At first glance, the 17th-century natural historian Francis Willughby is an ideal subject for a biography. He lived in interesting times, as the adage goes. He was born in 1635, seven years before the start of the English civil war, and after a youth spent under Cromwell’s rule, came of age as the monarchy was restored. He was a landowner, and travelled extensively in Europe. Best of all, he mixed with many of the celebrated minds of his time. As an original member of what became the Royal Society, Willughby included in his circle Sir Christopher Wren, John Evelyn, Robert Hooke and John Wilkins.
Why, then, has his life never been written until now? Tim Birkhead offers two compelling reasons: Willughby died of a ‘pleurisie’ at the age of 36 in 1672; and most of his original notes and letters have since been lost.