§ 9. Medusa et al.

Hals first published paper, written when he was a medical student at Charing Cross Hospital, was On a Hitherto Undescribed Structure in the Human Hair Sheath (1845) and his second, written before the Rattlesnake's departure, was Examination of the Corpuscles of the Blood of Amphioxus Lanceolatus (1847). Much of his investigation is detailed in his diary items, for example on Amphioxus–February 7, 1847. After returning to England, he published many more papers on marine invertebrates, among them, Notes on Medusę and Polypes (sent from Cape York in 1849); Description of the Animal of Trigonia, From Actual Dissection; and, in 1851, Observations on the Genus Sagitta and On the Identity of Structure of Plants and Animals.

His study of jellyfish in "On the Anatomy and Affinities of the Family of the Medusæ" lay "particular stress" on an important point: homologies between the membranes of adult invertebrates and those of vertebrate germ-layers. In 1851, the Annals and Magazine of Natural History published Hal's Zoological Notes and Observations Made on Board H.M.S. Rattlesnake during the Years 1846-50. Among the many other papers of the fifties were "Remarks upon Appendicula and Doliolum, Two Genera of Tunicates" (1851), "On the Anatomy of the Cephalous Mollusca (1853), and "On the Structure of Noctiluca Milaris" (1855). For his work The Oceanic Hydrozoa (1858), his relating types of marine invertebrates that had eluded taxonomic classification and anatomical analysis, he received the Royal Society gold medal.

Agalma, Velella, Medusa
Plates 7, 11, 12 of Oceanic Hydrozoa

In a diary item, he sketched himself at the time of his conducting his marine investigation: Je Voici –June 10, 1849; recognizing the significance of this honor he sketched himself in 1853 as a swanky elite: Noble Swell, and in that year also published Science at Sea, whose romantic tone is seen in Huxley's describing Papuan Island loveliness as the "very paradise of Lotus Easters." For other text, essays and letters, and illustrations on his early research into marine invertebrates, see § 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake, which offers Huxley commentary on his research such as in a letter to his sister Lizzie–August 1, 1847 and a diary entry such as May 4, 1848, on the capture of an elusive marine creature. As his popularity increased, so did his audiences–an 1870 address on the cephalous mollusca at a town hall drew an audience of 1000. Medusa continued to intrigue him for fifty years, signaled in his return to that topic in a letter of June 10, 1890. Most of his papers prior to 1860 were based on research into fossil marine animal such as Devonian fishes, crustacea, mollusks, cetaceans, and Cephalopodes.

Diving and oceanic figures
Lighthouse, equestrian
Fellow Royal Society THH at 26, 1851

In his hearty approval of Huxley's Rattlesnake research, Edward Forbes wrote a commendation that caught the remarkable achievement of the young lieutenant: Forbes Account.


Huxley's interest in marine zoology began on the Rattlesnake voyage. In April 1855, he was appointed to a commission whose role was to survey the fauna and flora of coastlands of the British Islands. In 1862, he was appointed to a Royal Commission on herring trawling, in 1864, to another Royal Commission on sea fisheries, and in 1884 to yet another on trawl, net, and beam trawl fishing (three of ten Royal Commissions he served on). He took upon himself a mission to help fishermen, as for example in supporting their claim that certain parasites in mackerel were not injurious to the human consumers of that fish–Mackerel Parasite (Nature June 26, 1884).

In 1857, H. M. S. Cyclops sounded the Atlantic Ocean for the laying of the Britain-U.S. telegraph cable, and dredged up a "soft, mealy substance" which the captain named "ooze." Huxley, employed to identify the animal life dredged up, such as Globigerina and Foraminifera, reported that the gelantinous ooze was a living substance.

In his "On Some Organisms Living at Great Depths in the North Atlantic Ocean" (1868), Huxley suggested that the Urschleim should be "regarded as a new form of those simple animated beings which have recently been so well described by Haeckel." He named it Bathybius haeckelii and wrote to Haeckel on October 6, 1868: "I hope you will not be ashamed of your god-child." He referred to "On Some Organisms Living at Great Depths" in his Penicillium piece of 1870–On the Relations of Penicillium, Torula, and Bacterium: "We have had all sorts of speculations as to their life in the dark, my own included. The mystery of Bathybius is paralleled by the protoplasmic material of Penicillium which develops in the dark in the same way as it does; just also as Penicillium turns ammoniacal salts in the dark into protoplasm, so may Bathybius do the same at the bottom of the sea, and so we need not trouble ourselves with any special hypothesis to account for the occurrence of a sheet of living matter in this position." Further explanations of Bathybius, including reports of German naturalists' studies, are found in two letters to Nature: The Deep-Sea Soundings and Geology (April 1870) and Life in the Deep Sea (July 1870), in which Prof. Haeckel is drawn to the support of these "remarkable organisms."

When, in December of 1872, H. M. S. Challenger undertook a voyage to explore the Atlantic Ocean, this exploration was so important to him that he discussed it in four essays, the first of which was The Problems of the Deep Sea (1873), followed by On the Recent Work of the Challenger Expedition (1873), On Some Results of the Expedition of H. M. S. Challenger (1875) and Notes from the "Challenger" (1875). In these, Huxley recounts the dredging operations and determines the nature of the diverse fauna dredged up and treats the evolution of the earth as well.

In The Problems of the Deep Sea (1873) Huxley gives an account of bivalve and univalve mollusks, of starfishes, sea urchins, sponges and other animals. On the Recent Work of the Challenger (1874) generalizes on his commitment to evolutionary theory: "Satisfactory evidence now exists that some animals in the existing world have been derived by a process of gradual modification from pre-existing forms. It is undeniable, for example, that the evidence in favour of the derivation of the horse from the later tertiary Hipparion, and that of the Hipparion from Anchitherium, is as complete and cogent as such evidence can reasonably be expected to be; and the further investigations into the history of the tertiary mammalia are pushed, the greater is the accumulation of evidence having the same tendency. So far from palæontology lending no support to the doctrine of evolution–as one sees constantly asserted–that doctrine, if it had no other support, would have been irresistibly forced upon us by the palæontological discoveries of the last twenty years."

Evidence supports uniformitarianism as the explanation of geological change. The earth's cooling down provided the opportunity for life to arise, and catastrophes did occur: "in so cooling, its contracting crust must have undergone sudden convulsions, which were to our earthquakes as an earthquake is to the vibration caused by the periodical eruption of a Geyser; but in that case, the earth must, like other respectable parents, have sowed her wild oats, and got through her turbulent youth, before we, her children, have any knowledge of her."

On Some Results of the Expedition of H. M. S. Challenger (1875) moving easily from diatoms to icebergs, is heavy with details of marine biology and with quoted passages from Wyville Thomson, Joseph Hooker, and other scientists. He had written to Haeckel that he hoped the German naturalist would not be ashamed at having Bathybius named after him. But shame was to come, and Huxley was to "eat a leek," about which medicinal treatment, see July 31, 1868. In Notes from the "Challenger" (1875), Huxley noted that Prof. Wyville Thomson’s staff had failed to find fresh Bathybius , suspecting "the thing to which I gave that name is little more than sulphate of lime, precipitated" from sea-water by alcohol." Huxley wrote to Norman Lockyer of Nature: "My poor dear Bathybius appears likely to turn into a ‘Blunderibus.’" Bathybius continued to exist as a villain of secularism, Huxley having invented the creature because of a philosophical Darwinian bias to bridge the gap between not-life (a word he invented) and life. If it were a mineral precipitate, some enemy will probably say that it is a product of my precipitation. So mind, I was the first to make that 'goak.' Old Ehrenberg suggested something of the kind to me, but I have not his letter here. I shall eat my leek handsomely, if any eating has to be done." August 11, 1875

He toasted not Bathybius, but the Challenger naturalists, in Dinner to the "Challenger" Staff (Nature, 1876) but in Report to BAAS (1879), Huxley alludes to his having brought Bathybius into the world, thinking that the thing would turn out to be a credit to him. "But I am sorry to say, as time has gone on, he has not altogether verified the promise of his youth. ... In the first place, as the President told you, he could not be found when he was wanted, and in the second place, when he was found, all sorts of things were said about him. Indeed, I regret to be obliged to tell you that some persons of severe minds went so far as to say that he was nothing but simply a gelatinous precipitate of slime, which had carried down organic matter. .. But I feel very happy about the matter. There is one thing about us men of science, and that is, no one who has the greatest prejudice against science can venture to say that we ever endeavour to conceal each other's mistakes. And, therefore, I rest in the most entire and complete confidence that if this should happen to be a blunder of mine, some day or other it will be carefully exposed by somebody." A compelling reason for his having made an error in creating Bathybius was his belief at the time that protoplasm was more important a constituent of life than a cell with its nucleus.

Still more commentary on the Challenger appeared in Huxley's review (Nature, 1880): The First Volume of the Publications of the "Challenger"

Chalk and Coral

Throughout the 60s and 70s, Huxley averaged writing one article per week. His perspective as in On the Advisableness of Improving Natural Knowledge (1866), A Liberal Education; and Where to Find It (1868) and Aphorisms by Goethe (1869) personified nature and poetized about this universe we all inhabit.

Chalk, Ancient and Modern (1858) was followed by On a Piece of Chalk (1865), one of his most often reprinted essays, opens with a transporting of the audience down through the floor of the lecture-room to the chalk substratum of Norwich. "I weigh my words well when I assert, that the man who should know the true history of the bit of chalk which every carpenter carries about in his breeches-pocket, though ignorant of all other history, is likely, if he will think his knowledge out to its ultimate results, to have a truer, and therefore a better, conception of this wonderful universe, and of man's relation to it, than the most learned student who is deep-read in the records of humanity and ignorant of those of Nature."

The story he tells moves from the chemistry of a piece of chalk to communities of oceanic life, the evolution of fishes and of crocodiles, and the building of the Pyramids. The conclusion is grand: "A small beginning has led us to a great ending. If I were to put the bit of chalk with which we started into the hot but obscure flame of burning hydrogen, it would presently shine like the sun. It seems to me that this physical metamorphosis is no false image of what has been the result of our subjecting it to a jet of fervent, though nowise brilliant, thought to-night. It has become luminous, and its clear rays, penetrating the abyss of the remote past, have brought within our ken some stages of the evolution of the earth. And in the shifting "without haste, but without rest" of the land and sea, as in the endless variation of the forms assumed by living beings, we have observed nothing but the natural product of the forces originally possessed by the substance of the universe.

In its Review of Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews (1870), the British Quarterly Review described On a Piece of Chalk as "a brilliant illustration of the ease with which a thoroughly accomplished man can simplify and popularise abstruse speculation." The centenary of the delivery of this address (1968) was greeted with its reprinting in a book with an introduction by Loren Eiseley. Not included in Collected Essays, but yet another example of Huxley's using a living thing to illuminate grand historical, philosophical, and scientific ideas is On Coral and Coral Reefs (1871). The 10,000 copies of this publication sold out quickly. His continuing affection for invertebrates is seen in a letter to his assistant Parker–September 25, 1878, in his important text The Crayfish (1879), in one of his last professional papers, "Oysters and the Oyster Question" (1883), and in using the pearly nautilus as the type specimen illustrating evolutionary development, in The Rede Lecture (1883).

Alphonse Legros oil sketch, 1879, year of publication of The Crayfish and Hume. In a talk at Sion College a decade earlier, Huxley had dubbed himself "Minister"–see James Reddie, On Geological Chronology

In addition to The Oceanic Hydrozoa and The Crayfish: An Introduction to the Study of Zoology, his A Manual of the Anatomy of Invertebrated Animals (1877) should be noted because it engages in lengthy and detailed discussions of marine as well as terrestrial creatures. Emiliania huxley should also be noted: it is the taxonomic name of the marine microscopic phytoplankton whose mas is greater than that of all marine fish and mammals combined.

Science and Pseudo-Science

In Science and Pseudo-Science (1887), Huxley attacks the Duke of Argyll as severely as he had attacked Chambers' Vestiges of Creation thirty-three years before. On reading of the Reign of Terror which the Duke of Argyll had seen as occurring in the world of science, traditional Darwinists as terrorizing subversives who disagreed with their faith, Huxley said to himself, "Mercy upon us, what has happened? Can it be that X. and Y. (it would be wrong to mention the names of the vigorous young friends which occurred to me) are playing Danton and Robespierre; and that a guillotine is erected in the courtyard of Burlington House for the benefit of all anti-Darwinian Fellows of the Royal Society? Where are the secret conspirators against this tyranny, whom I am supposed to favour, and yet not have the courage to join openly?" The scientific world laughs at the bogus existence of a Reign of Terror and of a revolt against it.

In reply, the Duke of Argyll wrote A Great Lesson (1887) which pointed out that Mr. John Murray had had the nerve to challenge Darwin's theory of coral reefs had been warned not to publish it. The scientific judgment went so far as to invent Bathybius. The first soundings of the Challenger sent to Professor Huxley slime that the good Professor, imagining that it was primeval protoplasm, in 1868 christened it "Bathybius." "Here was a grand idea. It would be well to find missing links; but it would be better to find the primordial pabulum out of which all living things had come. The ultra-Darwinian enthusiasts were enchanted. Haeckel clapped his hands and shouted out Eureka loudly. Even the cautious and discriminating mind of Professor Huxley was caught by this new and grand generalisation of the 'physical basis of life.'" Haeckel had traced evolution from Bathybius upward in the 1874 biographical sketch of THH, Scientific Worthies: Thomas Henry Huxley

John Murray got into trouble again with the Reign of Terror because he could not find Bathybius anywhere. "The laboratory in Jermyn Street was its unfailing source, and the great observer there was its only sponsor. The ocean never yielded it until it had been bottled. At last, one day on board the 'Challenger' an accident revealed the mystery. One of Mr. Murray's assistants poured a large quantity of spirits of wine into a bottle containing some pure sea-water, when lo! the wonderful protoplasm Bathybius appeared. It was the chemical precipitate of sulphate of lime produced by the mixture of alcohol and sea-water. This was bathos indeed. On this announcement 'Bathybius' disappeared from science, leaving us, in more senses than one, a great lesson on 'precipitation.'"

The Great Lesson is that a theoretical preconception can sponsor wide-spread scientific acceptance of the ridiculous. Huxley responded to this in the paper An Episcopal Trilogy (1887). "The Duke of Argyll, in telling the story of Bathybius, says that my mind was "caught by this new and grand generalization of the physical basis of life." I never have been guilty of a reclamation about anything to my credit, and I do not mean to be; but if there is any blame going, I do not choose to be relegated to a subordinate place when I have a claim to the first. The responsibility for the first description and the naming of Bathybius is mine and mine only.... What is meant by my being caught by a generalization about the physical basis of life I do not know; still less can I understand the assertion that Bathybius was accepted because of its supposed harmony with Darwin's speculations. That which interested me in the matter was the apparent analogy of Bathybius with other well-known forms of lower life, such as the plasmodia of the Myxomycetes and the Rhizopods. Speculative hopes or fears had nothing to do with the matter; and if Bathybius were brought up alive from the bottom of the Atlantic to-morrow the fact would not have the slightest bearing, that I can discern, upon Mr. Darwin's speculations, or upon any of the disputed problems of biology. It would merely be one elementary organism the more added to the thousands already known."

On Argyll's contention that Bathybius was greeted with universal favor, Huxley mentions scientists who were very skeptical about it, such as Wyville Thomson himself, and alludes to his own letter to Nature. "The most considerable difference I note among men is not in their readiness to fall into error, but in their readiness to acknowledge these inevitable lapses." To an unknown correspondent, Huxley wrote in this year of the conflict with the Duke of Argyll–September 30, 1887: "It is quite preposterous to suppose that the men of science of this or any other country have the slightest disposition to support any view which may have been enunciated by one of their colleagues, however distinguished, if good grounds are shown for believing it to be erroneous.... But the theologians cannot get it out of their heads, that as they have creeds, to which they must stick at all hazards, so have the men of science. There is no more ridiculous delusion. We, at any rate, hold ourselves morally bound to "try all things and hold fast to that which is good"; and among public benefactors, we reckon him who explodes old error, as next in rank to him who discovers new truth." Bathybius, accepted because of its harmony with Darwinian prejudice, was a great lesson in precipitation.

Bathybius reappeared in an 1890 article by Mallock, and Huxley wrote to John Donnelly about it–October 10, 1890: "Bathybius is too convenient a stick to beat this dog with to be ever given up, however many lies may be needful to make the weapon effectual. I told the whole story in my reply to the Duke of Argyll, but of course the pack give tongue just as loudly as ever. Clerically-minded people cannot be accurate, even the liberals." It was much of a pleasure to Huxley while all colloidal argument was settling, to correspond with Professor Pelseneer about Huxley's great interest and hobby of thirty-five years before, Mollusca–June 10, 1890 and October 22, 1893.

In Professor Huxley and the Duke of Argyll (1891), we have from Argyll this definition of the Great Lesson: "that we should be awake to the retarding effect of a superstitious dependence on the authority of great men, and to the constant liability of even the greatest observers to found fallacious generalisations on a few selected facts."

Right Honorable
Privy Councillor with hand in pocket, 1890
Natural Rights and Political Rights


In 1857, Huxley, a participant in a program to survey sea shores, had written a report on the fisheries industry and in 1858 had spent a summer at Lamlash Bay trawling for herring. In 1862, Huxley was appointed to a Royal Commision on the Operation of Acts relating to Trawling for Herrings on the Coast of Scotland, in 1864 to a Royal Commission to inquire into the Sea Fisheries of the United Kingdom. In 1881, he was appointed Inspector of Fisheries, investigating the culture and diseases of salmon and other fish and the possibility of exhausting the supply of certain marine animals (not cod or herring, but crabs and lobsters), the reports on what regulation was needed for protection of stock (and of fishermen) developed for Parliamentary action. Among his other duties was laboratory investigation of a salmon fungus disease, which he cultivated so successfully that he would be ready, "in a short time, I hope, to furnish Salmon Disease wholesale, retail, or for exportation"; for this quotation and a general survey of his fisheries work, see Walpole Account. His successful cultivation also identified the salmon fungus with a fungoid disease of flies. Among his pleasures was integrating inspecting with holidays, in Scotland and in Wales as well as in England. His abiding interest in molluscs (creatures more enticing than vertebrates) is expressed in a letter to Parker–September 25, 1878.

To the Royal Society in February of 1882, he delivered a paper, "A Contribution to the Pathology of the Epidemic known as the 'Salmon Disease'"–his audience probably far less excited by the presence of fungus than by the presence of the Prince of Wales, who was at that session admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society. To the Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Sciences , Huxley contributed "Saprolegnia in relation to the Salmon Disease." Shortly after this, another address he delivered, to the Liverpool Institution, on On Science and Art in Relation to Education (1882), was a product of his role as Inspector of Culture, which he had, for the benefit of his Victorian colleagues and those to follow, appointed himself.

As Inspector of Salmon Fisheries, an appointment in 1881, Huxley investigated and spoke on links in the chain from the fish themselves to their commercial sale. Frustrated by a trip taken to Scotland in the Great Western, he wrote that if he ever did it again, "may jackasses sit on my grandmother's grave"; and frustrated by spending a long day, from 10 a. m. to 1:20 the following morning at the Fisheries Exhibition, he asked Michael Foster: "Will you tell me what all this has to do with my business in life, and why the last fragments of a misspent life that are left to me are to be frittered away in all this drivel?–Yours savagely, T. H. H." In 1883, he delivered the Inaugural Address Fisheries Exhibition, London (1883), which discusses Phoenician culture as well as possible depletion of salmon.

THH opening Fisheries Exhibition 1883
"Days with Celebrities – The Fish"
"Professor Huxley is a great favorite." Fish says: "Tip us a fin–Old Boy."
THH Chatting with Mermaid
A cartoon from Punch depicts Huxley chatting not with oceanic hydrozoa, but with a classical denizen of the sea. Punch, c. 1883.
THH riding fish, from Punch c. 1883

In 1884, he was appointed to yet another fisheries commission: the Royal Commission on Trawl, Net, and Beam Trawl Fishing, his membership on these obviously to advance the fisheries industry. His student E. Ray Lankester was interested in having the United Kingdom establish marine biological stations like those on the continent. Lankester became secretary to the Marine Biological Association, its president T. H. Huxley. One of its several successes was the Plymouth Biological Station (1887). His membership was also to enlist the aid of highly placed and influential fishmongers in advancing his program for education in science, an education to which he contributed in letters to friends, such as that to Frankland on eel "matrimonial operations"–September 16, 1887 and those to daughter Babs on whelks and other littoral creatures–August 14, 1891 and August 26, 1891.

Late in his life, Huxley wrote a couple of light letters to theTimes on sea creatures he had been unsuccessful in locating–sea-serpents, these letters inspired by accounts sent to him describing the appearance of these serpentine wonders. As he had so often claimed, he had no a prior objection to this creature, this "retiring creature, which, like the classical maiden, always fugit ad salices; but, unlike her, seems not to desire to be seen." But evidence provided by the witnesses failed to convince him. He pointed out, from his own experience, that it is difficult to distinguish between a genuine sea-snake and long-bodied fish. "Further," he noted of the account of an Admiral Mellersh, "that 'back fin' troubles me; looks, if I may say so, very fishy. If the caution about mixing up observations with conclusions, which I ventured to give yesterday, were better attended to, I think we should hear very little either about antiquated sea-serpents or new 'mesmerism'"–The Sea-Serpent (January 11 and 12, 1893).



1.   THH Publications
2.   Victorian Commentary
3.   20th Century Commentary

1.   Letter Index
2.   Illustration Index

Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden