Cole, Francis – Library and Papers

Professor Francis Joseph ColeFrancis Joseph Cole was born in London on 3 February 1872. On leaving school, Cole became a journalist and for a time worked on local newspapers in Surrey, Sussex and then in Fleet Street. However, this work didn’t satisfy Cole’s thirst for knowledge, and his aim was to go to Oxford and read zoology. He prepared himself for University entrance and learnt zoology at the Royal College of Science, under Professor G. B. Howes. He also attended lectures at the Royal Institution by Dr J. G. Romanes, who encouraged him to enter Christ Church, Oxford and to act as his research assistant. When Romanes became ill, Cole was obliged to leave Oxford. However, Romanes recommended him to Professor Cossar Ewart, Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh, and in 1892, Cole became Ewart’s private assistant. During this time, Cole began his series of researches on the brain and cranial nerves of fishes.

In 1894, he left Edinburgh when he was appointed as lecturer in zoology at Liverpool University College, later called the University of Liverpool. He stayed there for twelve years and, in 1901, was able to combine work during term time at Liverpool with research during vacation at Jesus College, Oxford. In this way, he obtained a B.Sc. degree at Oxford by research in 1905.

In 1898, he married Annie Clow Menzies. Their only son became a farmer in Ontario, Canada.

In 1906, Cole took up an appointment as lecturer in zoology at University College, Reading, and in the following year became the first occupant of the chair of zoology, which he held until his retirement in 1939. In these thirty-two years, he built up a flourishing department, founded a Museum of Comparative Anatomy that now bears his name, pursued his research, worked actively for the foundation of the University of Reading, and collected a magnificent library of early works on medicine and comparative anatomy. He became an expert on ecclesiastical architecture and wrote a book on the Church of St. Mary, Cholsey, Berkshire, applying scientific methods to the solution of an architectural problem.
He was awarded the Rolleston Prize at Oxford in 1902 for his researches on the cranial nerves of fishes, Chimaera. Later, he published a series of papers on the myxinoid fish and received the Neill Gold Medal and Prize of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1908. His D. Sc., Oxford, followed in 1910.

During World War I, he was commissioned in the 4th Territorial Battalion of the Essex Regiment and was stationed on the east coast in charge of a coastal gun emplacement. Returning to Reading after the war, he turned more and more to the history of biology. In 1925, he delivered two lectures at King’s College, London, on the history of protozoology, and these lectures were published in the following year. In 1926, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. The year 1930 saw the publication of his Early Theories of Sexual Generation.

His interest in protozoology led him to the works of the early microscopists. In 1937, he published two papers on the zoological researches of Leeuwenhoek, and in the following year, his lecture to the Quekett Microscopical Club on “Microscopical Science in Holland in the Seventeenth Century” was printed. In 1951, he gave the Wilkins Lecture before the Royal Society, his subject being “The History of Microdissection.” His major work, A History of Comparative Anatomy from Aristotle to the Eighteenth Century, appeared in 1944 and was based substantially on his own library collection.

During his retirement, he wrote many essay reviews, as well as papers on historical subjects, such as “The History of Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros in Zoological Literature” (1953). His last publication, written at the age of 85, was entitled “Obiter dicta bibliographica” (1958) and described his activities as a book collector. He suffered a fatal stroke on 27th January 1959.

Taken from an article written by N.B. Eales in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 1959, Vol. XIV, No. 1.

Library Collection

Reference: COLE                    Date: c. 1472-2018                    Extent: about 8,000 volumes

Cole was a book collector and bibliophile from his schooldays until his death. He amassed a library of around 8,000 volumes of books and scientific papers. The collection covers the history of early medicine and zoology in general and, more particularly, comparative anatomy and reproductive physiology, from earliest times to the present day. There are an estimated 1,700 or more pre-1851 works, including many continental books.

Many seminal works in the history of the biological sciences are present. Authors represented include Galen, Fabricius, Belon, Wotton, Gesner, Bartholin, Swammerdam, Harvey, Ray, Haller, Leeuwenhoek, Linnaeus, the Hunters and Darwin. Notable individual works include:

The collection also includes 15 books by Sophie Cole (1862-1947), the sister of Professor Cole. As an adolescent, Miss Cole suffered from a long illness, and to pass the time she wrote a romance novel, Arrows from the dark in 1909, the first book to be published by Mills and Boon, who later became major publishers of romance novels. The book was well-received, and by 1914, 1,394 women had bought a copy. During her lifetime she wrote 65 books, and earned her living from them for many years. Miss Cole knew London very well, and wrote a non-fiction book on literary London, which is held in the collection. She lived in Brighton, but in her later years came to live with Professor Cole and his wife at Eldon Road in Reading. A number of the books are presentation copies from Miss Cole.


  • J. Franklin, ‘Francis Joseph Cole, 1872-1959’ in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 5 (1960), p. 37-47.
  • B. Eales, ‘Francis Joseph Cole, 1872-1959’ in Journal of the History of Medicine 14 (1959), p. 267-72.
  • J. Cole, ‘Obiter dicta bibliographica’ in Journal of the History of Medicine, 14 (1959), p. 2-9.
  • J. Cole, ‘Bibliographical reflections of a biologist’ in Proceedings of the Oxford Bibliographical Society, 5 (1939), p. 169-86.


Archive Collection

Reference: MS 5315                    Date: c. 1890-1958                    Extent: 26 boxes

The papers in the Cole collection include research for Professor Cole’s academic writings and many of the publications mentioned above, bibliographies and indexes relating to his library and bibliographic studies, and some personal papers and photographic material.


  • A full description of the archive collection is available on our online database.
  • A handlist for the whole archive collection is available here.


  • Papers relating to Professor Francis Cole in the University History Collection and the Zoology Department records (MS 5501).
  • Photographs of Professor Francis Cole and the Zoology department within the University photograph collection (MS 5305).
  • Catalogues of the Cole Museum (MS 5486).