A new study suggests the lock of William Smith’s hair, one of the Geological Society’s treasures, may not be what it seems.
The hair, preserved in the frame of Smith’s portrait in the Society’s entrance hall, was sent for chemical analysis, ahead of the 2015 celebrations for the bicentenary of Smith’s famous geological map of England and Wales.
Smith published the map, the first geological map of a complete country, in 1815, and has since become known as ‘The Father of English Geology’.
Dr Avril Foley of the University of Limerick, who performed the study, said ‘chemical analysis of the supposed hair of the great William Smith reveals high potassium concentration, suggesting that it is in fact the hair of a badger, cut from a shaving brush.
‘Shaving soap is high in potassium, because unlike normal soap, sodium stearate, it contains potassium stearate.’
Some time in the nineteenth century, when the portrait was reframed, it is thought the framer may have lost the original hair, and replaced it with his shaving brush, in an effort to evade detection.
Other theories implicate the Geological Society’s own library, which uses similar shaving brushes to dust its books. Former librarian Dr Vileda Mophead was dismissed from her post in the mid 1950s when several items in the Society’s archive were found to have been sold to private collectors, in order to finance an out of control pineapple habit.