Huxley | Thomas Henry | 1825-1895 | man of science

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), popularly known as 'Darwin's Bulldog' because of his defence of the theories of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), was a much more complex person than this simplistic image of an unquestioning defender of Darwinism would suggest. Though his father was a school mathematics teacher and assistant headmaster, Huxley had little formal schooling (by some accounts, no more than two years in all), and he was largely self-taught. His talent for drawing, which was useful to him in later life when describing the animals he investigated, was already clear when he was a child. He had initially hoped to study mechanical engineering, but was pressured by his family into studying medicine. Aged 14, Huxley attended a post-mortem, and seems to have caught a disease or poisoning (the nature of which is not known precisely) that affected his health for the rest of his life, requiring occasional recuperative trips to the countryside.

Huxley studied medecine at Charing Cross hospital, and graduated with an MB from the recently founded University of London in 1845. Soon after, he joined the Royal Navy, and was attached, first to HMS Victory (Nelson's ship) when he worked at Haslar hospital, then to HMS Rattlesnake. It was on this ship that he took part - officially as ship's surgeon - in the expedition of 1846-1850 to Torres Straights, near Australia. During this trip, with little equipment, Huxley studied the marine life of the region. One of his papers, on the subject of the organisms he had observed, was published in the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions while he was still in Australia, and, shortly after his return to Britain, the work he had carried out gained him election to the Royal Society. He took leave from the Navy to carry out scientific work, but he entered into argument with the navy over payment for his scientific work, and eventually left the forces, causing him financial trouble that was resolved when he was recruited by the Royal School of Mines (a precursor of modern-day Imperial College) as a lecturer in Natural History.

Huxley's scientific work can be defined as following three fairly distinct periods (though there is, of course some overlap). The first, carried out when he was studying, was in the field of human anatomy. During this period, he discovered a previously unknown layer in the root of hair, which is now know as Huxley's layer. The second period of work coincided largely with the expedition and its aftermath. The subject of study here was microscopic marine life. He reclassified hydroid polyps and medusae as belonging to one group, hydrozoa. The connection he made was based on their dual membrane structure, a feature he compared to the serous and mucous structures of embryos of higher animals. The animals he categorised thus form the core of the group now known as coelenterata. Later, he investigated the embryology of vertebrates, saying that investigating adult forms of animals is not sufficient to conclusively prove that two species are similar. Huxley insisted that it was necessary to examine the entire development of the animals from conception to make a proper judgement.

The third period of Huxley's scientific career is that which earned him his canine sobriquet which was related to Darwin's ground-breaking Origin of Species. Darwin and Huxley were good friends, and before the book's publication in 1859, Darwin sent Huxley the proof of his book, expecting considerable criticism. Unexpectedly, Huxley praised the book enthusiastically and, presciently, warned Darwin of the coming wrath of the creationists. Huxley was, however, not completely unthinking in his praise, in 1862, in his address to the Geological Society, he announced that he saw natural selection as a hypothesis, as there was not yet any evidence of specialisation of animals through the eras, which the theory of natural selection predicted. This was in line with his agnosticism, a word he coined (though he did not mean it in today's strictly religious sense of the word, rather he took it to mean scepticism of that which cannot be proved, allied with acceptance of what can be scientifically proven). After the Origin of Species publication, the controversy Huxley had predicted materialised, and he took a large part in it, publishing justifications of the theory. He also, notoriously, engaged in a feud against naturalist Richard Owen (1804-1892) and his acolyte, Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873), Bishop of Oxford, at the 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which he comprehensively won, by pointing out the Bishop's scientific blunders and attacking their attempt to pervert science.

Owen's contestation of Darwin was not in fact over the entire contents of Darwin's book, but over the idea (only hinted at in the Origin of Species) that man was descended from apes. Owen argued, with some evidence from studies of primates' and humans' brains, that the differences between humans and apes are greater than the difference between apes and the lower primates. He was effectively arguing that men were not descended from apes. Through experiments, Huxley eventually proved that Owen was mistaken, and that there was overwhelming evidence to suggest humans were in the same zoological group as apes and other primates. By 1870, Huxley was fully convinced by the theory of evolution, and retracted his statement of eight years earlier to the Geological Society. Palaeontological evidence of the specialisation of horses' feet had been found in the change in the structure of their feet from toes to hooves.

Huxley also carried out some palaeontological work himself, primarily on the devonian fish Agassiz had investigated, correcting some of his work. This fell into the Darwinist period of his life.

Huxley took an active interest in education, being an influential member of the School Board of London, in which he argued the case for liberal education. Interestingly, despite his scepticism of religion, he supported teaching of the Bible in schools, though as a moral work, piece of good literature and moral basis of British society, rather than as instruction in religion. He also frequently delivered lectures to working mens' classes. He firmly believed that even complex ideas could be communicated to the vast majority of the population if explained properly. Some of his best lectures are said to have been for these groups.

He had much faith in science and scientists, and once said, that "The man of science is the sworn interpreter of nature in the highest court of reason". This trust of what could be scientifically proved formed the basis of agnosticism (in his sense of the word) as much as the scepticism for all that could not be proved to his satisfaction.

Relationships

Thomas Henry Huxley was a personal friend and professional defender of Charles Darwin and had a close associate of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker. His son, Leonard Huxley, was a biographer and grandchildren Aldous Huxley, Julian Huxley and Andrew Fielding Huxley all gained fame. Aldous Huxley was the author of many books, including science-fiction novel Brave New World, Julian Huxley was a biologist and philosopher, and secretary-general of UNESCO and Andrew Fielding Huxley was a physiologist

Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

Zoological Evidences as to Man's Place in Nature, (1863)

On the Causes of Phenomena of Organic Nature, (1863)

Elementary Lessons in Physiology, ( 1866)

Manual of the Comparative Anatomy of Vertebrated Animals, (1871)

Elementary Biology, (1875)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1845: Awarded Batchelor of Medicine (MB) degree, University of London

1851: Elected Fellow of the Royal Society

1854: Appointed Lecturer in Natural History, Government School of Mines

1855: Appointed Naturalist to the Geological Society

1863-1869: Appointed Hunterian Professor at the Royal College of Surgeons

1855-1858: Appointed Fullerian Professor at the Royal Institution

1870-1872: Appointed Member of the School Board of London

1883-1885: Elected President of the Royal Society

1892: Appointed Privy Councillor

1869-1870: Elected President of the Geological Society

Notes

List of sources for the biographical information:

Concise Dictionary of National Biography, ( London (England), Oxford University Press, 1992)

Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol 11, (Chicago, William Benton, 1964)

Gillispie, CC, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol IV, (New York (New York, United States), Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972)