Following Donkin’s trail to Sunderland

Details of Arthur Scott Donkin are annoyingly scant.   Maybe a trained historian would have a better idea of how to search local archives but that would have taken more time than I have available. His life is a curiously silent episode between that of his father (see previous post and reference below) and his son, John, who went to Canada and wrote a memoir of his time in the North West Mounted Police.

Though Donkin taught Medical Jurisprudence at King’s College, Newcastle (now Newcastle University), I could find no publications by him that were relevant to this topic. The catalogue at the Newcastle University records two medical publications suggesting an interest in obstetrics and gynaecology, along with two publications on diatoms. The latter, I presume, represent his hobby rather than his professional output (see “”In Our Time” looks at the history of the microscope”) though there were, at the same time, medics wondering whether there was a link between freshwater life (including algae) and public health (see “Little bugs have littler bugs upon their backs to bite ‘em …”).

The final stage of my journey in pursuit of Arthur Scott Donkin brought me to a street close to the docks in Sunderland, about 15 km from Newcastle, on a summer’s evening. The North Sea was visible in the gaps between houses whilst seagulls circled overhead.   Now the street includes motor repair shops, hand car washes, a dance workshop, a graphic design studio and a martial arts centre but it is easy to imagine the houses here (dating from the turn of the 19th century) as respectable town houses befitting an experienced doctor. Quite how Donkin had ended up in Sunderland, rather than in Newcastle or closer to his family in Northumberland remains a mystery but it was at 30 Villiers Street, opposite a Presbyterian Church and a synagogue, that Donkin was living at the time of his death.

Maybe there are more details of Donkin’s life out there waiting to be discovered. His collections went to the Natural History Museum in London, so it may be worth searching there for hints of the man who collected the samples. I suspect that, at best, we’ll come up with the administrative outlines of a middle-class life, leaving much of his character to be coloured in by conjecture.   He has a fame, of sorts, as his name is the taxonomic authority that should be quoted every time one of the most common diatoms in Europe is reported in a scientific paper. Yet, beyond this, his life remains an enigma, a flame that flickered briefly through the late nineteenth century and then faded and died.


30 Villiers Street, Sunderland: the last home of Arthur Scott Donkin.


Donkin, A.S. (1863). The pathological relation between albuminuria and puerperal mania. Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh

Donkin, A.S. (1863). On the physiological action of the uterus in parturition : read before the physiological section of the British Association at Newcastle, 31st August, 1863 … Publisher unknown.

Donkin, J.G. (1889). Trooper and Redskin in the Far North West. Recollections of Life in the North-West Mounted Police, Canada, 1884-1888.  Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, London.

Donkin, S. (1886). Reminiscences of Samuel Donkin ; of Northumbrian & Border Character, and of Local and General Topics, Social and Political, Since the Dawn of the Present Century. Newcastle.