Professor Huxley, F.R.S. (sel)

President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1870.
John Timbs, The Year-Book of Facts (1871)

[2] The election of this distinguished philosopher to the Presidential Chair of the Meeting of the British Association, at Liverpool, in September last, gave assurance of success: the result was one of the best meetings of the Society remembered. The new President was already widely known to the scientific world and to the general public by the introduction which he received by the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from the University of Edinburgh, when Professor Muirhead, who acted as orator, said: "I present to you, Mr. Vice-Chancellor, as judged worthy of the Senate to receive the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws, Mr. Thomas Henry Huxley, a Fellow of the Royal Society, Professor of Natural History at the School of Mines, and Hunterian Professor of Comparative Anatomy in the Royal College of Surgeons of England. Trained to the medical profession, Mr. Huxley became in early life an assistant-surgeon in the Royal Navy; and it was while serving in that capacity in one of her Majesty's ships, then engaged in a survey of the coasts of Australia and New Guinea, that he acquired his claims to be regarded as one of the most accomplished naturalists of the day. His appointment soon after his return to this country to the Chair of Natural History in the Government School in Jermyn Street, gave him the opportunity of turning his attention to palæontological inquiries; and the results of his labours in that field are embodied in a series of valuable and most interesting papers descriptive of various extinct forms of animals. As Hunterian Professor in the College of Surgeons of England, he has delivered several courses of lectures on the comparative anatomy of the vertebrata, lectures which, not less than his contributions to the Transactions of learned Societies, testify to his remarkable perspicacity and his rare power of discriminating the relations of structures in complicated forms of animal life."

The first general meeting was held on Wednesday, in the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. The retiring president, Professor Stokes, vacated the chair to Professor Huxley, who then delivered the customary address.

The Professor commenced by an allusion to the custom which calls upon the President of the Association to furnish a report of the general progress of science, as seen from the elevation upon which the suffrages of his colleagues had for the time placed him; and expressed his own intention to follow, in some degree, this ancient precedent. He would not attempt a panoramic survey, but would endeavour to place before his hearers the history of the rise and progress of a single biological doctrine.

[Summary of lecture "Biogenesis and Abiogenesis"]

[13] Professor Huxley's address was written in the best taste (says the Athenaeum), devoid of any sentences obnoxious to the most sensitive audience; it was at once abstruse and popular; but the two conditions were combined in language perfectly intelligible to every one.

We add the accompanying biographical data of the scientific career of Professor Huxley, with notices of his published works, for which we, in the main, have to acknowledge our obligation to an able paper in the Leisure Hour for September last.

[14] Professor Huxley was born at Ealing, in Middlesex, in 1825, and was educated at Ealing School. He studied medicine with much success at the Medical School of the Charing Cross Hospital; and in 1846, at the age of twenty-one, was appointed assistant-surgeon to H.M.'s ship Rattlesnake, then about to sail on a surveying cruise in the Southern seas. A narrative of its progress, on its return, was written by John Macgillivray, with illustrations from drawings made by Mr. Huxley. The first-fruit of these researches was a paper by Mr. Huxley, read to the Royal Society, when he was only in his 23rd year. Next was communicated to the Royal Society Mr. Huxley's paper of "Observations upon Salpæ," those gelatinous animals, through masses of which the voyager on the great ocean sometimes sails day after day.

On his return to England, in 1850, Mr. Huxley was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Since his return he has taken an active part in the work of the British Association; among his labours may be mentioned his valuable Report on the Ascidians in 1852, and his able presidency over the Biological Section of the meeting of the Association at Cambridge.

In April 1852, Mr. Huxley first appeared as lecturer at the Royal Institution, and there for a number of years he gave a lecture yearly, upon "Animal Individuality;" next on the "Identity of Structure of Plants and Animals," in which he directed his remarks to the essential nature of organisation; and in that in 1854, to the "Common Plan of Animal Forms," he referred to a short essay by Goethe–the last which proceeded from his pen, containing a critical account of a discussion bearing upon the doctrine of the unity of organisation of animals which had then (1830) just taken place in the French Academy. Goethe said that for him this controversy was of more importance than the Revolution of July, which immediately followed it; a declaration which might be regarded as a prophecy; for while the Charte, and those who established it, have vanished, as if they had never been, the doctrine of the unity of organisation retains a profound interest and importance for those who study the science of life. A lecture "On the Development of Animal Life in Time," was succeeded by another of a most useful and valuable character, "On Natural History as a means of Knowledge, Discipline, and Power." From this last we give the following extract:–"In travelling from one end to the other of the scale of life we are taught that nature is not a mechanism but a power; not a mere rough engine-house for the due keeping of pleasure and pain machines, but a palace whose foundations are laid on the strictest and safest mechanical principles, but whose superstructure is a manifestation of the highest and noblest art. If we have a right to conclude from the marks of beneficent design, to an Infinite Intellect and Benevolence, in some sort similar to our own, than from the existence of a beauty (nay, even of a humour), and of a predominant harmonious [15] variety in unity in nature, which, if the work of man, would be regarded as the highest art, we are similarly bound to conclude that the æsthetic faculties of the human soul have also been foreshadowed in the Infinite Mind." In 1854, when Professor Edward Forbes was elected to the Chair of Natural History in the University of Edinburgh, Professor Huxley succeeded him in the Natural History Professorship at the School of Mines. This position he still holds. In the discharge of its duties he was led necessarily into palæontological inquiries, and as a palæontologist he has taken high rank.

A course of six lectures, "On our Knowledge of the Causes of the Phenomena of Organic Nature," was delivered to working men at the Museum of Practical Geology, Jermyn Street, and afterwards published. In this little work he thus states his views as to the unity of race in man:–"I am one of those who believe that, at present, there is no evidence whatever for saying that mankind sprang originally from any more than a single pair; I must say that I cannot see any good ground whatever, on any tenable sort of evidence, for believing that there is more than one species of man." Soon after Mr. Huxley became Professor of Comparative Anatomy to the Royal College of Surgeons in England, he published a volume of lectures "On the Elements of Comparative Anatomy." "An Elementary Atlas of Comparative Anatomy" is also designed to assist students. The objects were selected and arranged by Professor Huxley, and drawn on stone by B. W. Hawkins. In twelve plates is shown a comparative view of similar parts of the skeletons of such animals as are more easily accessible. Here we may also mention that to Mr. Samuel Laing's "Pre-historic Remains of Caithness" Professor Huxley contributed an appendix on the skulls found at Caithness, referred to in that work. The volume entitled "Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature" appeared in 1863, and consists of three essays: 1st. "On the Natural History of the Manlike Apes;" 2nd. "On the Relations of Man to the Lower Animals;" and 3rd. "On some Fossil Remains of Man." The substance of the essays had before been published in the form of oral discourses addressed to widely-different audiences. Upon the subject of the second essay two lectures were delivered to the members of the Philosophical Institution of Edinburgh in 1862. This work has been translated into French, German, and Italian.

Some idea may be given of the variety of our author's scientific researches, and of his literary activity, when we say that, in addition to his published works and his professional courses of lectures, he has made, at a moderate estimate, not less than one hundred elaborate scientific communications in various forms to different institutions and societies. His public lectures have been numerous, a collection of which, with other pieces, have been published with the title Lay Sermons, Addresses and Reviews. In a lecture "On the Educational Value of Natural History," delivered at St. Martin's Hall in 1854, occurs the following pas[16]sage:–"There is yet another way in which natural history may, I am convinced, take a profound hold upon practical life, and that is by its influence over the finer feelings, as the greatest of all sources of that pleasure which is derived from beauty. I do not pretend that natural history knowledge as such can increase our sense of the beautiful in natural objects. . . . But to a person uninstructed in natural history, his country or sea-side stroll is a walk through a gallery filled with wonderful works of art, nine-tenths of which have their faces turned to the wall. Teach him something of natural history, and you place in his hands a catalogue of those which are worth turning around. Surely, our innocent pleasures are not so abundant in this life, that we can afford to despise them, or any source of them."

The lectures "On the Vertebrate Column," 1864, are distinguished by the lucid manner in which one of the most complex subjects in the whole range of inquiry is treated. Professor Huxley differs from the high authority of Professor Owen as to the nature of the skull; he depreciates all ethnological systems on which the shape of the skull is erected into the principle standard by which the affinities are to be judged. The characteristics on which he relies are complexion, hair, and eyes; guided by these he divides mankind into four great types, vis., Australoid, Negroid, Mongoloid, and Xanthochroid or Blond.

An able critic, speaking of Professor Huxley's lectures from the Hunterian chair, which he so ably fills, says:–"Never before in England have all the leading and most significant facts of animal structure been so exhibited; never have all the most complex and intricate questions of zoology been treated with such clearness and completeness–such boldness and yet with such caution–such patient, original investigation, and yet with so much scrupulous justice to the labours of others. It is impossible to speak too highly of the admirable lucidity with which Mr. Huxley enunciates facts and the conclusions he deduces from them, or, on the other hand, of the exemplary caution with which facts are verified and weighed, and a prudent suspension of judgment recommended where many would be tempted to pronounce a definite decision. When, however, the facts seem to him to warrant an absolute judgment, or to point to a strong probability, the announcement is made accordingly with a conscientious boldness deserving of all praise."

Professor Huxley's share in discovering the origin of glaciers of slaty cleavage was in this wise: Professor Tyndall having brought forward certain views as to the origin of slaty cleavage, Mr. Huxley drew his attention to observations made by the late Principal J. D. Forbes; and it was supposed by Huxley slaty cleavage might be owing to a like cause. Out of this grew the expedition of Messrs. Tyndall and Huxley to Switzerland, and their inspection of the glaciers of Grindenwald, the Aar, and the Rhone. In this expedition commenced the investigations which are thought by many to have refuted the viscous theory of glacier motion propounded. Forbes, maintaining that the [17] motion of glaciers is the result of the minute, almost molecular fracture and regelation of the ice-particles, which move as if they were sand continually thawing and re-freezing.

Professor Huxley's palæontological investigations are very various, and are embodied in numerous scattered papers communicated to the Royal Geological and other kindred Societies. Professor Huxley professes himself an evolutionist. Evolutionism, as the geological creed of the future, he predicts is destined to take the place alike of catastrophism and uniformitarianism.

With respect to the relation in which Professor Huxley conceives scientific inquiries stand to Christianity, some of his opinions have been much questioned, both by scientific and other writers. In particular, certain statements or modes of expression which seemed to savour of materialism in a lecture On the Physical Basis of Life, delivered in Edinburgh in November 1868, and afterwards published in the pages of the Fortnightly Review, have afforded ground for adverse comment. In that paper he has, however, expressly said, "I, individually, am no materialist, but, on the contrary, believe materialism to involve grave philosophical error."

And, in his Lectures to Working Men, Professor Huxley says, "All our knowledge and all our investigation cannot take us beyond the limits set by the finite and restricted characters of our faculties, or destroy the endless unknown, which accompanies, like its shadow, the endless procession of phenomena."

Amongst the contributions of Professor Huxley to lectureship during the past year should be noticed his "Instruction in Science and Art for Women," in twelve lectures on Physiography, delivered by Mr. Huxley, at South Kensington. The Syllabus of each of these lectures is, to use a popular comparison, as entertaining as a fairy tale. Thus, in the introductory statement, we are pleasantly told:–

A Map of the Thames is an outline sketch of the river, as it would present itself to a person passing over it in a balloon.

The Thames at London Bridge is a mass of fresh water one-sixth of a mile wide. In its deepest parts it is sometimes as little as twelve, and sometimes as much as thirty, feet deep.

The water of the Thames at London Bridge runs down (ebbs) towards Margate for about seven hours, and then runs up (flows) towards Teddington Weir for about five hours, twice in every day.–The river is shallowest at the end of the ebb, deepest at the end of the flood tide.

About 115,000,000 cubic feet more water runs down, than runs up, beneath London Bridge every day.–The over-plus goes beyond Margate into the sea.

Above Teddington Weir the water always runs down towards London Bridge.–A continuous stream of fresh water, running in this general direction, can be followed as far as Thames Head [18] in Wiltshire, which is 170 miles from London Bridge and 370 feet above the water of the Thames at that bridge.

The water which ebbs and flows under London Bridge all comes from the Basin of the Thames, the area of which is 6,000 square miles.

The Thames carries down to the sea not less than 14,000,000 cubic feet of solid material, either dissolved or as mud, every year.–At the present rate of denundation the whole basin would be washed down to the sea level in 1,000,000 years; and the surface of Britain would everywhere be washed down to a plain, level with the sea, in less than 5,000,000 years.

Professor Huxley is one of the members of the recently-appointed Royal Commission on scientific instruction and the advancement of science; and he now holds the post of President of the Ethnological Society. Professor Huxley has, it is stated, accepted the offer of Professor of the Birmingham and Midland Institute, held in 1869 by Mr. Charles Dickens.

The accompanying portrait of Professor Huxley is from a photograph by Messrs. Elliott and Fry, of Baker Street.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University