Monday, February 18, 2008

Thomas Henry Huxley

I've just been reading the Wiki about TH Huxley, "Darwin's Bulldog", and his early life makes a fascinating read:-

Huxley, born in Ealing, then a village in Middlesex, was the second youngest of eight children of George Huxley and Rachel Withers. Like some other British scientists of the nineteenth century such as Alfred Russel Wallace, Huxley was brought up in a literate middle-class family. The elder Huxley was a mathematics teacher at Ealing School until it closed,[2] putting the family into financial difficulties. As a result, Thomas left school at 10, after only two years of formal schooling.

Despite this unenviable start, Huxley was determined to educate himself. He became one of the great autodidacts of the nineteenth century. At first he read Thomas Carlyle, James Hutton's Geology, Hamilton's Logic. In his teens he taught himself German, eventually becoming fluent and used by Charles Darwin as a translator of scientific material in German. He learnt Latin, and enough Greek to read Aristotle in the original.

Later on, as a young adult, he made himself an expert first on invertebrates, and later on vertebrates, all self-taught. He was skilled in drawing, and did many of the illustrations for his publications on marine invertebrates. In his later debates and writing on science and religion his grasp of theology was better than most of his clerical opponents. So, a boy who left school at ten became one of the most knowledgeable men in Britain.[3][4]

He was apprenticed for short periods to several medical practitioners: at 13 to his brother-in-law John Cooke in Coventry, who passed him on to Thomas Chandler, notable for his experiments using mesmerism for medical purposes. Chandler's practice was in London's Rotherhithe amidst the squalor endured by the Dickensian poor. Here Thomas would have seen poverty, crime and rampant disease at its worst.[5] Next, another brother-in-law took him on: John Salt, his eldest sister's husband. Now 16, Huxley entered Sydenham College (behind University College Hospital), a cut-price anatomy school whose founder Marshall Hall discovered the reflex arc. All this time Huxley continued his program of reading, which more than made up for his lack of formal schooling.

A year later, buoyed by excellent results and a silver medal prize in the Apothecaries' yearly competition, Huxley was admitted to study at Charing Cross Hospital, where he obtained a small scholarship. At Charing Cross, he was taught by the remarkable Scot, Thomas Wharton Jones, who had been Robert Knox's assistant when Knox bought cadavers from Burke and Hare:

Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox, the boy who buys the beef!

The young Wharton Jones, who acted as go-between, was exonerated of crime, but thought it best to leave Scotland. He was a fine teacher, up-to-date in physiology and also an ophthalmic surgeon. In 1845, under Wharton Jones' guidance, Huxley published his first scientific paper demonstrating the existence of a hitherto unrecognized layer in the inner sheath of hairs, a layer that has been known since as Huxley's layer. No doubt remembering this, and of course knowing his merit, later in life Huxley organised a pension for his old tutor.

At twenty he passed his First M.B. examination at the University of London, winning the gold medal for anatomy and physiology. However, he did not present himself for the final (2nd M.B.) exams and consequently did not qualify with a university degree. His apprenticeships and exam results formed a sufficient basis for his application to the Royal Navy.[6][7]

Aged 20, Huxley was too young to apply to the Royal College of Surgeons for a licence to practice, yet he was 'deep in debt'.[8] So, at a friend's suggestion, he applied for an appointment in the Royal Navy. He had references on character and certificates showing the time spent on his apprenticeship and on requirements such as dissection and pharmacy. Sir William Burnett, the Physician General of the Navy, interviewed him and arranged for the College of Surgeons to test his competence (by means of a viva voce).

HMS Rattlesnakeby the ship's artist Oswald Brierly
HMS Rattlesnake

by the ship's artist Oswald Brierly

Finally Huxley was made Assistant Surgeon ('surgeon's mate') to HMS Rattlesnake, about to start for a voyage of discovery and surveying to New Guinea and Australia. Rattlesnake left England on December 3, 1846 and, once they had arrived in the southern hemisphere, Huxley devoted his time to the study of marine invertebrates.[9] He began to send details of his discoveries back to England, where publication was arranged by Edward Forbes FRS (who had also been a pupil of Knox).

What a life!


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