Thomas Henry Huxley.

Life and letters of Thomas Henry Huxley online

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and to remount the steps to the house without help.

But though the original attack was successfully thrown
off, the lung trouble had affected the heart ; and in his
weakened state, renal mischief ensued. Yet he held out
splendidly, never giving in, save for one hour of utter pros-
tration, all through this weary length of sickness. His first
recovery strengthened him in expecting to get well from
the second attack. And on June 10 he writes brightly
enough to Sir J. D. Hooker :


MY DEAR OLD FRIEND It was cheering to get your letter
and to hear that you had got through winter and diphtheria
without scathe.

I can't say very much for myself yet, but I am carried down



to a tent in the garden every day, and live in the fresh air all
I can. The thing that keeps me back is an irritability of the
stomach tending to the rejection of all solid food. However,
L think I am slowly getting the better of it thanks to my con-
stitutional toughness and careful nursing and dieting.

What has Spencer been trampling on the " Pour le merite '
for, when he accepted the Lyncei ? I was just writing to con-
gratulate him when, by good luck, I saw he had refused !

The beastly nausea which comes on when I try to do any-
thing warns me to stop.

With our love to you both Ever yours,


The last time I saw him was on a visit to Eastbourne
from June 22-24. I was astonished to find how well he
looked in spite of all ; thin, indeed, but browned with the
endless sunshine of the 1895 summer as he sat every day
in the verandah. His voice was still fairly strong; he was
delighted to see us about him, and was cheerful, even merry
at times. As the nurse said, she could not expect him to
recover, but he did not look like a dying man. When I
asked him how he was, he said, " A mere carcass, which has
to be tended by other people." But to the last he looked
forward to recovery. One day he told the nurse that the
doctors must be wrong about the renal mischief, for if they
were right, he ought already to be in a state of coma. This
was precisely what they found most astonishing in his case ;
it seemed as if the mind, the strong nervous organisation,
were triumphing over the shattered body. Herein lay one
of the chief hopes of ultimate recovery.

As late as June 26 he wrote, with shaky handwriting
but indomitable spirit, to relieve his old friend from the
anxiety he must feel from the newspaper bulletins.

HODESLEA, EASTBOURNE, y/m^ 26, 1895.

MY DEAR HOOKER The pessimistic reports of my condition
which have got into the papers may be giving you unnecessary
alarm for the condition of your old comrade. So I send a line to
tell you the exact state of affairs.

There is kidney mischief going on and it is accompanied
by very distressing attacks of nausea and vomiting, which some-
times last for hours and make life a burden.



However, strength keeps up very well considering, and of
course all depends upon how the renal business goes. At present
I don't feel at all like " sending in my checks," and without
being over sanguine I rather incline to think that my native
toughness will get the best of it albuminuria or otherwise.
Ever your faithful friend, T. H. H.

Misfortunes never come single. My son-in-law, Eckersley,
died of yellow fever the other day at San Salvador just as he
was going to take up an appointment at Lima worth 1200 a
year. Rachel and her three children have but the slenderest


The next two days there was a slight improvement, but
on the third morning the heart began to fail. The great
pain subdued by anaesthetics, he lingered on about seven
hours, and at half-past three on June 29 passed away very

He was buried at Finchley, on July 4, beside his brother
George and his little son Noel, under the shadow of the
oak, which had grown up into a stately young tree from
the little sapling it had been when the grave of his first-born
was dug beneath it, five and thirty years before.

There was no official ceremony. An old friend, Mr.
Llewellyn Davies, came from Kirby Lonsdale to read the
service ; the many friends who gathered at the grave-side
were there as friends mourning the death of a friend, and
all touched with the same sense of personal loss.

By his special direction, three lines from a poem written
by his wife, were inscribed upon his tombstone lines in-
spired by his own robust conviction that, all question of
the future apart, this life as it can be lived, pain, sorrow,
and evil notwithstanding, is worth and well worth
living :

Be not afraid, ye waiting hearts that weep ;
For still He giveth His beloved sleep,
And if an endless sleep He wills, so best.


HE had intellect to comprehend his highest duty distinctly, and
force of character to do it ; which of us dare ask for a higher
summary of his life than that?

SUCH was Huxley's epitaph upon Henslow ; it was the
standard which he endeavoured to reach in his own life. It
is the expression of that passion for veracity which was
perhaps his strongest characteristic ; an uncompromising
passion for truth in thought, which would admit no particle
of self-deception, no assertion beyond what could be veri-
fied ; for truth in act, perfect straightforwardness and sin-
cerity, with complete disregard of personal consequences
for uttering unpalatable fact.

Truthfulness, in his eyes, was the cardinal virtue, with-
out which no stable society can exist. Conviction, sin-
cerity, he always respected, whether on his own side or
against him. Clever men, he would say, are as common
as blackberries ; the rare thing is to find a good one. The
lie from interested motives was only more hateful to him
than the lie from self-delusion or foggy thinking. With
this he classed the " sin of faith," as he called it ; that form
of credence which does not fulfil the duty of making a right
use of reason ; which prostitutes reason by giving assent
to propositions which are neither self-evident nor adequately

This principle has always been far from finding universal
acceptance. One of his theological opponents went so far
as to affirm that a doctrine may be not only held, but
dogmatically insisted on, by a teacher who is, all the time,
fully aware that science may ultimately prove it to be quite



His one course went to the opposite extreme. In
teaching, where it was possible to let the facts speak for
themselves, he did not further urge their bearing upon wider
problems. He preferred to warn beginners against drawing
superficial inferences in favour of his own general theories,
from facts the real meaning of which was not immediately
apparent. Father Hahn (S.J.), who studied under him in
1876, writes :

One day when I was talking to him, our conversation turned
upon evolution. ' There is one thing about you I cannot under-
stand," I said, " and I should like a word in explanation. For
several months now I have been attending your course, and I
have never heard you mention evolution, while in your public
lectures everywhere you openly proclaim yourself an evolu-
tionist." *

Now it would be impossible to imagine a better opportunity
for insisting on evolution than his lectures on comparative anato-
my, when animals are set side by side in respect of the gradual
development of functions. But Huxley was so reserved on this
subject in his lectures that, speaking one day of a species form-
ing a transition between two others, he immediately added :

" When I speak of transition I do not in the least mean to
say that one species turned into a second to develop thereafter
into a third. What I mean is, that the characters of the second
are intermediate between those of the two others. It is as if I
were to say that such and such a cathedral, Canterbury, for ex-
ample, is a transition between York Minster and Westminster
Abbey. No one would imagine, on hearing the word transition,
that a transmutation of these buildings actually took place from
one into another."

But to return to his reply :

" Here in my teaching lectures (he said to me) I have time
to put the facts fully before a trained audience. In my public
lectures I am obliged to pass rapidly over the facts, and I put
forward my personal convictions. And it is for this that people
come to hear me."

As to the question whether children should be brought
up in entire disregard to the beliefs rejected by himself, but
still current among the mass of his fellow-countrymen, he

* Revue des Questions Scientijiqiies (Brussels), for October 1895.


was of opinion that they ought to know ' the mythology
of their time and country," otherwise one would at the best
tend to make young prigs of them ; but as they grew up,
their questions should be answered frankly.*

The natural tendency to veracity, strengthened by the
observation of the opposite quality in one with whom he
was early brought into contact, received its decisive impulse,
as has been told before, from Carlyle, whose writings con-
firmed and established his youthful reader in a hatred of
shams and make-believes equal to his own.

In his mind no compromise was possible between truth
and untruth, f Against authorities and influences he pub-
lished Man's Place in Nature, though warned by his friends
that to do so meant ruin to his prospects. When he had
once led the way and challenged the upholders of conven-
tional orthodoxy, others backed him up with a whole
armoury of facts. But his fight was as far as possible for
the truth itself, for fact, not merely for controversial victory
or personal triumph. Yet, as has been said by a repre-
sentative of a very different school of thought, who can
wonder that he should have hit out straight from the shoul-
der, in reply to violent or insidious attacks, the stupidity
of which sometimes merited scorn as well as anger?

In his theological controversies he was no less careful to
avoid any approach to mere abuse or ribaldry such as some
opponents of Christian dogma indulged in. For this reason
he refused to interpose in the well-known Foote case. Dis-
cussion, he said, could be carried on effectually without
deliberate wounding of others' feelings.

* The wording of a paragraph in Professor Mivart's "Reminis-
cences" (Nineteenth Century, December 1897, p. 993), tends, I think, to
leave a wrong impression on this point.

f As he once said, when urged to write a more eulogistic notice of
a dead friend than he thought deserved, "The only serious tempta-
tions to perjury I have ever known have arisen out of the desire to be
of some comfort to people I cared for in trouble. If there are such
things as Plato's 'Royal Lies' they are surely those which one is

tempted to tell on such occasions. Mrs. is such a good devoted

little woman, and I am so doubtful about having a soul, that it seems
absurd to hesitate to peril it for her satisfaction."


As he wrote in reply to an appeal for help in this case
(March 12, 1883):

I have not read the writings for which Mr. Foote was
prosecuted. But, unless their nature has been grossly misrepre-
sented, I cannot say that I feel disposed to intervene on his

I am ready to go great lengths in defence of freedom of dis-
cussion, but I decline to admit that rightful freedom is attacked,
when a man is prevented from coarsely and brutally insulting
his neighbours' honest beliefs.

I would rather make an effort to get legal penalties inflicted
with equal rigour on some of the anti-scientific blasphemers
who are quite as coarse and unmannerly in their attacks on
opinions worthy of all respect as Mr. Foote can possibly have

The grand result of his determination not to compromise
where truth was concerned, was the securing freedom of
thought and speech. One man after another, looking back
on his work, declares that if we can say what we think now,
it is because he fought the battle of freedom. Not indeed
the battle of toleration, if toleration means toleration of error
for its own sake. Error, he thought, ought to be extirpated
by all legitimate means, and not assisted because it is con-
scientiously held.

As Lord Hobhouse wrote, soon after his death :

I see now many laudatory notices of him in papers. But I
have not seen, and I think the younger men do not know, that
which (apart from science) I should put forward as his strong-
est claim to reverence and gratitude ; and that is the steadfast
courage and consummate ability with which he fought the battle
of intellectual freedom, and insisted that people should be
allowed to speak their honest convictions without being op-
pressed or slandered by the orthodox. He was one of those,
perhaps the very foremost, who won that priceless freedom for
us ; and, as is too common, people enter into the labours of the
brave, and do not even know what their elders endured, or what
has been done for themselves.

With this went a proud independence of spirit, intolerant
of patronage, careless of titular honours, indifferent to the
accumulation of worldly w r ealth. He cared little even for



recognition of his work ; " If I had 400 a year," * he ex-
claimed at the outset of his career, " I should be content to
work anonymously for the advancement of science." The
only recognition he considered worth having, was that of
the scientific world ; yet so little did he seek it, so little
insist on questions of priority, that, as Professor Howes
tells me, there are at South Kensington among the mass of
unpublished drawings from dissections made by him, many
which show that he had arrived at discoveries which after-
wards brought credit to other investigators.

He was as ready to disclaim for himself any merits which
really belonged to his predecessors, whether philosophical
or scientific. He was too well read in their works not to
be aware of the debt owed them by his own generation,
and he reminded the world how little the scientific insight
of Goethe, for instance, or the solid labours of Buffon or
Reaumur or Lamarck, deserved oblivion.

The only point on which he did not claim recognition
was the honesty of his motives. He was incapable of doing
anything underhand, and he could not bear even the appear-
ance of such conduct towards his friends, or those with
whom he had business relations. In such cases he always
took the bull by the horns, acknowledged an oversight or
explained what was capable of misunderstanding. The
choice between Edward Forbes and Hooker for the Royal
Society's medal, or the explanations to Mr. Spencer for not
joining a social reform league of which the latter was a
prominent member, will serve as instances.

The most considerable difference I note among men (he
wrote,) is not in their readiness to fall into error, but in their
readiness to acknowledge these inevitable lapses.

For himself, he let no personal feelings stand in the way
when fact negatived his theories : once convinced that they
were untenable, he gave up Bathybius and the European
origin of the Horse without hesitation.

The regard in which he was held by his friends was such

* A sum which might have supported a bachelor, but was entirely
inadequate to the needs of a large family.


that he was sometimes appealed to by both parties in a dis-
pute. He was a man to be trusted with the confidence of
his friends. " Yes, you are quite right about ' loyal,' he
writes to Mr. Knowles, ' I love my friends and hate my
enemies which may not be in accordance with the Gospel,
but I have found it a good wearing creed for honest men."
But he only regarded as " enemies " those whom he found
to be double-dealers, shufflers, insincere, untrustworthy ; a
fair opponent he respected, and he could agree to differ with
a friend without altering his friendship.

A lifelong impression of him was thus summed up by
Dr. A. R. Wallace :

I find that he was my junior by two years, yet he has always
seemed to me to be the older, mainly no doubt, because from the
very first time I saw him (now more than forty years ago), I
recognised his vast superiority in ability, in knowledge, and in
all those qualities that enable a man to take a foremost place in
the world. I owe him thanks for much kindness and for assist-
ance always cordially given, and although we had many differ-
ences of opinion, I never received from him a harsh or unkind

To those who could only judge him from his contro-
versial literature, or from a formal business meeting, he
often appeared hard and unsympathetic, but never to those
who saw beneath the surface. In personal intercourse, if
he disliked a man and a strong individuality has strong
likes and dislikes he would merely veil his feelings under
a superabundant politeness of the chilliest kind; but to any
one admitted to his friendship he was sympathy itself. And
thus, although I have heard him say that his friends, in
the fullest sense of the word, could be reckoned on the
fingers of one hand, the impression he made upon all who
came within the circle of his friendship was such that quite
a number felt themselves to possess his intimacy, and one
wrote, after his death : ' His many private friends are al-
most tempted to forget the public loss, in thinking of the
qualities which so endeared him to them all."

Both the speculative and the practical sides of his in-
tellect were strongly developed. On the one hand, he had



an intense love of knowledge, the desire to attain true
knowledge of facts, and to organise them in their true rela-
tions. His contributions to pure science never fail to illus-
trate both these tendencies. His earlier researches brought
to light new facts in animal life, and new ideas as to the
affinities of the creatures he studied ; his later investigations
were coloured by Darwin's views, and in return contributed
no little direct evidence in favour of evolution. But while
the progress of the evolution theory in England owed more
to his clear and unwearied exposition than to any other
cause, while from the first he had indicated the points, such
as the causes of sterility and variation, which must be cleared
up by further investigation in order to complete the Dar-
winian theory, he did not add another to the many specu-
lations since put forward.

On the other hand, intense as was his love of pure
knowledge, it was balanced by his unceasing desire to apply
that knowledge in the guidance of life. Always feeling
that science was not solely for the men of science, but for
the people, his constant object was to help the struggling
world to ideas which should help them to think truly and
so to live rightly. It is still true, he declared, that the people
perish for want of knowledge. " If I am to be remem-
bered at all," he writes (see Vol. I. p. 510), " I should
like to be remembered as one who did his best to help
the people." And again, he says in his Autobiographi-
cal Sketch, that other marks of success were as nothing
if he could hope that he " had somewhat helped that
movement of opinion which has been called the New

This kind of aim in his work, of taking up the most
fruitful idea of his time and bringing it home to all, is
typified by his remark as he entered New York harbour
on his visit to America in 1876, and watched the tugs hard
at work as they traversed the bay. " If I were not a man,"
he said, " I think I should like to be a tug."

Two incidents may be cited to show that he did not
entirely fail of appreciation among those whom he tried to
help. Speaking of the year 1874, Professor Mivart writes



(Reminiscences of T. H. Huxley, Nineteenth Century, Dec.
1897) :-

I recollect going with him and Mr. John Westlake, Q.C., to
a meeting of artisans in the Blackfriars Road, to whom he gave
a friendly address. He felt a strong interest in working-men,
and was much beloved by them. On one occasion, having taken
a cab home, on his arrival there, when he held out his fare to
the cabman, the latter replied, " Oh no, Professor, I have had
too much pleasure and profit from hearing you lecture to take
any money from your pocket proud to have driven you, sir ! '

The other is from a letter to the Pall Afall Gazette of
September 20, 1892, from Mr. Raymond Blaythwayt, on
" The Uses of Sentiment " :

Only to-day I had a most striking instance of sentiment come
beneath my notice. I was about to enter my house, when a plain,
simply-dressed w r orking-man came up to me with a note in his
hand, and touching his hat, he said, "I think this is for you,
sir," and then he added, "Will you give me the envelope, sir,
as a great favour ? ' I looked at it, and seeing it bore the
signature of Professor Huxley, I replied, " Certainly I will ; but
why do you ask for it? ' " Well," said he, " it's got Professor
Huxley's signature, and it will be something for me to show my
mates and keep for my children. He have done me and my
like a lot of good; no man more."

In practical administration, his judgment of men, his
rapid perception of the essential points at issue, his observ-
ance of the necessary limits of official forms, combined with
the greatest possible elasticity within these limits, made him
extremely successful.

As Professor (writes the late Professor Jeffery Parker),
Huxley's rule was characterised by what is undoubtedly the best
policy for the head of a department. To a new subordinate,
" The General," as he was always called, was rather stern and
exacting, but when once he was convinced that his man was to
be trusted, he practically let him take his own course; never
interfered in matters of detail, accepted suggestions with the
greatest courtesy and good humour, and was always ready with
a kindly and humorous word of encouragement in times of dif-
ficulty. I was once grumbling to him about how hard it was
to carry on the work of the laboratory through a long series of

xxiv AS A LECTURER 435

November fogs, " when neither sun nor stars in many days ap-
peared." " Never mind, Parker," he said, instantly capping my
quotation, " cast four anchors out of the stern and wish for day."

Nothing, indeed, better illustrates this willingness to
listen to suggested improvements than the inversion of the
order of studies in the biological course which he inaugu-
rated in 1872, namely, the substitution of the anatomy of a
vertebrate for the microscopic examination of a unicellular
organism as the opening study. This w T as entirely Parker's
doing. ' As one privileged at the time to play a minor
part," writes Professor Howes (Nature, January 6, 1898,
p. 228), " I well recall the determination in Parker's mind
that the change was desirable, and in Huxley's, that it was
not. Again and again did Parker appeal in vain, until at
last, on the morning of October 2, 1878, he triumphed."

On his students he made a deep and lasting impression.

His lectures (writes Jeffery Parker) were like his writings,
luminously clear, without the faintest disposition to descend to
the level of his audience ; eloquent, but with no trace of the
empty rhetoric which so often does duty for that quality; full
of a high seriousness, but with no suspicion of pedantry; light-
ened by an occasional epigram or flashes of caustic humour,
but with none of the small jocularity in which it is such a
temptation to a lecturer to indulge. As one listened to him one
felt that comparative anatomy was indeed worthy of the de-
votion of a life, and that to solve a morphological problem was
as fine a thing as to win a battle. He was an admirable
draughtsman, and his blackboard illustrations were always a
great feature of his lectures, especially when, to show the rela-
tion of two animal types, he would, by a few rapid strokes and
smudges, evolve the one into the other before our eyes. He
seemed to have a real affection for some of the specimens illus-
trating his lectures, and would handle them in a peculiarly loving
manner; when he was lecturing on man, for instance, he would
sometimes thrown his arm over his shoulder of the skeleton be-
side him and take its hand, as if its silent companionship were
an inspiration. To me his lectures before his small class at
Jermyn Street or South Kensington were almost more impres-
sive than the discourses at the Royal Institution, where for an

Online LibraryThomas Henry HuxleyLife and letters of Thomas Henry Huxley → online text (page 38 of 49)