Tag Archives: Henry Baker

Andreas Planta

Rev. Andreas Joseph Planta (1717—1773) had an interesting background. His family was prominent in the Grisons region of Switzerland/Italy (depending on your period), tracing their lineage back to the twelfth century, and a family of the same name and locale was also prominent in Imperial Rome. Andreas himself became a pastor in Castasegna, a rare example of an Italian-speaking Protestant parish. After a period as Professor of Mathematics at Erlangen, in 1752 or 1753 he came to London as pastor to the German Reformed Church at Savoy. In 1758 he was also appointed as a part-time assistant librarian at the British Museum and in the 1760s was engaged as a tutor in Italian to Queen Charlotte.  One of the duties of the British Museum staff was to escort visitors around the collection, and in 1765 Planta showed the Museum to the Mozart family, resulting in a gift of manuscripts of several of the young Wolfgang’s works to the collection.

In 1770 Andreas, or Andrew as he went by in England, was elected Fellow of the Royal Society, his citation reading,

Andrew Joseph Planta of the British Museum MA, & Minister of the German Reformed Church at the Savoy, a Gentleman of good learning, and well versed in natural knowledge, being desirous of becoming a member of the Royal Society; we recommend him, of our Personal acquaintance, as likely to be a valuable & useful member.

His proposers, several of whom had connections to the British Museum, were:

  • Rev. Gregory Sharpe (1713—1771);
  • Gowin Knight (1713—1772), First Librarian of the British Museum;
  • Henry Baker (1698—1774);
  • Jerome De Salis (1709—1794) (the De Salis family was equally prominent in Grisons);
  • Joseph Ayloffe (1709—1781);
  • Matthew Duane (1707—1785), trustee of the British Museum;
  • Charles Morton (1716—1799), Librarian of the British Museum;
  • Samuel Harper (c. 1732—1803), under-librarian at the British Museum;
  • Mathew Maty (1718—1776), librarian at the British Museum;
  • Richard Penneck (1728—1803), Keeper of the Reading Room at the British Museum;
  • Rev. Henry Putman (1725—1797);
  • Joshua Kirby (1716—1774), and;
  • John Bevis (1695—1771).

Andreas Planta married Margarete Scartazzini Debolziani when a pastor in Castasegna. Of their children, son Joseph in turn became Librarian at the British Museum (and his son Joseph a prominent diplomat), Elizabeth was governess to the notorious Mary Bowes, and Margaret and Frederica were English tutors to the princesses.

Speaking without tongues

Henry Baker became interested in the case of Margaret Cutting who could speak clearly despite having no tongue, and he reported on the case in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Apparently, she had a cancer of the tongue as a young child, which caused her tongue to fall out when she was about four years old. Despite this loss, she was able to talk fluently, and sing with a good voice.

Baker first heard about her from a Benjamin Boddington, Turkey Merchant of Ipswich (about whom I know nothing else). Intrigued, Baker had Boddington, accompanied by the Rev. William Notcutt, and William Hammond, apothecary of Ipswich, go to Wickham Market (about twelve miles from Ipswich) to investigate. He sent them with a list of sounds and words with which to test her. She passed all the tests and submitted to a detailed inspection of her mouth that showed indeed she had no tongue. She could also eat and drink just as normal.

In her affidavit, Margaret Cutting said she did not know exactly how old she was, but estimated around twenty-four in 1742. This would make her very close in age to Joshua Kirby, who also grew up in Wickham Market.

After the report to the Royal Society and publication in the Philosophical Transactions, the case was reported in the London newspapers, and an extract from one of the reports was reprinted in the Ipswich Journal of 15 Jan 1743.

Five years later, after lingering doubts of the truthfulness of the case were expressed by some Fellows, they had her come up to London to the Royal Society where she was subjected to a closer analysis by Dr. Milward and Dr. James Parsons MD, FRS, who related the particulars and gave a physiological explanation of why she could still talk in the Philosophical Transactions.


Baker, H., 1742. ‘An Account of Margaret Cutting, a Young Woman, Now Living at Wickham Market in Suffolk, Who Speaks Readily and Intelligibly, Though She Has Lost Her Tongue’, Phil. Trans. 42, 143—152.

Parsons, J., 1747. ‘A Physiological Account of the Case of Margaret Cutting, Who Speaks Distinctly, Tho’ She Has Lost the Apex and Body of Her Tongue: Addressed to the Royal Society, by James Parsons M. D. F. R. S.Phil. Trans.
44, 621—626.

Henry Baker

Henry Baker, FRS (1698—1774) was an interesting person. His father, a Clerk in Chancery, died when he was young, and he was largely brought up by his grandmother. He was apprenticed as a bookseller, later declaring his apprenticeship ‘as agreeable a Part of Life as any I have ever known’. Not that he became a bookseller. At the end of his apprenticeship, he went off to visit some relatives and ended up staying for nine years. What caught his interest was the 8-year-old daughter of his host, John Forster, who had been born deaf. Baker undertook to teach Jane and her two younger siblings, also born deaf, to read, write and lip-read, a task in which he was successful and instructing the deaf became his main source of income. He charged high prices and a lucrative practice. He also swore his pupils to secrecy and never revealed the details of his procedure, although it was doubtless based on that devised by the mathematician John Wallis.

It was presumably through a shared interest in the education of the deaf that Baker met Daniel Defoe, whose youngest daughter Sophia he married. They had two sons. The elder, and more colorful one, David Erskine Baker translated Voltaire’s Metaphysics of Sir Isaac Newton into English when only seventeen, was trained as an engineer on account of his mathematical skill, and joined a troupe of travelling players. His brother Henry became a lawyer.

In his youth Baker wrote poetry. Together with Defoe he founded the Universal Spectator, and in the early 1740s he got interested in microscopes. His book on microscopes, about which we will write in a separate post, was much more successful than Benjamin Martin’s Micrographia Nova, selling out a first edition of 1000 copies in only a few months. Although primarily a popularizer rather than a researcher, he used the microscope to study both crystal growth and polyps, earning him a Fellowship in the Royal Society in 1741, and its Copley Medal in 1744.

Baker was an inveterate organizer, recorder and committee member, clearly relishing the organizational tasks involved with the Royal Society, the Society of Arts, the Society of Antiquaries, and the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. With these organizations he was intersecting Kirby’s orbit as Kirby was a member of these groups, too.

Most of the information in this post comes from the delightful article on Henry Baker by Gerard L’Estrange Turner.


Turner, G.L’E, 1974. ‘Henry Baker, F.R.S.: Founder of the Bakerian Lecture’. Notes Rec. R. Soc. Lond. October 1, 1974 29 1 53-79.