Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Huxley: From Devil's Disciple To Evolution's High Priest

Huxley: From Devil's Disciple To Evolution's High Priest

by Adrian Desmond

See All Formats & Editions

T. H. Huxley (1825–1895) was Darwin's bloody-fanged bulldog. His giant scything intellect shook a prim Victorian society; his “Devil's gospel” of evolution outraged. He put “agnostic” into the vocabulary and cave men into the public consciousness. Adrian Desmond's fiery biography with its panoramic view of Dickensian life


T. H. Huxley (1825–1895) was Darwin's bloody-fanged bulldog. His giant scything intellect shook a prim Victorian society; his “Devil's gospel” of evolution outraged. He put “agnostic” into the vocabulary and cave men into the public consciousness. Adrian Desmond's fiery biography with its panoramic view of Dickensian life explains how this agent provocateur rose to become the century's greatest prophet.Synoptic in its sweep and evocative in its details, Desmond's biography reveals the poverty and opium-hazed tragedies of young Tom Huxley's life as well as the accolades and triumphs of his later years. The drug-grinder's apprentice knew sots and scandals and breakdowns that signaled a genius close to madness. As surgeon's mate on the cockroach-infested frigate Rattlesnake, he descended into hell on the Barrier Reef, but was saved by a golden-haired girl in the penal colony.Huxley pulled himself up to fight Darwin's battles in the 1860s, but left Darwin behind on the most inflammatory issues. He devasted angst-ridden Victorian society with his talk of ape ancestors, and tantalized and tormented thousands-from laborers to ladies of society, cardinals to Karl Marx—with his scintillating lectures. Out of his provocations came our image of science warring with theology. And out of them, too, came the West's new faith-agnosticism (he coined the new word).Champion of modern education, creator of an intellectually dominant profession, and president of the Royal Society, in Desmond's hands Huxley epitomizes the rise of the middle classes as the clawed power from the Anglican elite. His modern godless universe, intriguing and terrifying, millions of years in the making, was explored in his laboratory at South Kensington; his last pupil, H. G. Wells, made it the foundation of twentieth-century science fiction.Touching the crowning achievements and the crushing depths of both the man and his times, this is the epic story of a courageous genius whose life summed up the social changes from the Victorian to the modern age. Written with enormous zest and passion, Huxley is about the making of our modern Darwinian world.

Editorial Reviews

Journal of the American Medical Association
Huxley is a beautiful piece of biography and intellectual history. To understand the scientific world in which we live today, to appreciate the labor pains that preceded it, and the bloody birth that transformed our way of thinking about humankind's place in nature, one would do well to read this fascinating book.
New York Times Book Review
...[W]riting on science as lucid and engaging as one is likely to find.
NY Times Book Review
...[W]riting on science as lucid and engaging as one is likely to find.
Kirkus Reviews
A whopping life of Thomas Huxley (1825-95), who did much to bring Victorian-era science to a lay audience.

History has tended to remember Huxley as a stalking horse for Charles Darwin, a man who popularized evolutionary theory but did not himself contribute much to it. Desmond (Darwin, 1992), a biologist and historian of science, does much to correct this view—albeit somewhat breathlessly. It is true, he writes, that Huxley, a physician born into a family of decidedly modest means, spent much of his time speaking to workingmen's associations and other working-class groups about ape ancestors and cave men; it is also true that he popularized the word "scientist" and coined the term "agnostic," and that he wrote the first article on evolution for the Encyclopedia Britannica. Yet Huxley made several important advances in the study of the polyp- and medusa-bearing animals, the Coelenterata. Like Darwin, he saw the wonders of the natural world at first hand, having sailed as ship's doctor and scientist on a Beagle-like voyage that introduced him to odd creatures and ecological mysteries; he was thus equipped to appreciate evolutionary arguments concerning the great variability of species over time and space. Huxley was in many ways Darwin's equal, Desmond suggests, but was marshaled as a lieutenant into the cause of natural selection after abandoning his anti-utilitarian view of nature, an abandonment that made him a follower, not a leader. Desmond is too fond of overwrought prose (he describes a dissecting-room cadaver as "a cold body and a dead brain that had once glowed with hopes and desires"), but he makes a compelling case for our viewing Huxley as a crucial figure in the 19th-century social transformation toward the modern world.

This is an unfailingly interesting contribution to the history of science.

Product Details

Basic Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.19(w) x 9.29(h) x 1.63(d)
1120L (what's this?)

Read an Excerpt


Philosophy Can Bake No Bread

The Lanky 15 year-old sidled down fetid alleys, past gin palaces and dance halls. Sailors hung out of windows, the gaiety of their boozy whores belying the squalor around them. The boy's predatory looks and patched clothes seemed in keeping. But his black eyes betrayed a horror at the sights: ten crammed into a room, babies diseased from erupting cesspits, the uncoffined dead gnawed by rats. The scenes would scar him for life.

In 1841 young Tom Huxley was in a twilight world. For a highly strung, sensitive lad the degradation was numbing. Daily the drug-grinder's apprentice threaded his way through East London's hovels. He carried a little muslin bag, but his drugs proved useless when the people `were suffering from nothing but slow starvation'.

The century's worst recession had left mass unemployment. It showed in the haggard faces of his patients. Each wretched garret brought sorry sights, of bedridden seamstresses with no better food than `bread and bad tea'. How could he suggest a healthy diet? One deformed girl, nursing her sister, `turned upon me with a kind of choking passion. Pulling out of her pocket a few pence and halfpence, and holding them out, "That is all I get for six-and-thirty hours' work, and you talk about giving her proper food"'. Tom trudged ahead of the Grim Reaper, unable to stay his scythe. He watched the paupers succumb, mortality statistics scratched on the `ledgers of death'.

Night-time found him in his tiny dockside surgery, venting his anger. The wide-eyed boy who loved metaphysics and religion and dreamed his way into the immensity of geological time asked himself: how could a `solitary Philosopher' be `happy in the midst of poverty'? The pleading faces were to haunt him for life. They put the moral fire into his drive for a New Reformation. Christianity had failed the starving. Politics had failed them. The young evangelical would look for a new sort of salvation.

Thomas Henry Huxley's was an ignominious beginning. Not for him Darwin's silver spoon; he had no fortune to inherit, no family tradition to uphold. He was born on 4 May 1825 above a butcher's shop in Ealing, a small village 12 miles west of London. His father was an `active intelligent man', but intelligence hadn't gained him success. Tall and dark, George Huxley bequeathed to his youngest son a quick temper and a `glorious firmness which one's enemies called obstinacy'. He passed on little else, except a talent for drawing, which would give Tom his eye for capturing a rainforest or a reptilian fossil. George had been teaching mathematics at Ealing School for 18 years when Tom was born. It was a minor public school, relying on Classics and discipline to stiffen the backbone of the Anglican nation, and already in precipitous decline. At the time of Waterloo it had boasted 300 pupils, and George had taught John Henry Newman (the future Catholic cardinal) before that. From the school the Newman brothers had acquired their intense evangelical bias. But the fall in its fortunes had left George Huxley penniless.

His father's neglect bred a bitterness in Tom and he compensated by doting on his mother. Rachel was `a "Cockney" born within the sound of Bow Bells' (although of Devonshire descent) and already 40 when she gave birth to Thomas Henry, her sixth and youngest surviving child. The boy's love for her was `a passion'. He `laid awake for hours crying because I had a morbid fear of her death -- her approbation was my greatest reward and her displeasure my greatest punishment'. From his mother came `the tone of his inner spiritual life', a pious, moral, questing, questioning spiritual life, never content, never at rest. The boy's emotional submergence was total. He had his mother's slender build and black eyes, and even the twiddling movements of her fingers. Her lightning intuition was his: `things flash across me', she would say. That trait would serve Tom well as he rose to become a star performer in the Victorian firmament. Maternal wit and paternal temper formed an explosive combination. They left Tom quick and sharp, with a short fuse and a low flashpoint.

This mental ferocity had its matching exterior. Tom's piercing eyes and penetrating stare were set off by a raptorial mouth. His boyhood years did nothing to diminish this predatory look. He grew lean and gangling, with straight black hair and a permanent sarcastic expression, signalling a lethal bite. It went with the mocking surplice, as the boy turned his collar back to front and preached `to my mother's maids in the kitchen'.

The Huxleys were a strange, impassioned family, permanently at odds, with no vice or virtue that was not exaggerated in the youngest member. Being `much younger than the rest', Tom rarely saw his brothers and grew up `while they were little more than strangers to me'. He was heroically alone, or so an inner voice told him -- paternal neglect and poverty leaving him `without [much formal] education and without friends of my own age, left to quench my own running thirst for knowledge as I but might'. A battling mentality gave him inner strengths, but the insularity bred a bitter streak. Cocooned in his mental world, he became introspective and `one of the most secretive thin-skinned mortals in the world'.

Of his three brothers, James was four years older and `the only one for whom I felt any inkling of affection'. Jim and Tom were lookalikes, the identical hot-tempered, hyperactive pair who `can't take things easily'. Both were feisty, but Tom had the laconic edge. The oldest brother, George Knight Huxley, was the staid one, already on his way to becoming a barrister and businessman when Tom was a toddler. He would subsidize the others in their hours of need: `my sage and prudent brother', Tom called him. `The truth is ... we are all three too much alike to get on well. Our intense though hidden selfishness lies at the root of each of our characters, and is the source of its good & its evil'. It gave them a `determination & force of character'. It also put the poison into their clashes. The third brother, William, was eventually estranged by one of these boiling feuds and Tom never saw him again.

The sympathy and security came from his raven-haired sister Lizzie. Indeed, `of the surprising six people who sprang from our father & mother', Tom always told her, `you and I are the only two who seemed to be capable of fraternal love'. Nine years older, she was a mother figure and adored accordingly. Like so many daughters in large households, she was the unsung heroine. She helped with Tom's religious training and, speaking French and German, fired the boy's interest in Goethe. Theirs was an intense bond, never to be broken. Tom was more detached from the elder sister, Ellen, and when her life took a disastrous turn he could only `marvel' that she and Lizzie `sprang from the same stock'.

At the age of eight, in 1833, Tom started in his father's school, and a `Pandemonium of a school' at that. Twenty-four months there was the only schooling he had in his life. By now Ealing School had dwindled to 40 pupils. The fall in standards was even more evident and the masters `cared about as much for our intellectual and moral welfare as if they were baby-farmers'. Burly louts terrorized the younger lads, although `bullying was the least of the ill practices'. He must have studied Ovid and Virgil, music and mathematics, but all he could remember was laying out the class tough, William Poideoin. The wiry Tom had always been victimized, `but there was a wild-cat element in me which, when roused, made up for lack of weight' and, notwithstanding a black eye, `I licked my adversary effectively'. This David and Goliath image would become an emblem of a life's struggle in a hostile society.

The school's decline crippled Tom's father. His `28 years faithful service' counted for nought; his fees collapsed and in 1835 he abandoned teaching. George, at 55, took the family north to his native Coventry, armed with a letter of recommendation from old boy Newman.

So Tom spent his early teens footloose in the silk-weaving city of Coventry. Here his grandfather had owned `a large old inn' while raising his family on a farm a few miles from the city, but he had died in debt and both had been sold 30 years before Tom's birth. The city was small enough to amble around in an hour. Hemmed in by commons and landed estates, it had become ingrown and choked. Rows of half-timbered houses hid hives of congested courts containing most of the 30,000 inhabitants. Every house had its loom, turning out fancy ribbons for the lower classes. Down endless terraces Tom saw them, little bent men pressed against clattering looms, with women and children winding the silk.

George Huxley took over Coventry's new Savings Bank. This should have been a wise move, as retrenchment in Parliament was mirrored by penny-pinching in private life, and the `old stocking gave way to the savings-bank'. Everywhere the ethic was evident: the Huxley family arrived to find the ribbon masters sweeping the Anglican gentry out of the Town Hall after the first civic elections and selling the corporation silver to pay for reforms. The bank was no less a symbol of thrift and self-sufficiency.

But the weavers never trusted it. A leaked word from the bank about their savings and the boss might cut their wages. And anyway they had their own friendly societies, legalized in 1836. Dozens sprang up in local pubs; here the weavers kept their own company, as they downed a pint and paid in their pennies. Not that they could make any deposits, with the onset of a recession in 1837. The Ealing boy became used to `their dialect and ways', and to their sallow faces (the silk's delicacy allowed them no windows or winter fires), but he saw few in his father's bank.

With his father struggling, Tom was thrown on to his own devices. He had no more schooling, `nor sympathy in any intellectual direction'. It left him with a biting resentment. His sisters eked out a living with a dame school. Six year-olds would attend for a year before becoming winders on their fathers' looms. But as the corner shops collapsed and families starved on one hand-out loaf a week -- plus a little `mother's mercy' (opium) to `deaden the gnawing wolf within' -- the pennies for education vanished.

Tom recoiled into a fantasy world, escaping into a secret realm of science, `dreaming my own dreams'. At 12, rummaging through his father's library, he encountered James Hutton's Theory of the Earth, that aimless eternal earth, wheeling on, with no signs of a beginning and `no prospect of an end'. Voyaging through the vastness, Tom became withdrawn, his emotions confused. From his nightly cosmic wanderings came `Joys and anticipation', where daily reality brought only disappointment in `all those whom I had reason to love and value most'. Cynical and sad, he saw `absolutely nothing to bring me into contact with the world -- and I hated and avoided it'.

He could ramble over the surrounding commons, past villages `black with coal dust ... and broken by Dissent'. But each cottage showed the same sickly occupants. Peering through their windows revealed scenes of appalling filth, with pregnant 16 year-old daughters destined for a life of drudgery. Tom did not need to be told by the sour-stomached critic Thomas Carlyle that society had to be cleansed. But reading the essayist did give him a sense of religious mission which owed nothing to a decrepit theology. Young Tom learned that new heroes were needed -- Great Men with a sense of destiny.

Carlyle also taught him the heroic quality of work. Play was not for Tom, nor any of the `pursuits of boys of my own age'. Carlyle breathed the Alpine air of German romanticism and Tom took up the language. It was another fortification; scholarly airs could shield a sensitive soul. Friends found him `pretending to make hay with one hand, while in the other he held a German Book!' The turgid tomes were mischievously hidden at picnics, but the ribbing only increased the boy's aloofness.

Intellectually stifled, he sought out older men, ribbon masters. But still this upstart David showed his slingshot mentality. Even among these manufacturers he `was too proud to be treated as one whit of less importance than they'. But his mentors were indulgent and well versed, Unitarians and Independents, marginal men developing new forms of knowledge. Their Chapel science was based on natural causes rather than the Anglicans' miracles. Such materialism went with the wheeze-and-snort of steam. No supernatural lore to underpin the status quo for them: the ribbon masters' earthy science was to move society on. It was to usher in the cotton millennium. Power-looms went with dissent. Often they went with doubt: it was `an age of darkness, and yet of brightness ... Steam, iron, smoke, egoism, doubt, and distrust, are all alike in colour'. In Coventry the future George Eliot lost her Puritan faith. And here Thomas Huxley's religious pilgrimage began.

In one businessman, George May, Tom found a sympathetic ear and an appealingly irreverent approach. The Lord's Day was not so much for observance as to argue the ground of all existence:

Sunday. Hinckley. Had a long argument with [M.sup.r]. May on the nature of the soul & difference between it & matter[.] I maintained that it cannot be proved that matter is essentially -- as to its base -- different from soul. [M.sup.r]. M. wittily said, soul was the perspiration of matter -- We cannot find the absolute basis of matter we only know it by its properties neither know we the soul in any other way ...

This ethereal talk was set against a background clatter. Three new steam factories went up in Coventry in 1836-8. Steam power promised a new destiny. It might even have been Tom's. Stephenson's locos were speeding faster every year, too fast for Coventry, bypassed as the first London-Birmingham railway in 1838 took away its road trade. But it was electricity that fascinated Tom. He jotted memos in a hand-stitched notebook -- 'make a galv. battery' or `try the [exp.sup.t]. of a simple galvanic current', wondering if he could crystallize carbon. He was always seeking components, causes, mechanisms. His imagination stretched to the heavens, looking for ultimate particles or `speculating on the cause of colours at sunset'.

But industry was not to be Tom's destiny. Every Coventry lad became an apprentice. It was a peculiar city, where only those who had served a seven-year indenture (in any trade) could become voters. For a boy fascinated by philosophy, his apprenticeship could only be in medicine. Even then he faced an ethical dilemma, studying while the poor starved. He justified himself with an epigraph in his notebook: `Philosophy can bake no bread; but it can procure for us God freedom & immortality. Which now is more practical Philosophy or Economy'? It was a question for life.

Both sisters married medical men in 1839. The urban build-up created an urgent need for doctors. The silk-paternalists had opened a second dispensary, where the weavers picked up their drugs for a penny-a-week subscription. An old part-timbered house was even being converted into Coventry's first hospital. Tom tunnelled the cheapest way into the cheapest profession, burrowing behind brother Jim. Lizzie's husband, 39 year-old surgeon's son John Salt, had already apprenticed Jim. Even before Ellen's marriage, her own beau John Charles Cooke was teaching Tom the trade.

Cooke was a beer-swilling, opium-chewing man of massive medical lore, a rambunctious entrepreneur who could teach anything for a fee: anatomy, obstetrics, pharmacy or forensic medicine. While training Tom he was editing a huge compendium of medical lectures. Not just any lectures, but those of the flamboyant John Elliotson: a fierce materialist who saw the brain pour out thoughts as the liver does bile -- a provocateur whose outrageous Spinozaism took away the soul and the `consoling' Christian hopes `of the despised and the miserable'. Elliotson was a brilliant innovator, whose mesmeric experiments were positively theatrical. (Too much so even for London's `godless' University College, which sacked him after his hypnotized patients caused havoc.) Cooke never shied away from heresy or hard work.

Tom began at 13 under Cooke, not gently, in deference to his tender years, but traumatically. The lad entered a dissecting room to find a naked cadaver -- a cold body and a dead brain which had once glowed with hopes and desires. His morbid curiosity `overpowered all other feelings'. He stood for hours, transfixed by the gruesome probing as the corpse was dismembered. The human gore was emotionally shattering. He fell into a strange lethargy. For weeks he deteriorated, `poisoned' somehow, until he looked `thin and ill'. His distraught parents sent him to a friend's farm, where the catharsis of haymaking carried him back to an innocent past and worked its healing power. Farmyard smells would always remind him of his rebirth on those sweet autumn mornings, even if the scars never quite healed.

He began questioning the meaning of evil and death. How did it square with God's beneficence? It did not, according to Southwood Smith's Divine Government, that Unitarian bible which Tom read at George May's. This was a provocative book -- a plea that poverty and distress were signs that society had taken a wrong turn and that reform was a divine duty. `Agree with him partly', Tom jotted on 25 October 1840. But wouldn't the Unitarian's denial of Christ's divinity and miracles have an `injurious effect on morals'?

Coventry exposed Tom to a biting sectarianism. He heard the shrieking denunciations of Anglican privilege -- to tithes and church rates, to the Church monopoly on Oxbridge education and professional posts. These were the corrupt fruits of State endowment. Radicals saw the Church continuing to `commit fornication, until the Dissenters tear her ... from her ILLICIT EMBRACE' with the State. Tom was among defiant, proud men whose resistance to the Church had been unprecedented. Some 50,000 summonses a year had been issued by the clergy to prise tithe money out of the Dissenters. After reading Southwood Smith, Tom had `a long talk with my mother & father about the right to make Dissenters pay church rates -- & whether there ought to be any Establishment -- I maintained that there ought not in both cases'. He was learning the morality of civil disobedience.

In the anatomy schools the sectarian factions were buzzing with discontent. `I hate all people who want to found sects', Tom jotted. `It is not error but sectarian error -- nay & even sectarian truth [w.sup.h]. causes the unhappiness of mankind'. Yet he could not keep his fingers out of the fire. In an age when students dabbled in immensities, he argued passionately about Creation. So intense were the discussions on `medical metaphysics' during classes that one teacher was `afraid that ... common physic, by which so many of us "live, and move, and have our being," will fall to the ground!'

Now Tom had to think seriously about common physic himself. At 15 he took his first real look at the Great Babylon. Both brothers-in-law had gone to London, Salt to practice, Cooke to teach. On 7 January 1841 he followed them down.

In Buckingham Palace the popular young Queen Victoria, three years on the throne and only 21, had just married Prince Albert. In Parliament peers still ruled and patronage guaranteed all things. Lord Melbourne was Prime Minister, and the great Whig salons held power -- but only just. The reform drive of the 1830s -- with its acts to widen the middle-class vote and democratize the town halls, and its bills to benefit Dissenters (who had even been forced to marry in Anglican churches) -- had petered out. In 1841 Sir Robert Peel was set to put the Conservatives back on the government benches. Not that the `benches' were much for Tom to look at, being in the patched-up portion of the Houses of Parliament, which had been gutted by fire in 1834.

London -- haloed in a `sublime canopy' of smoke, with its gas-lit streets and islands of gentrified opulence. Fashionable carriages paraded through Hyde Park flaunting their wealth. The world's largest city, a sea of 2 million faces, bred a numbing awe. One could drown in the `ocean stream of life' flowing down Regent Street. Nothing matched the elegance of Mayfair, or Nash's stucco terraces around Regent's Park. Opulence, anonymity and round-the-clock activity gave the city an excitement unknown in the provinces.

But Tom saw little of this salubrious side. Cooke had apprenticed him to Thomas Chandler, a lowlife doctor in the East End. There the gloomy waves were of the hovelled poor, wallowing in filth and disease. He had entered a dark world, penetrated only by missionaries shocked by the `moral degradation'. London had its vile excesses too.

That January Tom found himself alone in a tiny Rotherhithe surgery. The horrors he saw there were to mark him for life. The East London poor were as little known as `the savages of Australia'. Yet no aborigine, he later remarked, was `half so savage, so unclean' as these troglodyte tenement dwellers. Rooms were putrid from overflowing cesspools. Even sanitation pioneers such as Southwood Smith (who took Dickens to see the fever nests) needed a `dose of fanaticism, as a sort of moral coca', to stomach the sights. Starvation left the children emaciated and typhus killed them. Even death brought its own shame. Wasteland burials were so common in Rotherhithe that rotting bodies were thrown up with each new interment. It was a macabre winter.

Thomas Chandler was a reforming practitioner, a former House Surgeon at University College Hospital and full of Elliotson's hypnotic techniques. Tom watched him mesmerize his delirious patients, passing his hands rhythmically over their faces, putting them into a calming sleep. The trance was a `marvellous remedy' for gnashing fits and incurable tics, his speciality, and he had plenty of twitching maniacs to practice on.

Tom must have sensed the shambles around him. Mesmerism, though it gave the underprivileged General Practitioners more power, was a two-edged sword. People were getting hold of it. Young girls sleepwalking on stage were turning the practice into a sexually charged side-show attraction. Street `patterers' carried lurid placards announcing a new pamphlet `The Diabolical Practices of Dr --- on his Patient when in a state of Mesmerism'. While reformers were trying to police medicine, circumscribing it in their own professional hands, lay performers were running amok.

In the nine years since the 1832 Reform Bill the medical ranks had been in revolt. They too wanted a widening of their power, a say in the running of the elite licensing bodies, the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons. General Practitioners were unionizing and attacking the knightly hospital consultants who ran the colleges like rotten boroughs. Chandler's mesmerists were milling with the rest outside the porticoes of the Oxbridge-Anglican Establishment. Tom was swept along, listening to the shouts for talent before rank, watching as his medical class tried to gain a say.

The turbulence tossed the boy about. A boy he still was. `I have had my trowsers seated', he told his mother, `but I have grown lately & they are outrageously short -- the best wear I am sorry to say very badly -- wear white & shabby -- But Nelly inspected me the last time I was in London ... & I dare say you have received an "official" account'.

There were breaks in the gloom for Tom: Jim might arrive, or he would visit a theatre with `Aunt Lizzy' (his mother's cousin Eliza Knight). But by day the youngster steeled himself for his slum rounds. His surgery was on Paradise Street, itself a sick joke. He was a hundred paces from the water's edge, traced down dark alleys between the warehouses and pubs. Here, on a sewage-slimy Thames, as belching smoke and river fog blended into choking pea-soupers, one drew `gloom with every breath'.

The deformed garret-dwellers showed the need for a new kind of regeneration. The Church was a rich man's luxury, irrelevant here. `I dare say there ain't ten out of a hundred gals what's living with men', a costermonger said, `what's been married Church of England fashion'. The Bible held no hope and word-of-mouth ignorance acquired mythic proportions. But there was a dumb perspicacity on the streets, and a casual incredulity about rich forks' potions. One ragged girl had heard:

that the world was made in six days: the beasts, the birds, the fish, and all ... There was only one house at that time as was made, and that was the Ark for Adam and Eve and their family. It seems very wonderful indeed how all this world was done so quickly. I should have thought that England alone would have took double the time.

A new foundation for living was needed, a new way of controlling mores and freeing people. Factory workers were marching, demanding the vote and annual ballots, uniting in support of the democratic People's Charter. Tom read Carlyle's Chartism on this `bitter discontent grown fierce and mad'. Riot police were no solution; society had an obligation to the destitute. Duty to the working classes was Chartism's message. Something had to step in where Christianity had failed. The seething slums, Tom said, gave `a terrible foundation of real knowledge to my speculations'. Science had to pay social dividends.

He sat grinding drugs in his apothecary's shop, reading: `in that little narrow surgery I used to work morng after morng & eveng after eveng', ploughing through `that insufferably dry & profitless book Humes History [of Great Britain]. how I worked against hope through the series of thefts robberies & throat cutting in those three first vols'. The despair mirrored his surroundings. Rotherhithe was notorious for the knife-wielding gangs in its criminal slums, and its underbelly of `whores, panders, crimps, bullies'. But the real obscenity was the middle-class indifference to this ocean of poor.

`Cursed is the ground' indeed. Engulfed by drunks and whores the boy became guilt-ridden. He anguished over the `deep draught of abomination I took'. Remorse led to mental flagellation, that evangelical comfort: `I confess to my shame', he said, `that few men have drunk deeper of all kinds of sin than I'. He had to regenerate himself before he `earned absolute destruction'.

Guilt came from being middle-class among the destitute. The starving were mostly decent people, whose only crime was poverty. `I see no fault committed that I have not committed myself', he jotted (it was Goethe's aphorism). He remained a Puritan in this moral rectitude and resignation, but he could never accept the notion of innate depravity. There had to be hope. He moved closer to Southwood Smith's view of earthly salvation. Acquiescence in the face of such poverty was a sin; `redeeming the people from a degraded condition is a duty', Smith had insisted. Welfare and educational programmes must bring society back in line with God's benevolent intent. Tom had begun his own regeneration. Monastic study would put him on the road to redemption.

He spent nights tackling chemistry and history, then came Latin and Greek. He would work his way out of the quagmire. He set his sights on University College, that emblem of Dissenting aspiration, with its radical French sciences and Benthamite economics, all a snub to Oxford and Cambridge exclusivity. By April 1841 spare hours were devoted to algebra, geometry and physics. Letters went off to his mother: `I got the books all right', but is `there not a Latin Grammar at home, & an Euclid? I am glad my father sent Hutton for I like it much the best but the college requires Euclid'.

Lists tumbled out of him, read this, read that, followed by admonishing progress reports. By the summer he was deep in physiology, having dumped Hume's History `in utter disgust & despair'. Like all self-improvers he had faith in book learning; education became a passion, as it did with so many radicals seeking `bread, knowledge and freedom', convinced that self-improvement was a path to power. The new steam presses had caused prices to plummet, and with the newspaper tax down to a penny (the hated tax was a failed government initiative to crush the pauper press) the streets were awash with radical prints. Swamping them was the Penny Magazine, 200,000 subsidized copies a week to divert the masses with more innocuous knowledge. Tom flew high and low, ploughing through Muller's Elements of Physiology while picking up insect trivia in the Penny Cyclopaedia.

There was no wilier product of the `Steam Intellect' society than Tom Huxley. His workbench discipline was extraordinary. Week in, week out he kept up a punishing schedule: on Tuesdays and Thursdays physiology, on other weekdays a `chronological abstract of reigns', evenings of arithmetic, Saturdays devoted to chemistry and physics, with an hour's German each day. In between he grappled with Guizot's Civilization in Europe and built electromagnets. Always he pushed harder: `I must get on faster than this', he chivvied himself as he fell behind in Ancient History, `and let me remember this -- that it is better to read a little & thoroughly than cram a crude undigested mass into my head'.

With an intellectual head of steam Tom packed his books and escaped the ghetto late in 1841. He moved in with sister Lizzie and John Salt. At 14 Euston Place, next to the new Euston Station, they were close to University College Hospital. Tom and Jim, that identical pair, were living in tandem. As Jim left Salt's apprenticeship and went to Gloucester Lunatic Asylum as dispensing chemist, Tom moved in. Lizzie was protective towards her little brother. She pushed him on, sure of his bright future. Here family life was more congenial, and Tom adored her year-old daughter Jessie, who was just starting to walk.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews