Westminster Abbey, London

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey by vgm8383. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

There are no “two cultures” in this place of national remembrance-scientists and other celebrities are memorialised side-by-side. Isaac Newton’s tomb is one of the grandest in the Abbey. Lord Kelvin is buried at his side and also has a huge window in his honour. Altogether about 30 scientists are represented. Some, like Newton and Kelvin, were actually buried here; others have memorials in the Abbey but are buried elsewhere. One scientist, geologist William Buckland (memorial in the South Aisle), was actually Dean of Westminster from 1845 to 1856. Few of the memorials attempt an account of the basis for honourable recognition. James Prescorr Joule is an exception, described as “establishing the Law of the Conservation of Energy,” and Charles Lyell is another, cited for “deciphering the fragmentary records of the earth’s history.”

Some Abbey funerals are noteworthy. Irish Archbishop James Ussher, not a scientist by modern standards, perhaps, but judged to be one in his time, was buried here in 1656 (in the Chapel of St. Paul). It was the time of the Puritan Commonwealth, but Oliver Cromwell ordered that the Anglican funeral service, then normally forbidden, should be used in deference to Ussher’s status. Newton’s funeral in 1727 was attended by Voltaire and has been described by him-the body lay in state in the Jerusalem Chamber (public access through the Deanery) and was followed to its grave by all of the Fellows of the Royal Society. The 1912 funeral service for surgeon Lord Lister (memorial in the North Choir aisle) has been described by Sir William Osler-the Abbey was packed to the door with nurses, students, and doctors, and there were reserved seats for representatives from all over Europe. We know of no scientist who was refused admission, as Lord Byron was when his funeral cortège reached the door in 1824-poetic genius eventually won out over moral objections, and a memorial was erected for him in 1969.