Carpenter | William Benjamin | 1813-1885 | naturalist botanist

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

William Benjamin Carpenter, leading light among early naturalists, was born in Exeter on 29 October 1813, and died in London19 November 1885. He attended his father's school in Bristol, and then apprenticed himself to local medical man John Bishop Estlin. Carpenter saw the West Indies as a companion to a patient, then in 1835 entered University College, London and the Royal College of Surgeons for formal training of his own. His M.D. finally came from the University of Edinburgh in 1839. This he took to Bristol, to try clinical medicine for a few years, but decamped quickly for London, to take up academic appointments at University College, the Royal Institution, and the London Hospital. For the next four decades he researched and published prodigiously, in fields as far apart as mental physiology, microscopy, marine biology, and religion.

He was justly influential. His first contribution was on the function of the ventral cord ganglia of the arthropods. His next was a controversial notion of "unconscious cerebration", in which the physiology of thought and feeling takes place in the brain. Colleagues who disapproved of "Brain-change" postulated reflex actions to stimuli elsewhere in the body instead. Following one corollary of Brain-change, Carpenter prefigured Pavlovian behaviourists, thinking it possible to train animals and children with a battery of the right "motives". Thinking in wider terms, he found he could lend most of his weight to Darwin and his evolutionary principles, which pleased Darwin very much. He also did a great deal to elevate the teaching of science in universities, and, with the famous Gilchrist lectures, to extend science to the very working classes. His later achievements were in marine zoology, where he described and classified the Foraminifera, ancient and living, laid out a pioneering doctrine of general oceanic circulation, and read a series of startling papers on the animal nature of Eozoon canadense. Dr Carpenter, erstwhile clinician, founded a Marine Biological Assocation, with a productive laboratory on Plymouth Sound.


Johannes Muller was the physiologist who translated Carpenter's influental graduate thesis in 1840, on the invertebrate ventral cord ganglia. Thomas Laycock was the physiologist who claimed priority in the idea of Brain-change. John Stuart Mill affirmed the reasonableness of Brain-change as a physiological construct; Sir William Hamilton thought it made better sense metaphysically. Charles Darwin was gratified by Carpenter's overall approval of his principles of natural selection. The educationalist Herbert Spencer welcomed Carpenter's ideas on the teaching of science. Charles Wyville Thomson, Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh, collaborated with Carpenter in dredging operations off the Scottish and Irish coasts, and in publishing their findings on the Crinoidea. The two men also worked together in planning the government-sponsored scientific voyage of H.M.S. Challenger (1873-1876). Carpenter's younger brother, Philip Pearsall, was a famous conchologist. One of the five sons produced by Carpenter's marriage to Louisa Powell in 1840 was Philip Herbert, a master at Eton and a zoologist, who assisted his father and wrote extensively on fossils himself.

Carpenter the staunch religionist (his essay topics included teetotalism and scriptural problems with Darwinism) was the son of Dr Lant Carpenter, a Unitarian minister. Carpenter the social activist had a sister, Mary, who helped found the ragged school movement.

Other Significant Information

Notable publication:

On the Physiological Inferences to Be Deduced From the Structure of the Nervous System in the Invertebrate Classes of Animals, ( Edinburgh1839)

Principles of General and Comparitive Physiology , (London1839)

The Microscope and Its Revelations , ( London1856)

Zoology. A Systematic Account of the General Structure, Habits, Instincts and Uses of the Principal Families of the Animal Kingdom , (London1857)

Introduction to the Study of the Foraminifera , (London1862)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1835: Admitted to the Royal College of Surgeons

1839: Awarded an M.D. from the University of Edinburgh

1844: Elected Fellow of the Royal Society

1845: Appointed Fullerian Professor of Physiology at the Royal Institution

1845: Appointed Professor of Forensic Medicine at University College

1845: Appointed Lecturer in Physiology at the London Hospital

1856-79: Served as Registrar of London University

1861: Made Royal Medalist in the Royal Society

1879: Elected to London University Senate

1879: Created Companion of the Order of the Bath


List of sources for the biographical information:

Gillespie, CC, ed, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, (New York, Scribner's, 1970-1990), s.v. "Carpenter, William Benjamin" by K. Bryn Thomas