Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Thomas Henry Huxley

JMS Pearce
East Yorks, England

Fig 1. TH Huxley. print by Lock & Whitfield. 1880 or earlier. Via Wikimedia.

“In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration . . . In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”
– TH Huxley

Above a butcher’s shop in Ealing in May 1825, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895) was born to lay a gene pool of unimaginable potential. George and Rachel (née Withers) Huxley gave birth to Thomas Henry Huxley (Fig 1).

For two years only he attended Great Ealing School, which was in decline, where his father taught mathematics. In 1835 the family moved to Coventry. He later remarked on the “pandemonium of school, and no help or sympathy in any intellectual direction till I reached manhood.” Because of his limited education1 Huxley was self-taught, hungrily reading science, history, philosophy, and German.

He was renowned for his adamant defense of Charles Darwin’s ideas on evolution, but more than this he was also a doctor who made major contributions to the wider realms of biological science and society and a brilliant draftsman, paleontologist, and anthropologist.2,3,4 His penetrating, good-natured wit is exemplified in the “Michael Foster and Thomas Henry Huxley, Correspondence,”5 which is worth reading for its display of wisdom and sparkling humor.

In Coventry he sympathized with the town’s nonconformist (“dissenting”) weavers, who wanted to end the Church’s domination of public institutions. He came to view morality as a cultural rather than religious phenomenon, and demanded objective evidence as a credible explanation of a deity. His intellectual uncertainty about religion caused his invention of the word agnostic—“not a creed but a method”—which encapsulated his view that the moral responsibility of weighing evidence should replace religious dogma.

Huxley was apprenticed to his physician brothers-in-law John Cooke and John Salt (a.k.a. Scott), and was appalled by his patients’ poverty. He studied at the Sydenham Collegea where he won the botany prize in 1842—but was troubled by the sectarian politics in science, in line with Sydenham College’s director Marshall Hall, who harangued the Royal College of Physicians for excluding dissenters from its Fellowship. He secured a scholarship at Charing Cross Hospital to become a medical student and graduated MB (part one) with a gold medal in 1845, but never completed the degree.

Inspired by Thomas Wharton Jones, he began to investigate living processes using physical and chemical laws. Thus he soon rejected Jones’s divine-design explanations of anatomy. His skills in microscopy led to his discovery in 1845 of a membrane in the inner root sheath of human hair now known as Huxley’s layer.

Short of income, the next year he obtained the job of assistant surgeon and naturalist on an exploratory voyage to Australia and New Guinea on HMS Rattlesnake. After completing his medical duties he studied the structure and growth of sea anemones, hydras, and jellyfish, which he classified as Nematophora (later classified as Cnidaria). He demonstrated that they were all composed of two “foundation membranes” (endoderm and ectoderm). He then noticed that vertebrate embryos showed the same two-layered structure as the adult jellyfish. Huxley inferred a connection between organismal development, called ontogeny, and historical relationships between taxa, called phylogeny. He published his major paper “On the Anatomy and the Affinities of the Family of the Medusae” in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in 1849, which was expanded in 1859 in The Oceanic Hydrozoa.

Fig 2. Romanes Lecture. From Evolution and ethics / Thomas Henry Huxley. Via the British Library

In Sydney, Australia he became engaged to, and much later in 1855 married, Henrietta Heathorn, who bore three sons and five daughters. When he returned to England in October 1850, he found that his research had been accepted and praised by the scientific establishment. A meteoric rise led to his election at age twenty-six to the Fellowship the Royal Society of London in 1851; he won its Royal Medal a year later and became its president in 1883. Thereafter he took little part in medical practice, though in 1874 he was a founder of the London School of Medicine for Women with the pioneering physicians Sophia Jex-Blake, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and Emily and Elizabeth Blackwell.

He became acquainted with the famous geologist Charles Lyell and the botanist Joseph Hooker, both powerful supporters of Charles Darwin’s controversial Origin of Species (1859). Without a salaried job, Huxley struggled on a stipend from the Navy and by writing science articles. In 1854 he secured a lectureship teaching natural history and paleontology at the School of Mines in London. He vigorously enhanced the teaching of science in schools. He soon held Chairs at the Royal Institution and the Royal College of Surgeons.

Huxley’s most famous book is Evidence on Man’s Place in Nature. Published in 1863, only five years after Darwin’s Origin of Species, this was a comprehensive review of primate and human paleontology and ethology. It was the first attempt to explain human evolution, which to some extent Darwin had avoided. In this Huxley was opposed by Richard Owen (1804-1892), the esteemed if cantankerous curator of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. Owen asserted that the human brain contained parts that were not present in apes, and man could therefore neither be classified with nor descended from apes. Huxley refuted this, demonstrating the detailed anatomical similarity of human and primate brains.

In his 1893 Romanes Lecture, he considered concepts of Indian and Greek ethics within the framework of evolution. (Fig 2) He criticized Spencer’s term “survival of the fittest” as an unlucky substitute for “natural selection” and repeatedly pointed out that the moral no less than the material good of man was to be secured by the scientific method alone.

He was a founding member of the influential X Club,6,7 which tried to reform the Royal Society. Most of its members served on the Council of the Royal Society; both Huxley and Spottiswoode became its president. George Busk served as president of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Never one to evade controversy, Huxley denied that the skull was composed of vertebrae as his rival Richard Owen believed; following Charles Lyell, he challenged the view that fossils showed a progression through the rocks; and he contradicted a Christian dictate that man was the consequence of divine creation. Before Darwin’s work he had criticized the evolutionary theories of Lamarck and Chambers that proposed a general tendency for all organisms to evolve “upward” into increasingly complex forms. He also developed Von Baer’s8 and Haeckel’s generally accepted biogenetic law,9 the idea that “Ontogeny recapitulates Phylogeny”: the notion that during embryonic development an organism repeats the adult stages of organisms from which it had evolved. The embryo of a higher form never resembles any other form, but only its embryo. Stephen Jay Gould later critically appraised the ramifications and history of this evolutionary developmental biology.10 

In November of 1859, after reading the newly published Origin of Species, Huxley warned Darwin that there would be “mischief from anti-evolutionists” and that he was “sharpening up his claws” preparing to annihilate these creationist critics. Huxley accepted Darwin’s theory with the caveat that natural selection had not yet been confirmed experimentally. Nonetheless, as an outspoken supporter, and at that time well nigh unknown, he famously contested the theory with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in a heated debate at Oxford on June 30, 1860, at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Contemporary authorities agreed that Huxley (and Hooker) overwhelmed Wilberforce in their debate. He acquired the nickname “Darwin’s bulldog” as a powerful advocate of evolution by natural selection.

Huxley subsequently discussed his studies of ape ancestry and the new fossil Neanderthal Man in Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863). He also worked on fossils showing how fish had evolved into amphibians. In 1867–68, after comparing Archaeopteryx with Compsognathus, he concluded that birds evolved from small carnivorous dinosaurs, a theory widely accepted.

His provocative and original views gradually attracted popular approval by which he promoted vigorously the standing of science, enhanced education, professionalism, and many conventionally rigid national institutions.11,12 Always financially insecure, he had spells of depression from 1871 that subsided after friends and X Club members paid for a holiday in the Auvergne two years later.

Among many honors he served as President of the Royal Society; Fullerian Professor at the Royal Institution; Hunterian Professor at the Royal College of Surgeons; President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science 1869–1870; and Rector of the University of Aberdeen. He recommended the unification of the Government School of Mines with the Royal College of Chemistry, which became the Imperial College of Science and Technology. He was appointed to the Privy Council in 1892.

After homes in London (Fig 3) he retired to Eastbourne at Beachy Head, where a historical plaque marks his house. The family originated in the manor of Hodeslia, southeast of Chester, where Higher Huxley Hall and Lower Huxley Hall remain. They therefore named their home Hodeslea.

Fig 3. TH Huxley Blue plaque at
38 Marlborough Place. London.
Photo credit: English Heritage. Source
Fig 4. Leonard, Julian and Aldous Huxley
Blue plaque. At 16 Bracknell Gardens,
London. Photo credit: English Heritage. Source
Fig 5. Alan Hodgkin & Andrew Huxley Blue plaque.
Photo by Chris. Source. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

From Thomas Huxley emerged an unsurpassed dynasty (Fig 4). His son Leonard was a biographer and teacher at Charterhouse School, through whom Thomas had three famous grandchildren: Sir Julian Huxley FRS, the embryologist and evolutionary biologist; Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World and Eyeless in Gaza; and their half-brother Sir Andrew Huxley FRS, physiologist and joint Nobel prize winner.13 (Fig 5)

Thomas Huxley was a happy and fervently devoted husband and father. His son recalled “the fairy half-hour” in which he told them wonderful sea and animal stories. His letters reveal a witty, self-effacing character. When he received an honorary degree from Cambridge, he wrote to a friend that though he had done his best to avoid it, he was becoming a “Person of Respectability.” Sir Michael Foster FRS, a close friend, noted how he was “dissatisfied with any solution incapable of rigid proof and incisive expression, he seemed always to go about with a halo of clear light immediately around him.” He continued: “every one who met him saw in him a man bent on following the true and doing the right, swerving aside no tittle, either for the sake of reward or for fear of the enemy, a man whose uttered scorn of what was mean and cowardly was but the reciprocal of his inward love of nobleness and courage.”14

The true lumen siccum of science glowed in every aspect of Huxley. He died of influenza and pneumonia on June 29, 1895. He was buried in St. Marylebone Cemetery in Finchley. Foster remarked that those seeing on his tombstone the lines he chose from his wife Henrietta Huxley’s poem “Browning’s Funeral”—

“And if there be no meeting past the grave,
If all is darkness, silence, yet ’tis rest.
Be not afraid, ye waiting hearts that weep,
For God still giveth his belovèd sleep,
And if an endless sleep he wills, — so best.”

will recognize that the agnostic man of science had much in common with the man of faith.


End Notes

  1. Founded in 1836 as an anatomy school by Erasmus Wilson, Marshall Hall, John Dalrymple, and others, and named after the 17th-century physician Thomas Sydenham.


  1. L. Huxley, Life and letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, vols. (1900). See also: Project Gutenberg’s Autobiography and Selected Essays, by Thomas Henry Huxley. Edited Ada L. F. Snell. 2006 [EBook #1315] https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1315/1315-h/1315-h.htm#link2H_4_0004 2
  2. Bibby C. Scientist Extraordinary: The Life and Scientific Work of Thomas Henry Huxley. Oxford 1972.
  3. Huxley T. H. Huxley and the Development of Physiology in Britain. Proceedings of the Physiological Society 263 (1976), 41-45.
  4. Desmond A. Thomas Henry Huxley. Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford, OUP 2004.
  5. Michael Foster and Thomas Henry Huxley, Correspondence, Letters 330 through 363, 1865–1895. Med Hist Suppl. 2009; (28): 265–290.
  6. Barton, R. ‘An Influential Set of Chaps’: The X-Club and Royal Society Politics 1864–85. The British Journal for the History of Science 1990; 23(1), 53-81.
  7. Pearce JMS. The X club. Hektoen Int J. 2019
  8. Von Baer KE. Ueber Entwicklungsgeschichte der Tiere (On the Embryology of Animals). 2 vols. Königsberg, 1828; 1837), I, 224; [Huxley’s translation, Scientific Memoirs, ed. A. Henfrey and T. H. Huxley. London, 1853: p. 214.
  9. Haeckel EHPA. Berlin. Generelle Morphologie der Organismen, 2 vols. Berlin, G. Reimer 1866; 2:300, 344; Harvard University Press, 1977.
  10. Gould SJ. Ontogeny and Phylogeny, Cambridge Mass. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1977.
  11. Michael Foster and E. Ray Lankester (eds) The Scientific Memoirs of Thomas Henry Huxley, 4 vols. and suppl. (London, 1898-1903),
  12. Foster M. “Obituary of T. H. Huxley,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 59 (1896), 46-66.
  13. Samuel and Ian Huxley. Firmly rooted. 2017. https://thehuxleystory.wordpress.com/huxley/
  14. Foster, M. A Few More Words on Thomas Henry Huxley. Nature 1895;52, 318–320. https://doi.org/10.1038/052318b0.

JMS PEARCE, MD, FRCP, is a retired neurologist and author with a particular interest in the history of science and medicine.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 13, Issue 1 – Winter 2021

Summer 2020




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