Doodle of John Tyndall (?)
CB Collection

Professor Tyndall

The Nineteenth Century (January 1894)

[1] Personal, like national, history has its epochs; brief seasons, during which life is fuller than usual, and the present is more obviously pregnant with the future than at other times. For me, the year 1851 constitutes such an epoch. In November 1850, I had returned to England after an absence, which not only extended over a considerable period of time, but covered the critical age of transition from adolescence to full manhood. In the course of these four years, largely spent in little-explored regions of the other side of the globe, I had been in the world as well as round it, and stored up varied experiences of things and men. Moreover, I had done some bits of scientific work which, as I was pleasantly surprised to learn on my return, were better thought of than I had, I will not say expected, but ventured to hope, when I sent them home; and they provided me with an introduction to the scientific society of London. I found the new world, into which I thus suddenly dropped, extremely interesting, and its inhabitants kindly disposed towards the intruder. The veterans were civil, the younger men cordial; and it speedily dawned upon my mind that I had found the right place for myself, if I could only contrive to stop in it. As time went on, I acted upon this conviction; and, fortune greatly aiding effort, the end of it was thirty odd years of pretty hard toil, partly as an investigator and teacher in one branch of natural knowledge, and partly as a half-voluntary, half compelled man-of-all-work for the scienticic household in general.

But the year 1851 has other and even stronger claims to be [2] counted an era in my existence. In the course of the twelve months after my return, I made acquaintances which rapidly ripened into friendships, knit with such strong bonds of mutual affection and mutual respect, that neither the ordinary vicissitudes of life, nor those oppositions in theory and practice which will arise among men of mental constitutions diverse in everything but strength of will, nor, indeed, any power short of almighty Death, has been able to sunder them from that time to this. And among those friends who, as the years rolled on,

. . . mir so oft

In Noth und Trübsal beigestanden,

to whom, indeed, I have found the old shikaree's definition of a friend, as 'a man with whom you can go tiger-hunting,' strictly applicable, almost the earliest was John Tyndall.

My elder by some five years, Tyndall's very marked and vigorous personality must have long taken its final set when we foregathered in 1851. The dyer's hand is subdued to that it works in; and, it may be, that much occupation with types of structure, elsewhere, is responsible for a habit of classifying men to which I was, and am, given. But I found my new friend a difficult subject –incertœ sedis, as the naturalists say; in other words, hard to get into any of my pigeon-holes. Before one knew him well, it seemed possible to give an exhaustive definition of him in a string of epigrammatic antitheses, such as those in which the older historians delight to sum up the character of a king or leading statesman. Impulsive vehemence was associated with a singular power of self-control and a deep-seated reserve, not easily penetrated. Free-handed generosity lay side by side with much tenacity of insistence on any right, small or great; intense self-respect and a somewhat stern independence, with a sympathetic geniality of manner, especially towards children, with whom Tyndall was always a great favourite. Flights of imaginative rhetoric, which amused (and sometimes amazed) more phlegmatic people, proceeded from a singularly clear and hard-headed reasoner, over-scrupulous, if that may be, about keeping within the strictest limits of logical demonstration; and sincere to the core. A bright and even playful companion, Tyndall had little of that quick appreciation of the humorous side of things in general, and of one's self in particular, which is as oil to the waves of life, and is a chief component of the worthier kind of tact; indeed, the best reward of the utterer of a small witicism, or play upon words, in his presence, was the blank, if benevolent, perplexity with which he received it. And I suppose that the character-sketch would be incomplete, without an explanation of its peculiarities by a reference to the mixture of two sets of hereditary tendencies, the one eminently Hibernian, the other derived from the stock of the English Bible translator and Reformer.

To those who have been privileged to become intimate with [3] Tyndall, however, sketch and explanation will seem alike inadequate. These superficial characteristics disappeared from view, as the powerful faculties and the high purposes of the mind, on the surface of which they played, revealed themselves. And to those who knew him best, the impression made by even these great qualities might well be less vivid than that left by the warmth of a tenderly affectionate nature.

'If I pull through this it will be all your care, all your doing.' These words (I give them from memory), uttered the night before his death, were meant for no ear but that of the tireless nurse, watcher, secretary, servant, in case of need, to whom they were addressed; and whose whole life had been, for many years, devoted to the one object of preserving that of her husband. Utterly hateful to me as are the violations of a privacy that should be sacred, now too common, I have sought and obtained permission to commit this, and take all responsibility for it. For the pitiful circumstances of Tyndall's death are known to all the world; and I think it well that all the world should be enabled to see those circumstances by the light which shines forth alike on the dead and on the living, from the poor crumpled piece of paper on which these treasured words were, at once, recorded.

But I have wandered far from the year 1851 and its nascent friendships.

At that time, Tyndall and I had long been zealous students of Carlyle's works. Sartor Resartus and the Miscellanies were among the few books devoured partly by myself, and partly by the mighty hordes of cockroaches in my cabin, during the cruise of theRattlesnake ; and my sense of obligation to their author was then, as it remains, extremely strong. Tyndall's appreciation of the seer of Chelsea was even more enthusiastic; and, in after-years, assumed a character of almost filial devotion. The grounds of our appreciation, however, were not exactly the same. My friend, I think, was disposed to regard Carlyle as a great teacher; I was rather inclined to take him as a great tonic; as a source of intellectual invigoration and moral stimulus and refreshment, rather than of theoretical or practical guidance. Half a century ago, the evangelical reaction which, for a time, had braced English society was dying out, and a scum of rotten and hypocritical conventionalism clogged art, literature, science, and politics. I might quarrel with something every few paragraphs, but passing from the current platitudes to Caryle's vigorous pages was like being transported from the stucco, pavement, and fog of a London street to one of his own breezy moors. The country was full of boulders and bogs, to be sure, and by no means calculated for building leases; but, oh the freshness and the freedom of it!

Our divergent appreciation of Carlyle foreshadowed the only serious strain to which our friendship was ever exposed. When the old Cavalier and Roundhead spirit woke up all over England about the [4] Jamaica revolt and Governor Eyre, I am afraid that, if things had been pushed to extremities over that unfortunate business, each of us would have been capable of sending the other to the block. But the sentence would have been accompanied by assurances of undiminished respect and affection; and I have faith that we should not have spoiled our lives by quarelling over the inevitable.

Carlyle's extraordinary peculiarities of style, even at his worst, were not, to me, the stumbling-blocks which they often proved to other people, who, in their irritation, would talk of them as affectations. Even admitting them to be indefensible, it seems to me that, if he is chargeable with affectation at all (and I do not think he is), it is rather when he writes the classical English, say, of theLife of Schiller. As anyone who ever heard Carlyle talk knows, the style natural to him was that ofThe Diamond Necklace.1 These observations have a bearing on the adverse criticisms of a like kind, to which Tyndall was sometimes subjected. Modes of speech and action which some called mannerisms, or even affectations, were, in fact, entirely natural; and showed themselves in full force, sometimes with a very droll effect, in the smallest gathering of intimate friends, or with one or two on a hillside, from whom abundant chaff was the only response likely to come. I say, once more, Tyndall was not merely theoretically, but practically, above all things sincere; the necessity of doing, at all hazards, that which he judged, rightly or wrongly, to be just and proper, was the dominant note of his character; and he was influenced by it in his manner of dealing with questions which might seem, to men of the world, hardly worth taking so seriously. Of the controversies in which he became involved, some of the most troublesome were undertaken on behalf of other people who, as he conceived, had been treated with injustice. The same instinct of veracity ran through all Tyndall's scientific work. That which he knew, he knew thoroughly, had turned over on all sides, and probed through and through. Whatever subject he took up, he never rested till he had attained a clear conception of all the conditions and processes involved, or had satisfied himself that it was not attainable. And in dealing with physical problems, I really think that he, in a manner, saw the atoms and molecules, and felt their pushes and pulls. A profound distrust of all long chains of deductive reasoning (outside mathematics), unless the links could be experimentally or observationally tested at no long intervals, was simply another manifestation of the same fundamental quality. I was not overburdened with love for such dialectic festoon-work myself, but I owe not a little to my friend for helping to abolish as much as remained.

[5] Once again, this quality of active veracity, the striving after knowledge as apart from hearsay, lay at the root of Tyndall's very remarkable powers of exposition, and of his wealth of experimental illustration. Hence, I take it, arose the guarded precision of the substance of a lecture or essay, which was often poetically rich, sometimes even exuberant, in form. In Sir Humphry Davy and Mr. Faraday the Royal Institution had possessed two unsurpassed models of the profound yet popular, expositor of science. Davy was before my time, but I have often had the delight of listening to Faraday. An ineradicable tendency to think of something else makes me an excellent test-object for oratory; and he was one of the few orators whom I have heard to whom I could not choose but listen. It was no mean ordeal, therefore, to which Tyndall was subjected when he was asked to give a 'Friday evening' in 1852; but he captured his hearers so completely that his appointment to the Fullerian Professoriate of Physics, with the use of a laboratory such as he needed for the original work he loved, soon followed. And for more than thirty years he held his own. From first to last, the announcement of a Friday evening by him meant a crammed theatre.

Sheridan's reply to the lady who told him that his writings were such charmingly easy reading -- 'Easy reading, madam, is damned hard writing'–has never got into the general mind; and very few of the thousands of delighted listeners, I imagine, ever had an inkling of what these facile discourses cost the lecturer. I used to suffer rather badly from 'lecture-fever' myself; but I never met with anyone to whom an impending discourse was the occasion of so much mental and physical disturbance, as it was to Tyndall. He was quite incapable of persuading himself, or of being persuaded by others, that, after all, a relative failure, now and then, was of no great consequence; indeed, from the point of view of pure art, might be desirable. Whatever he gave, it must be the best he had, whether it were a lecture or a dinner. Now that sort of housekeeping costs. But some think with Shakespeare:

The painful warrior, famoused for fight,

After a thousand victories, once foiled,

Is from the book of honour razèd quite,

And all the rest forgot for which he toiled.

And Tyndall was not minded to be forgot; at any rate, for that reason.

In the autumn of 1851, my friend and I went to the meeting of the British Association at Ipswich, as scientific 'items' not, indeed, wholly unknown to the 'pillars' of that scientific congregation; and perhaps already regarded as young men whose disposition to keep their proper places could not, under all circumstances, be relied upon. Being young with any amount of energy, no particular prospects, and no disposition to set about the ordinary methods of [6] acquiring them, we could conduct ourselves with perfect freedom; and we joined very cordially in the proceedings of the 'Red Lion Club,' of which I had become a member in London, and which had been instituted by that most genial of anti-Philistines, Edward Forbes, as a protest against Dons and Donnishness in science. With this object, the 'Red Lions' made a point of holding a feast of Spartan simplicity and anarchic constitution, with rites of a Pantagruelistic aspect, intermingled with extremely unconventional orations and queer songs, such as only Forbes could indite, by way of counterblast to the official banquets of the Association, with their high tables and what we irreverently termed 'butter-boat' speeches.

Fuimus! The last time I feasted with the 'Red Lions' I was a Don myself; the dinner was such as even daintier Dons than I might rejoice in; and I know of only one person who, under a grave, even reverend, exterior, lamented the evolution of 'Red Lionism' into respectability.

It was at the Ipswich meeting, that Tyndall and I fell in with Hooker, just returned from the labours and perils of his Himalayan expedition, and who was to make a third in the little company of those who were, thenceforward, to hold fast to one another through good and evil days. Frankland had long been a friend of Tyndall's, Lubbock soon joined us; and it was we four who stood, pondering over many things, in Haslemere Churchyard the other day.

Tyndall became permanently attached to the Royal Institution in 1853, while I cast anchor in Jermyn Street, not far off, in the following year. Before reaching this settlement, we had both done our best to expatriate ourselves by becoming candidates for the chairs of Physics and of Natural History in the University of Toronto, which happened to be simultaneously vacant. These, however, were provided with other occupants. The close relations into which we were thrown, on this and many subsequent occasions, had the effect of associating us in the public mind, as if we formed a sort of firm; with results which were sometimes inconvenient and sometimes ludicrous. When my wife and I went to the United States in 1876, for example, a New York paper was good enough to announce my coming, accompanied by my 'titled bride'–which was rather hard upon plain folk, married twenty-one years, and blessed with seven children to boot.2

My friend's exploits as a mountaineer are sufficient evidence of his extraordinary physical vigour. I could manage a fair day's work in reasonable up-and-down walking myself, but I lacked his caprine sureness of head and foot; and, when it came to climbing, I was nowhere beside him. By way of compensation, I stood the wear and tear [7] of London life better, though I had not much to boast of, even in that respect. From the first, Tyndall suffered from sleeplessness, with the nervous irritability which is frequently cause and consequence of that distressing malady. It is not uncommon for this state of the nervous system to find a vent in fits of ill-temper; but, looking back over all the long years of our close intercourse, I cannot call to mind any serious manifestations of that sort in my friend. Tyndall 'consumed his own smoke' better than most people, and though that faculty is worthy of the highest admiration, I suspect that the exercise of it tells a good deal upon the furnace. When things got bad with him, his one remedy was to rush off to the nearest hills and walk himself into quietude. Pleasant are the recollections, for me and others, of such hard tramps, it might be in the Lake country, or in the Isle of Wight; in the Peak of Derbyshire, or in Snowdonia. On such excursions Tyndall was the life of the party, content with everything and ready for anything, from philosophical discussion and high-flying poetics, to boyish pranks and gymnastic comicalities.

Sometimes we travelled further afield. Thus, in 1856, we made an expedition to Switzerland which had a large influence on Tyndall's future. In 1845, I had my first view of a glacier, at the head of the Lac de Gaube in the Pyrenees; and, when, ten years later, I was led to interest myself seriously in geology, in connection with the study of fossils, I read all I could lay hands on about these curious rivers of ice. At the same time, Tyndall was occupied with his important investigations into the effects of pressure in giving rise to lamination, and I naturally heard a good deal about what he was doing. It struck me that his work might throw some light upon the production of the veined structure of glacier ice; and one day, when he was dining with us, I mentioned the notion that had come into my head. The upshot was that we, then and there, agreed to go and look into the facts of the case for ourselves. More suo, he would have nothing to do with speculation till that essential preliminary operation had been effected.

To Switzerland accordingly we went, and I joined him at the Montanvert, where he had taken up his quarters with Dr. Hirst, who was, I think, the closest of all his friends. I have never visited the place since, but I am told that it now possesses a grand hotel. In our time, there was nothing but a rough mountain auberge, opposite to which, on the glacier side of the road, was a hut for guides. Into this Tyndall moved his bed, as he could not bear the noise of the wooden house. Accommodation and fare were of the roughest; our chef was a singularly dirty old woman, who met all our suggestions about dinner with a monotonous 'C'est ça;'–as if the stores of a Parisian restaurant were at her disposal–while, practically, our pasts were as uniform as her speech. But as we used to start for the Jardin, or other of the higher regions early, and rarely returned much before sunset, there was no lack of hunger sauce; while the condiment, [8] which gives herbs a better flavour than stalled oxen, abounded. Tyndall's skill and audacity as a climber were often displayed in these excursions. On one occasion, I remember, we came upon a perpendicular cliff of ice of considerable height, formed on the flank of the glacier, which seemed to present a good opportunity for the examination of the structure of the interior. A hot sun loosening them, the stones on the surface of the glacier every now and then rattled down the face of the cliff. As no persuasion of ours could prevent Tyndall from ascending the cliff, by cutting steps with his axe, in order to get a close view of the ice, we had to content ourselves with the post assigned to us, of looking out for stones. Whenever any of these seemed likely to shoot too close, we shouted, and Tyndall flattened himself against the cliff. Happily, no harm ensued; but I confess I was greatly relieved when my friend descended, at his own pleasure, and not at that of a chance fragment of rock.

It was on this trip that we attempted the ascent of Mont Blanc direct from the Montanvert, with a couple of porters, to carry the needful stores as far as the Grands Mulets; and a guide, who, as it turned out, was of the blind sort. I found I was by no means in training; and as, under the circumstances, any failure on my part would have obliged the others to give up the attempt, I determined to remain at the Grands Mulets. My friends and the guide set out before dawn and should have been back in eight or ten hours, at furthest. The weather was magnificent, and I should be puzzled to recall a morning spent in more entire enjoyment, than that yielded by the wide and varied prospect from my temporary hermitage, in a solitude broken only now and then by a vagabond butterfly or a strayed bee, drifting upwards. But when the early hours of the afternoon glided away without any sign of my companions, and the sun got low, things began to look serious. Neither the people at the Montanvert, nor those at Chamounix, knew anything about our intentions. In our way from the Montanvert, we had had to cross some troublesome crevasses and I knew nothing about the route down to Chamounix. If any accident had happened to my friends, I could not help them; nor could I reckon upon getting assistance from Chamounix, unless, perhaps, I set fire to the timbers which sheltered me. My anxiety and perplexity may be imagined, and at last, as it grew colder, I went into the hut to ponder over the situation. As I sat over the embers, trying to see my way to some clear conclusion, I suddently heard the clink of an alpenstock upon the rock at the foot of the Grands Mulets. The sound has ever since been pleasant to my ear; and rushing out, I saw the three slowly making their way up; Tyndall pretty well exhausted, for the first and last time I ever saw him in that condition; Hirst snow-blind; and the guide thoroughly used up. He had mistaken the route and led the party into all sorts of superfluous difficulties.

[9] As we intended to have descended to Chamounix, without stopping a second night at the Grands Mulets, provisions were not over abundant and there were no candles. I am proud to say I made myself useful in various ways; among other functions, performing that of chandelier with a perpetual succession of lighted lucifer matches. We were soon a merry company; and the next day we descended in glory, to the great disgust of the orthodox guides of Chamounix, to whom an ascent of Mont Blanc, up to that time, had meant the organisation of a large and profitable expedition.

The love for Alpine scenery and Alpine climbing, which remained with Tyndall to the last, began, or at any rate became intensified into a passion, with this journey; and at the same time, he laid the foundations of his well known and highly important work upon glaciers and glacier movement. His first paper on this subject was presented to the Royal Society in 1857, and bears my name as well as his own, in spite of all my protests to the contrary. For beyond two or three little observations, and perhaps some criticism, I contributed nothing towards it, and all that is important is Tyndall's own. But he was singularly scrupulous–even punctilious–on points of scientific honour. It would have been intolerable to him to have it supposed that he had used even suggestions of others, without acknowledgment; so I, being thicker skinned, put up with the possibility of being considered a daw in borrowed plumes. The memoir became the starting-point of a long and hot controversy. While it was at its height, some supporters of the other side endeavoured to throw the weight of the award of one of the Royal Society's medals into the scale against Tyndall. It seemed to some of his friends, myself among the number, that this was unfair; and a lively battle, eventually decided in our favour, took place in the Council of the Society. I refer to these old troubles, merely for the purpose of finally removing the impression, if any such remains, that Tyndall had anything, directly or indirectly, to do with what took place. On the contrary, the two persons who were chiefly responsible, thought it desirable that he should be absolutely ignorant of what was going on; and I can answer for it that he remained so until long after, when, rummaging among my papers, I found some documents which I labelled 'ashes of an old fire,' and sent to him.

Tyndall was a highly esteemed and popular member of the Royal Society and always loyal towards it; but the sensitiveness to which I have alluded led him, very early in his career, to do what, so far as I know, nobody had done before, nor has done since. In 1853, the Society awarded one of the two Royal medals to him, the other recipient being Charles Darwin. Unluckily, one of the members of the Council, a person of high scientific position, who had wished to dispose of the medal otherwise, took his defeat badly; and, being a voluble talker, exhaled his griefs with copious im[10]propriety to all and sundry. As soon as the report of this reached Tyndall's ears, he wrote a polite note to the senior secretary declining the honour. Frankly, I think my friend made a mistake. The Council was in no way responsible for the ill-judged and, indeed, indecent proceedings of one of its members; and perhaps it is better to leave an enemy alone than to strike at him with the risk of hurting one's friends. But, having thus sacrificed at the altar of strict justice, I must add that, for a young man starting in the world, to whom such recognition was of great importance, I think it was a good sort of mistake, not likely to do harm by creating too many imitators.

As time went on, as the work became harder, and the distractions of life more engrossing, a few of us, who had long been intimate, found we were drifting apart; and, to counteract that tendency, we agreed to dine together once a month. I think, originally, there was some vague notion of associating representatives of each branch of science; at any rate, the nine who eventually came together–Mr. Busk, Dr. Frankland, Dr. Hirst, Sir Joseph Hooker, Sir John Lubbock, Mr. Spencer, Mr. Spottiswoode, Tyndall and myself–could have managed, among us, to contribute most of the articles to a scientific Encyclopædia. At starting, our minds were terribly exercised over the name and constitution of our society. As opinions on this grave matter were no less numerous than the members–indeed more so–we finally accepted the happy suggestion of our mathematicians to call it the x Club; and the proposal of some genius among us, that we should have no rules, save the unwritten law not to have any, was carried by acclamation. Later on, there were attempts to add other members, which at last became wearisome, and had to be arrested by the agreement that no proposition of that kind should be entertained, unless the name of the new member suggested contained all the consonants absent from the names of the old ones. In the lack of Slavonic friends this decision put an end to the possibility of increase. Once in the year there was an outing, to which our respective wives were invited.

If I remember rightly, the meetings of thex Club began early in the sixties. They were steadily continued for some twenty years, before our ranks began to thin; and, one by one, 'geistige Naturen,' such as those for which the poet3 so willingly paid the ferryman, silent but not unregarded, took the vacated places. Tyndall was a constant attendant and a great promoter of vivacious conversation, until his health failed. Two years ago, a deep gloom was cast over [11] one of our meetings by the receipt of a telegram to the effect that he had but few hours to live, and his partial recovery, at that time, was a marvel to all who knew his condition. I believe that the'x' had the credit of being a sort of scientific caucus, or ring, with some people. In fact, two distinguished scientific colleagues of mine once carried on a conversation (which I gravely ignored) across me, in the smoking room of the Athenaeum, to this effect: 'I say, A, do you know anything about the x Club? 'Oh yes, B, I have heard of it. What do they do?' 'Well, they govern scientific affairs; and really, on the whole, they don't do it badly.' If my good friends could only have been present at a few of our meetings, they would have formed a much less exalted idea of us, and would, I fear, have been much shocked at the sadly frivolous tone of our ordinary conversation. Assuredly Tyndall did not usually help us to be serious.

But I must bring these brief and too hurried reminiscences to a close. I believe that ample materials exist, and will be used, for a fitting biography: indeed the putting these materials into autobiographical form was the final piece of work to which Tyndall, with his wife's aid, proposed to devote himself. With the exception of the investigations upon aerial germs, which, though, strictly speaking, they might be continuations and amplifications of Pasteur's labours, yet had a very great effect in putting an end to the tough-lived speculations of the advocates of the so-called 'spontaneous generation' hypothesis, Tyndall's later scientific labours do not lie within the competence of my judgment. On that point, I leave it to contemporary experts to speak; and to time to give the final verdict, which is not always such as contemporaries imagine.

Neither do I offer any remark about Tyndall's philosophical, religious and political views; in respect of which my opinions might possibly be impartial; but nobody would believe that they were so.

All that I have proposed to myself, in writing these few pages, is to illustrate and emphasise the fact that, in Tyndall, we have all lost a man of rare and strong individuality; one who, by sheer force of character and intellect, without advantages of education or extraneous aid–perhaps, in spite of some peculiarities of that character–made his way to a position, in some ways unique; to a place in the front rank not only of scientific workers, but of writers and speakers. And, on my own account, I have desired to utter a few parting words of affection for the man of pure and high aims, whom I am the better for having known; for the friend, whose sympathy and support were sure, in all the trials and troubles of forty years' wandering through this wilderness of a world.

1 In reading the very positive conclusions, based upon differences of style, about the authorship of ancient writings, enunciated by some critics, I have sometimes wondered whether, if the two pieces to which I have alluded had come down to us as anonymous ancient manuscripts, the demonstration that they were written by different persons might not have been quite easy.

2 I have just received the resport of a sermon, delivered on the 15th of December 1893, by a curious curate, who, in his haste to besmirch the dead, abuses 'the late Professor Huxley'!

3 Nimm dann Fährmann,

Nimm die Miethe
Die ich gerne dreifach biete:
Zwei, die eben überfuhren,
Waren geistige Naturen.

I quote from memory; but it is long since I read these verses and more likely than not, the citation errs.

T. H. H. Assaulting Pall Mall Gazette

Tyndall Observing
Huxley Archives


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University