Thomas Henry Huxley

Thomas Henry Huxley was born in London on 4 May 1825, the son of a maths teacher. When he was 10, Huxley’s family moved to Coventry and three years later he was apprenticed to his uncle, a surgeon at the local hospital. He later moved to London where he continued his medical studies. At 21, Huxley signed on as assistant surgeon on HMS Rattlesnake, a Royal Navy ship assigned to chart the seas around Australia and New Guinea. During the voyage, he collected and studied marine invertebrates, sending his papers back to London. When he returned he found that the papers had been read and admired and in 1851 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

In 1854, Huxley was appointed professor at the School of Mines in London. He met Charles Darwin in around 1856 and was won over by his theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’ was published in 1859. It provoked a storm of controversy because it challenged the Christian belief that God created life on Earth. Huxley’s repeated and passionate defence of the book earned him the nickname of ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’. In June 1860 in Oxford, Huxley took part in a famous public debate on evolution with Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford. Wilberforce had been coached by Richard Owen, an eminent Victorian scientist, who was to be Huxley’s most significant opponent.

Huxley continued to lecture, gather data and publish, mostly on the subject of man’s origins. In 1863, he published his own book on evolution, ‘Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature’. Unlike Darwin’s Origin, this book focused on man’s ancestry and was short and populist in style. In 1880, Huxley lectured at the Royal Institution on ‘The Coming of Age of the Origin of Species’, effectively rewriting history with Darwin at the centre. From 1881 to 1885 he was president of the Royal Society and in 1892 was appointed to the privy council. He died on 29 June 1895.

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