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Call to honour ‘forgotten’ bishop who changed course of scientific history

A depiction of Bishop Robert Grosseteste in stained glass

An academic has called for the erection of a statue of Bishop Robert Grosseteste, the medieval thinker, in his home city of Lincoln.

Dr Jack Cunningham, a theology lecturer at Bishop Grosseteste University in the city, said a statue should be built to pay tribute to Britain’s forgotten scientist philosopher.

According to Dr Cunningham the 13th century scholar was ahead of his time and his ideas about the universe prefigured the Big Bang theory. He was also the first scientist to identify refraction as the cause of rainbows.

He was born in Suffolk in 1175, much of his life remains a mystery. By 1229 he was teaching at Oxford, where among the subjects he taught were the scientific method, the creation account of Genesis and the theological nature of truth. Roger Bacon was his most famous pupil.

AC Crombie, the 20th century historian of science, called Bishop Grosseteste “the real founder of the tradition of scientific thought in medieval Oxford, and in some ways, of the modern English intellectual tradition”.

This weekend, at the third international Robert Grosseteste Conference at the university that bears his name, Dr Cunningham was expected to launch his campaign with a petition.

He said: “Robert Grosseteste was undoubtedly the most eminent figure associated with our city. One of his most famous biographers, Sir Richard Southern, called him the greatest product of Oxford University.

“Grosseteste was revolutionary in the history of science because he knew that everything was about mathematics and that good scientists should base their knowledge on what they observe and not what they think. He has been called the founder of the tradition of scientific thought and a minor planet has even been named after him. And yet very few people have even heard of him.”