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Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895)

by Ann Mozley

This article was published:

Thomas Huxley, self-portrait, 1847

Thomas Huxley, self-portrait, 1847

National Library of Australia, 10335225

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), biologist, anthropologist and philosopher, was born on 4 May 1825 at Ealing, London, the seventh child of George Huxley, schoolmaster, and his wife Rachel. Huxley received little formal education or systematic training in science; at 16 he became a medical apprentice in London, and later held a scholarship at Charing Cross Hospital. He joined the naval medical service in 1846 and in December, on the recommendation of Sir John Richardson, explorer and naturalist, was appointed assistant surgeon and naturalist to H.M.S. Rattlesnake sailing on a survey of Australia's north-eastern waters.

The ship, commanded by Captain Owen Stanley, reached Sydney in July 1847 and made Port Jackson its headquarters for the next three years. There Huxley formed a stimulating friendship with the naturalist William Sharp Macleay and met and courted Henrietta Heathorn, whom he married in London in 1855. In the Rattlesnake he visited Melbourne and Van Diemen's Land in 1847, and watched the first operation carried out under ether in Hobart Town. From Brisbane on the ship's first call, he rode to the Darling Downs. Much attracted by the inland, Huxley would have liked to join Edmund Kennedy's overland expedition to Cape York in April 1848, when that ill-fated party accompanied the Rattlesnake in an auxiliary vessel north from Brisbane to Rockingham Bay, but his duties fortunately prevented his doing so.

From April to September 1848 the Rattlesnake surveyed the inner passage of the Great Barrier Reef. These months were the least fruitful of Huxley's four years at sea: bored, depressed, and doubtful of the value of his own scientific work, he took no interest in the coral or the unique fauna of the reefs, and recorded little zoological activity in his diary or journal. When the ship sailed on its last cruise to the Louisiade Archipelago and the coast of New Guinea in May 1849 this despondency had disappeared, and it was his contact with the natives of these territories that first aroused his interest in anthropology.

Throughout the survey Huxley confined his scientific researches to the study of anatomy and comparative morphology, specializing in the delicate hydrozoa, tunicates and mollusca which float near the surface of the sea. In Sydney he wrote his memoirs on the structure of the hydrozoa, including his paper 'On the Anatomy and Affinities of the Family of the Medusae', which transformed understanding of the morphology of the animal kingdom. Communicated to the Royal Society by the bishop of Norwich in 1849, it secured Huxley's election as fellow of the Royal Society at 26. The society awarded him their royal medal in 1852.

The Rattlesnake returned to England in November 1850. Huxley was for three years assistant surgeon in H.M.S. Fishguard stationed at Woolwich. Here he prepared his material for publication, and diligently sought a post that would enable him to marry. Applications for chairs of zoology at Toronto, Aberdeen and Cork Universities and at King's College, London, met with no success. He was greatly disappointed at the failure to endow a separate chair of natural history in Sydney, and in November 1851 wrote to W. S. Macleay: 'Had the University of Sydney been carried out as originally proposed, I should certainly have been a candidate for the Natural History Chair. I know no finer field for exertion for any Naturalist than Sydney Harbour itself. Should such a professorship be hereafter established I trust you will jog the memory of my Australian friends in my behalf'.

In 1854 he retired from the navy and joined the Royal School of Mines as lecturer and naturalist, an association which lasted for thirty years; he was also appointed naturalist to the geological survey of Britain the following year. In addition he held several professorships and published numerous papers, essays and books. Huxley's second last scientific paper, 'Preliminary Notes on the Fossil Remains of a Chelonian Reptile, Ceratochelys sthenurus, from Lord Howe's Island, Australia' (Royal Society, Proceedings, 1887), reflected his continued Australian interests. In 1879 he was elected an honorary member of the Royal Society of New South Wales and its award of the Clarke medal the following year gave him undoubted pleasure. 'My scientific career', he wrote then, 'practically commenced with work done in the Australian seas, four and thirty years ago; the strongest ties of my life were formed in Sydney'. In 1888 the Royal Society of London awarded him the Copley medal, its highest honour, and in 1894 its first Darwin medal. Huxley died at Eastbourne on 29 June 1895. Of his eight children, two sons and four daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Huxley, Life and Letters of T. H. Huxley, vols 1-3 (Lond, 1903)
  • J. Huxley (ed), Thomas Henry Huxley's Diary of the Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake (Lond, 1935)
  • T. H. Huxley papers (Royal Society of New South Wales, microfilm copy at State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Ann Mozley, 'Huxley, Thomas Henry (1825–1895)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

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