From the Archives: the mystery of the missing manuscript

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Title page to Falkner's book

The 30th January marks the anniversary of the death of Fr Thomas Falkner SJ at Norton, Shropshire, in 1784. Author of the book ‘Description of Patagonia and the adjoining parts of South America’ (accessible by clicking here), Falkner spent 38 years in South America and his medical and scientific expertise lead him to be considered a “latter-day Galen” by his contemporaries. Information about Falkner is pretty limited but my preliminary reading included a brief Wikipedia entry that made several intriguing assertions about his life and work: that he had studied medicine under the eminent doctor Richard Mead, a significant figure in the work towards understanding transmissible disease; that he was the first European to discover a fossil in Argentina, predating by decades the discovery of a fossilised megatherium described by Georges Cuvier in 1796; and that Lake Falkner in Argentina is named after him. Furthermore, nearly all references to him mentioned the fact that he had written a number of medico-botanical treatises that had been greatly prized but had all subsequently been lost.  I therefore decided to search our collections for any primary sources that might be a link to Falkner and (unsuccessfully) tried not to get too carried away with notions of discovering a long-lost text amongst our collections.


Alas, my search for Falkner’s lost manuscripts amongst our collection was unsuccessful. However, the Jesuit Archives did hold a number of letters that are significant to both the beginning and, possibly, the end of the “mystery” of the missing works.

In the first instance are letters from John Thorpe SJ in Rome to Charles Plowden SJ in England dating from the 1780s. Amongst these letters are a series of enquiries by Thorpe, on behalf of Jesuits expelled from South America and resident in Rome, as to the whereabouts of any and all of the works of Falkner, especially ‘American distempers cured by American Drugs’: “F. Tho. Falkner’s death has been notified to his Spanish and American confreres; they had much regard for him and...desire me to enquire about the writings and valuable papers which they suppose him to have had; among these they specify a large collection (4 vols. In folio) of Botanical, Mineral and like observations made by himself on the products of America”. Four years later Thorpe wrote again on the same subject, “Our S. American exiles express concern at nothing of F. Falkner’s writings being recoverable”.

So it would appear that, at least as far as these interested Jesuits were concerned, Falkner’s works were lost almost immediately upon his death, and 20th and 21st century commentators, such as Miguel de Asua and Fr Caraman, have taken this view as well.
However, it is just possible that a final chapter in the mystery of Falkner’s missing works must be written. In November 1976 a correspondent of Fr Caraman, whose signature is illegible, sent him a letter accompanied by two memoranda concerning Falkner and his lost works. The author of the letter writes to Caraman, who had recently published a book on the Jesuits in Paraguay, ‘The Lost Paradise: an account of the Jesuits in Paraguay 1607-1768’, with a number of interesting claims and conclusions. Firstly, the author writes that Falkner’s “birth certificate spells his name Ffalkner but he wrote it Falconer and this is how it appears in the various Cordoba College and Cabildo records”, and that “I have a specimen of his handwriting in which he signs: ...Falconer”. Incredibly, the author then states that he has “a small piece of, I presume, Fr F’s soutane”.

The two memoranda are concerned with the lost works and transcripts of Falkner documents found in the library of Plowden Hall, Falkner’s last chaplaincy. Having had the opportunity to examine the library at Plowden Hall at leisure the letter’s author claims that, “discoveries of the greatest importance in 18th century writings in the River Plate have come to light”. In a document entitled “The Missing Manuscripts of Father Thomas Falkner SJ” the correspondent argues that, far from being lost, Falkner’s ‘Treatise of American distempers cured by American drugs’ is actually amongst the Plowden material under the title ‘Medicina Static’ and is made up of three dissertations. Furthermore, another text, previously considered lost, resides there too, ‘Sobre la Anatoma del Cuerpo Humano’. In the second memorandum the author states, “[t]he manuscripts bear no date, give no indication as to authorship or where they were written, but having compared the handwriting with a fragment of Father Falkner’s, in my possession, and with evidence of his contemporaries who describe the nature and titles of the work with considerable lucidity I am ready to asseverate that these are some of the Father’s heretofore missing manuscripts”.

It would appear that Fr Caraman evidently did not feel that these arguments carried much weight as, in 1998, he would maintain that ‘Treatise on American distempers...’ and three other works were all lost. Miguel de Asua concurs.

Despite this, however, the mystery remains, and, whilst it is likely that the lost works will remain lost until the documents of Plowden Hall can be accessed again, it is very clear that Fr Thomas Falkner was an extraordinarily talented individual who led an extraordinary life. He was a Jesuit, missionary, doctor, botanist, author of feted and possibly lost works, and clearly a well-liked and highly respected individual. Not to mention explorer and pioneer, complete with a comically repulsive story of a pioneer’s hardships,   “Dobrishoffer speaks of Falkner, and relates an amusing incident of his hat, in which he used to boil his meat, till it became so saturated with grease, that the dog ate it in one night” (Foley, Henry, Records of the English Province of the Society of Jesus, Volume VII, (Burns and Oates, 1882), 243-244.).

Will Man, Archives Assistant