Michael Rogers Oldfield Thomas (1858-1929), the 'founding father of modern systematic mammalogy', was one of the most important mammal collectors of the later 19th and 20th centuries, and made a significant contribution to the development of the mammal collections here at the Natural History Museum.
Oldfield Thomas, as he was always known, was born in Millbrook, Bedfordshire and educated at Haileybury College in Hertford. Oldfield was his mother’s maiden name, his father was Vicar of Hillingdon, Middlesex.
Oldfield Thomas spent some of his childhood in South Africa when his father was appointed to the Archdeaconate of Cape Town. It was here that Oldfield Thomas developed his love of natural history collecting insects on Table Mountain.
Painting, oil on canvas, by J. Ernest Braun, 1904
NHM image ref: 100047
On his return to England in 1876, he found employment as a clerk in the Museum Secretary’s office at the British Museum in Bloomsbury, London. Two years later he transferred to the Zoological Department, serving a short time as Dr. Albert Gunther’s clerk. Later he was appointed Assistant in Charge of Mammals where he served until his retirement in 1923.
In 1891, Oldfield Thomas married an heiress, the daughter of Sir Andrew Clark, Bart.; an eminent physician. With his increasing scientific reputation and wealth, Oldfield Thomas was able to considerably expand the Museum mammal collection.
Together he and his wife supported mammal collectors across the world, and financed expeditions where collecting was the main objective. Oldfield Thomas subsequently described many of the resulting specimens, amounting to over 2,500 new names for genera, species and subspecies during his lifetime. He became one of the foremost mammal experts of his time, writing over 1000 books, catalogues and papers.
He was an avid letter writer, corresponding with important scientists from all over the world. In 1901 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society.
He died in 1929, leaving in his will numerous bequests to relatives, Museum staff and specialist societies and to the Museum itself he left this portrait and a bequest to finance expeditions to collect yet more mammals.
Every day throughout his life at the Museum, Oldfield Thomas would use the stairs to go back and forth from the then mammals room on the 3rd floor, to the main hall. Shortly before he died, he funded the installation of a small lift just inside the entrance of the museum. One of the last actions of a man who was thinking of the comfort and convenience of his colleagues. Today's NHM staff continue to spare their legs thanks to him!
The commemorative plaque inside the lift reads: 'The installation of this lift was rendered possible in 1929 by the generous gift from Oldfield Thomas, F.R.S. who was in the service of the Trustees 1876 to 1923'