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d. at London, Ont., 21 Sept. 1871


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HUTCHINS, THOMAS, HBC chief factor, surgeon, and naturalist; d. 7 July 1790 at Hudson’s Bay House, London, England; survived by his wife Margaret.

Thomas Hutchins is an intriguing figure whose importance lies less in his official career with the Hudson’s Bay Company than in the controversial subject of his contribution to North American natural history. Hutchins first entered the service of the company in February 1766, when he was appointed surgeon at York Fort (York Factory, Man.) for five years at £36 per annum. He sailed for Hudson Bay that summer in the company of Ferdinand Jacobs, who was returning to his command at York, and arrived in August. During the next few years he became friendly with another company officer, Andrew Graham*, master of the outpost at Severn (Fort Severn, Ont.). When Graham became acting chief at York for the 1771–72 season the two men collaborated in keeping detailed meteorological and natural history observations. The astronomer William Wales had already sent Hutchins directions for observing the eclipse of the sun expected on 6 Nov. 1771, and although Graham helped with the recording of meteorological observations, Hutchins was clearly the leading spirit. In the collecting and describing of natural history specimens for the Royal Society of London, however, Graham was the more experienced partner. In the covering letter to the descriptive notes he sent home in August 1772, Hutchins acknowledged that he had followed “Mr Graham’s advice” and described his notes as “not wrote by one who is skilled in zoological affairs, but by a young person seeking after knowledge and improvement, who would think himself extremely happy to be of service to the learned. . . .” The two men sent back to England notes that were separate, but based on the same specimens and measurements, and in general the classification scheme of both the 1772 lists was Graham’s. The dedication Graham and Hutchins displayed is the more creditable since the winter of 1771–72 was exceptionally severe, and Hutchins was kept busy tending the sick, sometimes “night as well as day.”

In 1773 Hutchins returned to England for a year’s leave and during this time agreed with the Royal Society to keep observations on the dipping-needle on his voyage back to the bay, and to carry out experiments at Fort Albany (Ont.), where he had been appointed chief, on congealing mercury by cold. His report on his findings was printed in the society’s Philosophical Transactions for 1776, and in 1781 he carried out further tests on mercury at Albany. The results were printed in the Philosophical Transactions for 1783, were acclaimed by scientists, and gained for Hutchins the award of the Royal Society’s Copley medal that year. He was the second HBC servant to be so honoured; Christopher Middleton* had received the medal in 1742.

Hutchins had retired from active service in the bay in 1782, but the next year he took up the post of corresponding secretary to the company at £150 per annum, a position he held despite failing health until his death in July 1790. During this last period of his life Hutchins came into contact with the prominent naturalists Thomas Pennant and John Latham and in his dual role as amateur naturalist and secretary of the HBC supplied them with information on Canadian wildlife. A letter from Hutchins to Pennant in February 1784 shows the two men corresponding on natural history topics, and in the second volume of his celebrated Arctic zoology, published in 1785, Pennant noted “I had the good fortune to meet with Mr. Hutchins, a gentleman many years resident in Hudsons Bay; who with the utmost liberality, communicated to me his MS. observations, in a large folio volume . . . .” In reality, the volume was one of those written by Graham. That its attribution to Hutchins was no accidental misunderstanding is shown not only by continuing references to Hutchins in Pennant’s Supplement of 1787 but by a repetition of the same process in John Latham’s A general synopsis of birds. In his third volume, published in 1785, Latham declared himself “indebted to the observations of Mr. Hutchins, of the Hudsons Bay Company, an intelligent and communicative Naturalist.” The many extracts which follow, however, are taken from a manuscript volume of Graham’s “Observations on Hudson’s Bay” which can be precisely identified as that classified as E.2/10 in the archives of the HBC. The acknowledgements by Pennant and Latham were to be followed by many standard works until the publication in 1969 of parts of Graham’s original manuscript, together with related Hutchins papers. These documents showed that while certain volumes of Graham’s natural history notes contained some Hutchins material, Hutchins himself, though undoubtedly a genuine enthusiast – “Natural history is my delight” he told Pennant in 1784 – was in comparison with Graham a minor figure. Hutchins apparently appropriated as his own large portions of Graham’s notes stored at Hudson’s Bay House, thereby winning an undeserved reputation as the leading authority on the natural history of Hudson Bay.

Glyndwr Williams

[Most of Thomas Hutchins’ known manuscripts are in the archives of the Hudson’s Bay Company: B.239/a/17, journal of meteorological observations kept at York Fort in 1771–72; Z.4/1, his letter of February 1784 to Pennant together with notes on “Fish in Hudson’s Bay”; E.2/11, volumes of Graham’s “Observations” which include notes of Hutchins’ scientific experiments; E.2/10 (pp. 199–213), another volume of Graham’s “Observations” which contain natural history notes kept by Hutchins at Albany, probably between 1780 and 1782. Hutchins’ natural history observations written at York in 1771–72 are in the archives of the Royal Society of London, ms. 129. His reports to the Royal Society were published as: “An account of the success of some attempts to freeze quicksilver, at Albany Fort, in Hudson’s Bay, in the year 1775: with observations on the dipping-needle,” Philosophical Trans., LXVI (1776), 174–81, and as “Experiments for ascertaining the point of mercurial congelation,” ibid., LXXIII (1783), [303–70]. Much of this material, together with a full discussion of Hutchins’ standing as a naturalist, is in HBRS, XXVII (Williams); see in particular R. G. Glover’s introduction, xiii-xx, xxxii-xxxvi, and appendices C and E. Some additional notices of Hutchins’ activities are to be found in HBC Arch. A.1/42, p.370; A.1/142, p.l35; in his obituary, London Chronicle, 8 July 1790; in Thomas Pennant, Arctic zoology (2v., London, 1784–85), and Supplement (London, 1787); and in John Latham, A general synopsis of birds (3v. in 6, London, 1781–85). Readers should also consult Glyndwr Williams, “Andrew Graham and Thomas Hutchins: collaboration and plagiarism in 18th-century natural history,” Beaver, outfit 308.4 (spring 1978), 4–14.  g.w.]

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Glyndwr Williams, “HUTCHINS, THOMAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 21, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hutchins_thomas_4E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hutchins_thomas_4E.html
Author of Article:   Glyndwr Williams
Title of Article:   HUTCHINS, THOMAS
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1979
Year of revision:   1979
Access Date:   September 21, 2023