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February 8: If I Were a Rothschild

February 8, 2015


Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild, founder of the Rothschild Natural History Museum in London and owner of one of the largest collections of specimens in the world — including 2,250,000 butterflies and 30,000 beetles — was born on this date in 1868. The eldest son and heir of banker Nathan Rothschild, the first Jewish baron in England, Rothschild worked in the family business for nearly twenty years but with complete uninterest. In 1908 he was finally permitted to pursue his passion — his parents footed the bill to establish the museum — and despite frail health, he became the world’s most prolific collector (or mass slaughterer, depending on your perspective) of creatures, hiring explorers, taxidermists, scientists and artists to help him. Today there are 153 insects, 58 birds, 17 mammals, three fish, three spiders, two reptiles, one millipede, and one worm species named for Rothschild, who willed his collection to the British Museum before his death in 1938. It was the Baron Rothschild to whom the letter known as the Balfour Declaration, giving British support to the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine, was addressed in 1917.

“If I were a Rothschild, ah, if I were only Rothschild ... I would take my Sabbath gabardine out of pawn — or, better still, my wife’s squirrel-skin coat.” —Sholem Aleichem