A History of Huxley

Who was Thomas Henry Huxley?

TH Huxley at 21Thomas Henry Huxley was an English biologist nicknamed "Darwin's Bulldog" for his advocacy of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Born on May 4, 1825, in a village in Middlesex, Thomas was forced to leave school at age ten due to his family's financial situation.

Despite his lack of access to formal schooling, Huxley was determined to educate himself. He read widely in a variety of disciplines, and in his teens taught himself German, Latin, and enough Greek to read Aristotle in the original. After serving as apprentice to several medical practitioners, Huxley won a small scholarship to study at Charing Cross Hospital. At twenty, he passed his first medical examinations at the University of London, winning the gold medal for anatomy and physiology. However, he did not present himself for the final exams and consequently did not complete his university degree.

Deep in debt, Huxley applied to the Royal Navy and was made Assistant Surgeon ('surgeon's mate') to HMS Rattlesnake. The Rattlesnake left England on December 3, 1846, headed to New Guinea and Australia on a voyage of scientific exploration. Once the ship arrived in the southern hemisphere, Huxley devoted his time to the study of marine invertebrates, and began to send details of his discoveries back to England for publication.

Thomas Henry Huxley with GorillaThe value of Huxley's work was recognized and, on returning to England in 1850, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In the following year, at the age of twenty-six, he received the Royal Society Medal and was elected to the Council. The Admiralty retained him as a nominal assistant-surgeon so that he might work on the specimens he'd collected and the observations he'd made during the voyage of the Rattlesnake.

After Huxley resigned from the navy in 1854, he became Professor of Natural History at the Royal School of Mines as well as naturalist to the British Geological Survey. He was also Fullerian Professor at the Royal Institution 1855–58 and 1865–67; Hunterian Professor at the Royal College of Surgeons 1863–69; President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science 1869–1870; President of the Royal Society 1883–85; Inspector of Fisheries 1881–85; and President of the Marine Biological Association 1884-1890. Over the course of his academic career, he worked tirelessly to advance the place of science in British life.

Huxley once said, "If I am to be remembered at all, I would rather it should be as a man who did his best to help the people than by any other title." To this end, he offered lectures to working men and school masters, to women and to children. Seeking to be of greater service to children, Huxley became a member of the London School Board. His immediate objective was "to temper book-learning with something of the direct knowledge of Nature." He also longed to secure a better physical training for children and to give them a clearer understanding of social and moral law.

Thomas Henry Huxley, 1890Professor John Hall Gladstone said of Huxley's work on the board: "He resented the idea that schools were to train either congregations for churches or hands for factories. He was on the Board as a friend of children. What he sought to do for the child was for the child's sake, that it might live a fuller, truer, worthier life."

Huxley retired from academic life in 1885. Five years later, he moved from London to Eastbourne where he edited the nine volumes of his Collected Essays. According to biographer Ada L. F. Snell, "The last years of Huxley's life were indeed the longed-for Indian summer. Away from the noise of London at Eastbourne by the sea, he spent many happy hours with old-time friends and in his garden, which was a great joy to him. His large family of sons and daughters and grandchildren brought much cheer to his last days. Almost to the end he was working and writing for publication."

In 1895, Thomas Henry Huxley died of complications from influenza and pneumonia, and was buried in North London in the family plot at St Marylebone.

"I cannot say that I am in the slightest degree impressed by [America's] bigness or your material resources, as such. Size is not grandeur, territory does not make a nation. The great issue, about which hangs true sublimity, and the terror of overhanging fate, is, what are you going to do with all these things?" Thomas Henry Huxley, inaugural address at Johns Hopkins University, 1876