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Biographical entry Huxley, Thomas Henry (1825 - 1895)

MRCS May 8th 1862; FRCS (elected as a Member of twenty years' standing) April 20th 1883; MB Lond (with Gold Medal in Anatomy and Physiology) 1845; FRS 1851; President RS 1881-1885.

4 May 1825
29 June 1895
General surgeon and Naturalist


Born at Ealing on May 4th, 1825, the seventh surviving and youngest child of George Huxley and Rachel Withers. His father was senior assistant master in a private school of good standing kept by Dr Nicholas, of Wadham College, Oxford. The school numbered Cardinal Newman and his brother Francis William among 'old boys'. Huxley believed himself to be mentally and physically his mother's son, but deriving from his father some hot temper and tenacity of purpose. He had little systematic education until 1839, but two sisters having married doctors, one brother-in-law, Dr Cooke, of Coventry, excited his interest in anatomy, and the other, John Scott, in Camden Town, took him as apprentice in 1841 after he had served for a year with Thomas Chandler, the parish doctor at Rotherhithe. Somehow he got poisoned at the first post-mortem examination he attended, from which there started a lifelong dyspepsia. He matriculated in 1842, and having begun to learn German through Carlyle's books, he read about Schleiden's discoveries whilst attending Lindley's lectures on botany at Chelsea and gained a silver medal at the Society of Apothecaries. In the autumn of 1842 he and his elder brother James gained entrance scholarships at Charing Cross Hospital. This brought him under Wharton Jones (qv), Lecturer on Physiology, concerning whom Huxley said: "I do not know that I have ever felt so much respect for anybody as a teacher before or since." He worked very hard at all subjects during the next three years, and graduated MB in 1845, with the Gold Medal in Anatomy and Physiology. He then applied for appointment in the Royal Navy, and was sent to Haslar Hospital on the books of HMS Victory. There followed a Commission as Assistant Surgeon to HMS Rattlesnake (Captain Owen Stanley), just sailing to survey the seas between Australia and the Great Barrier Reef. The Rattlesnake left Chatham on Dec 8th, 1846, and was paid off on her return to Chatham on Nov 9th, 1850. During the voyage Huxley devoted himself to the examination of the perishable objects which could not then be adequately preserved and await examination at home.

He initiated the working principle of giving attention to the structural characters common to the members of the particular group of animals, as well in the embyronic as in the adult state - observations admitting of being tested and corrected. Owen was then advocating a morphological, predetermined archetype, following Oken. Until the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, Huxley, in agreement with Johannes Muller and von Baer, regarded as premature, hypotheses as to the connection between various groups. He sent Memoirs to the Royal Society, in particular concerning the Medusa:, was elected FRS in 1851, and awarded the Royal Society Medal in 1852. The Admiralty continued his appointment as Assistant Surgeon to a ship stationed at Woolwich, which left him free to pursue research into the material which had been collected, especially on the Mollusca. The School of Mines had opened in November, 1851, and Edward Forbes, naturalist (1815-1854) (Dict Nat Biog), was lecturing there when he was elected Professor of Natural History at Edinburgh. Huxley undertook to finish the course, and in July, 1854, was himself elected Lecturer, the small salary being supplemented by another small one as Naturalist to the Geological Survey.

During the visit of the Rattlesnake to Sydney, Huxley had become engaged to Miss H A Heathorne. She with her parents had arrived in London, and the marriage took place in July, 1854. In this same year he began his career as a reformer of education by the lecture "On the Educational Value of the Natural History Sciences" (Collected Essays, iii, 38).

The lecture, and others later, concerned the fundamental unity of method in all sciences, the value of that method in the affairs of daily life, and its importance as a moral and intellectual discipline. Physiological science, the knowledge of nature, he said, should be a part of the curriculum of education. He developed the model, which future teachers of biology have imitated, of a careful selection of a small series of animals, so that the student could himself test a general statement concerning structure by learning to know one member of a group. Meanwhile he arranged a Museum of Palaeontology, which, begun by the Geological Society in Jermyn Street, was the forerunner of the Natural History Museum. The publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 was a great event. Teaching had necessarily concentrated itself upon structure; Darwin set out a rational hypothesis on transmutation which raised the study of function to the level of that of structure. Huxley followed with a series of lectures at the South London Working Men's College "On the Causes of the Phenomena of Organic Nature", 1863, also "On a Liberal Education and where to Find it" (Collected Essays, iii). At the London Institution in 1869 he gave a course of lectures on physiography, published in book form. In general he upheld the ancient sceptics and the modern Descartes, in placing doubt at a high level - healthy, active doubt, tireless in pursuit of further knowledge, freedom of thought combined with advancement of knowledge.

From 1863-1869 he was Hunterian Professor at the Royal College of Surgeons and, simultaneously between 1863 and 1867, he was Fullerian Professor at the Royal Institution. At the College of Surgeons he elaborated the "Theory of the Vertebrate Skull" which had been the subject of his Croonian Lecture in 1858, the classification of animals, the comparative anatomy of vertebrates, largely based upon specimens in the Collections of the College, upon which he spent a long time in dissecting and making notes and drawings. In 1867 he lectured on ornithology, the classification of birds, and their relation to fossil reptiles, making the great advance upon that subject since the days of Buffon. His Manual of the Comparative Anatomy of Vertebrates (1871) is a condensed summary of his lectures at the College. The Manual of the Comparative Anatomy of Invertebrated Animals (1877) is likewise a condensed summary of lectures, but is not nearly so good.

In 1870 the School Board for London was instituted, and Huxley became one of the first members. He advocated the study of the Bible "with such grammatical, geographical, and historical explanations by a lay teacher as may be needful"; and he held that the elements of physical science, with drawing, modelling, and singing, afforded the best means of intellectual training in schools. At later stages education should supply a theory of life based on clear knowledge alike of its possibilities and of its limitations. On the other hand, an acquaintance restricted to the useful results of scientific work was not of general educational value. He classed medicine along with law and theology among technical specialties. In medicine Huxley's influence may be noted in the institution, preceding the study of anatomy and physiology, of a preliminary scientific examination by the universities, as well as under the supervision of the General Medical Council; also in the examination of the Conjoint Board of the Royal Colleges in elementary chemistry, physics, anatomy, and physiology (1884), in elementary chemistry, physics, and biology (1892).

Huxley acted as one of the two secretaries of the Royal Society from 1871, and also served upon Royal Commissions: upon the administration of the Contagious Diseases Acts, 1870-1871; on scientific instruction and the advancement of sciences, 1870-1871; on the practice of subjecting live animals to experiments for scientific progress, 1870; and on the Medical Acts, 1881-1882.

Digestive difficulties increased so as to impair his health, and, elected President of the Royal Society in 1881, he was forced to retire in 1885. Sedentary occupation, aggravated by an attack of pleurisy, induced cardiac mischief; he was obliged to reduce work and take holidays. In 1890 he left London and lived at Eastbourne, but in 1892 and 1893 he was able to concern himself with the affairs of the University of London, and in 1893 he gave the Romanes Lecture at Oxford on "Evolution and Ethics". Influenza in the winter of 1894 induced further trouble in the kidneys. He died at Eastbourne on June 29th, 1895, and was buried at Finchley. There are several good portraits, paintings, engravings, prints, and photographs in the College Collection. The best portrait was painted in 1883 by his son-in-law, the Hon John Collier, and is in the National Portrait Gallery. The bust in the Museum by Forsyth and Monti was presented by Sir William Flower. He was survived by his widow, by two sons - Leonard, author of the Life and Letters of T H Huxley (2 vols, 1900), and Henry, MRCS, who practised at Porchester Terrace - and by four daughters. Of his grandsons, Julian Sorel (b1887) achieved distinction as a biologist and Aldous Leonard (b1894) as an essayist. In addition to the Life and Letters by his son, there are his Collected Essays in six volumes, and the article by Professor W F R Weldon, FRS, in vol xxii (supplement) of the Dictionary of National Biography.

Huxley, like Darwin, Hooker, and Tyndall, was outstanding in science during the middle of the Victorian period in England. He was facile princeps as a teacher and as an expositor. As a teacher he founded a school of which the most brilliant members were Francis Balfour, H N Moseley, E Ray Lankester, and H N Martin. From this school came biology as a science, taught by dissection and observation, dealing little if at all with theory. A clear and absolutely honest thinker, Huxley carried his ideas to a logical conclusion expressed in such simple terms that it was impossible to confute or get round them. He was aggressive in the pursuit of truth, and those who thought confusedly or were shifty received little consideration at his hands. But he was more than a scientific teacher of scientific men, he was a great exponent of biology and physiology explained in such plain and easy language as could be understood by all who had received the rudiments of a liberal education.

Huxley received many honours in addition to those already mentioned. He was awarded the Copley Medal by the Royal Society in 1888 and the Darwin Medal in 1894. He was Lord Rector of the University of Aberdeen from 1872-1875; LLD of Edinburgh, Dublin, and Cambridge; DCL Oxford; and Corresponding Member of the French Academy of Sciences. Breslau, W├╝rzburg, Erlangen, and Bologna also conferred upon him their honorary degrees.

Amongst Huxley's many contributions to literature perhaps the one best known to the students of medicine and science was the Elementary Lessons in Physiology. It first appeared in 1886 and was reprinted at least thirty times.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Dict Nat Biog, sub nomine et auct ibi cit. The Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, by his son Leonard Huxley, 2 vols, 1900. It contains portraits and a full list of the published works. Thomas Henry Huxley, by Leonard Huxley, LLD, in "Life Stories of Famous Men", London, 1920, also with portraits. Personal knowledge].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England