Provenance - Creators and Custodians

1 Huxley, Thomas Henry
Date Range: 1825 - 1895

T.H. Huxley was an indefatigable worker for the cause of science. As a researcher, teacher and lobbyist he demanded the highest standards of himself and others, and fought to promote the professionalisation of science, helping to establish it as a career proper.

He was a fighter all his life, pulling himself out of his humble origins, and making his largely self-taught way through medicine to palaeontology and biology. He taught science to students from all levels of society and played a large part in the evolution of the London Scientific Schools in South Kensington (i.e. Imperial's Constituent Colleges). A member of a number of Government Commissions relating to science and education, he was rewarded in later life with a Privy Councillorship.

Besides his work he had many friends and a long and happy marriage which produced eight children (one of whom died in infancy). During his holidays, often abroad, he would mix work and pleasure and made some fine watercolours of the landscape and peoples of particular regions.

Throughout his career he was a member of many scientific societies, and held office in several of them, including Presidencies of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society. But he had never taken a higher exam than that of the First London M.B. for which he won the Gold Medal for Anatomy and Physiology. His rise through the scientific world was achieved by dint of his research work, powered by his capabilities and ambitions.

His research work began when, still a medical student, he published a paper on the hair follicle. It continued when he was appointed Assistant Surgeon on the voyage of the Rattlesnake, the naval survey ship which sailed to the Australian seas between the 1846 and 1850. In addition to carrying out his official duties, he used the voyage to study the sea creatures which he dredged up over the side of the ship. These sea creatures he drew in immense detail, dissected and minutely described, and in so doing he added new knowledge to comparative anatomy. In his cramped cabin he gathered information for papers on three groups of animals: Coelenterata (jellyfish, sea anemones, corals); Ascidians (sea squirts); and Cephalous Mollusca (squid, snails and slugs). He showed that all jellyfish- like animals are composed of two layers. These papers were eventually published in the 1850's after his return to England.

Huxley was finally discharged from the Navy in 1854, and took up the post of Palaeontolgist and Lecturer In Natural History at the Government Schools of Mines (later Royal School of Mines) in Jermyn Street. The school shared the building with the Geological Survey of Great Britain and it's attendant Museum of Practical Geology. Here he taught, but also worked on reclassification of several groups of fossils, laying the foundations for future work on vertebrates. Importantly he suggested that birds were descendants of dinosaurs.
Taxonomy was one of his strong points, emphasising his capacity for clarity of thought when faced with a problem. This systematic approach stood him in good stead when dealing with the opposition to his proposals, be they for a scientific theory, technical education, arrangements for curricula in elementary schools ( as when he served on the London School Board), methods of teaching (he strongly advocated the practical), or Darwin's "Origin of Species". An inspiring teacher himself, he introduced the public to the notion of Neanderthal Man as our forebear.

The Government School of Mines was to remain Huxley's employer for many years, until he became Dean of the Normal School of Science (later Royal College of Science) in 1881. Huxley had been instrumental in moving parts of the School of Mines (natural history, chemistry and physics) to the Science Schools building (now the Henry Cole wing of the Victoria and Albert Museum) in South Kensington in 1872. Between then and 1892 the remainder of the mining sections followed. Partly through Huxley's work, another building was erected in Exhibition Road (higher up and on the opposite side from the Science Schools) to house the Central Institution. It opened in 1884 and was the outcome of the lobbying by Huxley and other influential figures for funding for much needed Technical Education in Britain. He assisted in persuading the Livery Companies to form the City and Guilds Central Institution for the purpose of technical education at a high level.

When asked to say how he would like to be remembered Huxley said:

"Posthumous fame is not particularly attractive to me, but, 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."

Published by the Imperial College London, Records and Archives,
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Updated 13 September 2005

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