Thomas Henry Huxley (4th May 1825 – 29th June 1895)

Thomas Henry Huxley
Thomas Huxley was an English biologist and polymath who was born on this day in 1825. He is best known as “Darwin’s bulldog” – and supported the theory of evolution in a famous debate with Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford in 1860. Huxley was a marine biologist, palaeontologist and comparative anatomist of high repute, who laid the taxonomic foundations for the Phylum Cnidaria and uncovered the link between birds and dinosaurs (amongst other things). He also invented the word ‘agnostic’ and wrote on capitalism, racial inequality and Rome’s Pantheon. Huxley probably did more than anyone to establish the legitimacy of the role of science in the British school system, saying that science should simply be seen as “organised common sense”.

Huxley’s father was a maths teacher in Ealing School and Huxley, who was one of eight children, had to leave school at the age of 10 when the school closed. He then set out to educate himself, and taught himself German as well as reading James Hutton on geology and becoming an expert in theology. He started training as a medic and got taken on in the British Navy as an assistant surgeon on HMS Rattlesnake for her voyage to New Guinea and Australia – from where Huxley sent back reports on various marine invertebrates.

On his return Huxley was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1854 became Professor of Natural History at the Royal School of Mines. He married Henrietta Heathorn in 1855, and they had 8 children together. After 30 years or so of active research and service in various learned societies and on government commissions, he resigned his chair in 1885 after a bout of depressive illness (also having to give up the presidency of the Royal Society and the Inspectorship of Fisheries). He died of a heart attack in 1895 after suffering from influenza and pneumonia. Of Huxley’s grandsons, Aldous was a famous author (Brave New World 1932), Sir Julian became an FRS and the first Director of UNESCO, and Sir Andrew was an FRS and won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1963.

The Oxford Debate of 1860

Huxley was initially sceptical about the concept of evolution, but was eventually persuaded by the arguments of Charles Darwin, and famously responded to an explanation of the theory of natural selection "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!". Huxley went on to argue strongly that humans were Primates and thus shared a common ancestor with other apes.

Oxford University Natural History Museum
On Friday 29th June 1860 Huxley was persuaded to stay on in Oxford for a day longer than he had planned, in order to attend a debate at the British Association meeting being held in the University’s Museum Building. Arguing against evolution was “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce the Lord Bishop of Oxford, who was being advised by Huxley's life long scientific opponent Sir Richard Owen (of dinosaur fame). At one point Wilberforce felt moved to get a cheap laugh by asking Huxley whether he claimed descent from an ape on his mother’s side or his father’s side. Although there is no verbatim record of his reply, Huxley is believed to have muttered “the Lord hath delivered him into my hands” before replying that if the question put to him is would he rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet who employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, he would unhesitatingly affirm his preference for the ape!

The fallout from this exchange helped to announce the arrival of Darwinian ideas to a broader public, and to weaken the hold of the Anglican Church on British society.


SW said…
A real forgotten hero of science and science education.
The Oxford Natural History Museum (which, by the way, is up there with Dublin as one of the best in the world, in my view) has a little plaque on the door of the room where the debate took place. Very low key, but effective.
Humphrey said…

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