing a response, and his letters to Francis Baily regarding his research are filled with a healthy (unhealthy?) dose of gossip. After quoting one of Panizzi’s (in his opinion) mistaken notes, Rigaud adds: “Now what is the case of this silly display of ignorance?” He even mentions how he had formed an opinion of Panizzi before seeing his work: “Some friends used to speak so highly of Panizzi, that I was much prejudiced in favour of his talents for the task which he had undertaken … My opinion has been shaken by the late examination of his remarks, and it seems prudent, therefore, to express myself more cautiously than I had done in one of the early sentences.”
The letters on both sides are short on what the real problems were. Instead both Panizzi and those against him vaguely complain about each other, insist on how the other side was wrong, and refuse to offer any solutions, proving that petty bickering can be found even among great thinkers!
Anna Da Silva has been studying at King’s College London. As part of a Master’s course she has been cataloguing 19th century letters at the Royal Society Library, including some correspondence of the naturalist Henry Bowman Brady (MS/787)