Thomas Henry Huxley Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: The first and most influential defender of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Huxley forcefully articulated its implications in the fields of religion, philosophy, and ethics.

Early Life

Thomas Henry Huxley was born on May 4, 1825, in Ealing, Middlesex, England, a village not far from London. The seventh and youngest child of George and Rachel Huxley, he was reared in a family of limited means. Though his father had taught mathematics, Huxley had had only two years of formal education before the Ealing school closed and his father changed professions. At the age of ten, Huxley became responsible for his own education.

Ironically, the inquisitive and self-motivated boy probably learned more on his own, systematically working through his father’s library, than he would have in the incompetent semipublic education system of early nineteenth century England. Demonstrating the drive that would characterize his later years, he taught himself both French and German in order to read such writers as René Descartes and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in their native languages. He read widely both in the humanities and in the sciences, laying a foundation that would serve him in his later efforts to bridge the two disciplines.

In 1842, Huxley won a scholarship to study medicine at London University’s Charing Cross Hospital. A swarthy, energetic young man, whose keen eyes betrayed a voracious intellectual appetite, he took full advantage of his first complete course of instruction, winning the university’s Gold Medal in Anatomy and Physiology upon his graduation in 1845. A few months later, he discovered a cellular component of human hair that came to be known as “Huxley’s layer.”

The following year, Huxley joined the navy and was appointed assistant surgeon on HMS Rattlesnake, a surveying ship that began a four-year cruise of the South Pacific. Though he was not officially the ship’s naturalist, he undertook a rigorous study of marine plankton that earned for him the reputation of a serious and gifted young scientist upon its publication in London. In 1851, a year following his return to London, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge, England’s most respected scientific institution. In 1852, he won the society’s gold medal for his studies of invertebrate animals. In 1854, he resigned from the navy, hoping against the odds to secure a position that would allow him to do scientific research in London. That same year, his gamble paid off and he received two such appointments, one as professor of natural history and paleontology in the Royal School of Mines, and the other as curator of fossils in the Museum of Practical Geography. Combining the two modest salaries, he earned enough to send for his fiancée, Henrietta Anne Heathorn of Sydney, Australia. In 1855, the two were married.

In the years that followed, Huxley built his reputation not only as a rigorous scientist but also as a gifted public speaker. He became known as a spokesman for the sciences, never afraid to defend controversial findings from attacks by politicians and religious leaders. When Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species in 1859, these attributes brought Huxley to the forefront of the century’s most heated debate.

Life’s Work

Though Huxley eventually made much use of Darwin’s study, demonstrating its implications in a wide number of fields, he had opposed all previous theories of evolution. His reviews of the versions of it put forward by Robert Chambers and Jean Baptiste Lamarck had been scathing. It was only upon reading Darwin’s work, following the course of Darwin’s logic and tallying his numerous observations, that Huxley could embrace the controversial idea. For his own part, Darwin had sought Huxley’s approval before publishing the book. A shy, retiring man, Darwin lacked the stamina required to defend his work from the onslaught of vicious attacks it was sure to receive. In Huxley, Darwin found a respected and able supporter.

In a series of heated debates following the book’s publication, Huxley championed Darwin’s theory of evolution as the most successful framework yet proposed, within which to organize the known biological facts. What is more important, he fought to defend the broader principle that such controversies are better settled by examining the observable evidence than by appealing to unsupported scripture. In the most important of these debates, opposing the influential Bishop Samuel Wilberforce...

(The entire section is 1897 words.)