Review Articles

William John Burchell: The multi-skilled polymath

Roger Stewart, Brian Warner
South African Journal of Science | Vol 108, No 11/12 | a1207 | DOI: | © 2012 Roger Stewart, Brian Warner | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 30 March 2012 | Published: 29 October 2012

About the author(s)

Roger Stewart, No affiliation, South Africa
Brian Warner, Department of Astronomy, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa


On the bicentenary of William John Burchell’s sojourn and journey in southern Africa, we review his contribution to science in the region. In November 1810, Burchell arrived in Cape Town and, in mid-1811, he set off on a 4-year, 7000-km journey of scientific exploration. When he returned to Cape Town in April 1815, he had amassed 63 000 specimens and 500 drawings. Burchell is remembered mainly for his contributions to descriptive and philosophical aspects of natural history of the country. He is less well known for some significant and novel contributions to the earth sciences, the social sciences and even astronomy. Burchell’s observations in physical geography and geology and his contribution to cartography have received little attention. In natural history, some of his views were prescient of the concepts of evolution and holism. In the social sciences, he provided unique ethnographic descriptions, developed an orthography of two indigenous languages and produced drawings that have attracted international research. William John Burchell is worthy of our memory.


Burchell; natural history; natural philosophy; geography; geology


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