Thomas Henry Huxley - Educational Influence - School of Mines and Zoology

School of Mines and Zoology

In the early 1870s the Royal School of Mines moved to new quarters in South Kensington; ultimately it would become one of the constituent parts of Imperial College London. The move gave Huxley the chance to give more prominence to laboratory work in biology teaching, an idea suggested by practice in German universities. In the main, the method was based on the use of carefully chosen types, and depended on the dissection of anatomy, supplemented by microscopy, museum specimens and some elementary physiology at the hands of Foster.

The typical day would start with Huxley lecturing at 9am, followed by a program of laboratory work supervised by his demonstrators. Huxley's demonstrators were picked men—all became leaders of biology in Britain in later life, spreading Huxley's ideas as well as their own. Michael Foster became Professor of Physiology at Cambridge; E. Ray Lankester became Jodrell Professor of Zoology at University College London (1875–91), Professor of Comparative Anatomy at Oxford (1891–98) and Director of the Natural History Museum (1898–1907); S.H. Vines became Professor of Botany at Cambridge; W.T. Thiselton-Dyer became Hooker's successor at Kew (he was already Hooker's son-in-law!); T. Jeffery Parker became Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy at University College, Cardiff; and William Rutherford became the Professor of Physiology at Edinburgh. William Flower, Conservator to the Hunterian Museum, and THH's assistant in many dissections, became Sir William Flower, Hunterian Professor of Comparative Anatomy and, later, Director of the Natural History Museum. It's a remarkable list of disciples, especially when contrasted with Owen who, in a longer professional life than Huxley, left no disciples at all. "No one fact tells so strongly against Owen... as that he has never reared one pupil or follower".

Huxley's courses for students were so much narrower than the man himself that many were bewildered by the contrast: "The teaching of zoology by use of selected animal types has come in for much criticism"; Looking back in 1914 to his time as a student, Sir Arthur Shipley said " Darwin's later works all dealt with living organisms, yet our obsession was with the dead, with bodies preserved, and cut into the most refined slices". E.W MacBride said "Huxley... would persist in looking at animals as material structures and not as living, active beings; in a word... he was a necrologist. To put it simply, Huxley preferred to teach what he had actually seen with his own eyes.

This largely morphological program of comparative anatomy remained at the core of most biological education for a hundred years until the advent of cell and molecular biology and interest in evolutionary ecology forced a fundamental rethink. It is an interesting fact that the methods of the field naturalists who led the way in developing the theory of evolution (Darwin, Wallace, Fritz Müller, Henry Bates) were scarcely represented at all in Huxley's program. Ecological investigation of life in its environment was virtually non-existent, and theory, evolutionary or otherwise, was at a discount. Michael Ruse finds no mention of evolution or Darwinism in any of the exams set by Huxley, and confirms the lecture content based on two complete sets of lecture notes.

Since Darwin, Wallace and Bates did not hold teaching posts at any stage of their adult careers (and Műller never returned from Brazil) the imbalance in Huxley's program went uncorrected. It is surely strange that Huxley's courses did not contain an account of the evidence collected by those naturalists of life in the tropics; evidence which they had found so convincing, and which caused their views on evolution by natural selection to be so similar. Desmond suggests that " had to be simple, synthetic and assimilable it was to train teachers and had no other heuristic function". That must be part of the reason; indeed it does help to explain the stultifying nature of much school biology. But zoology as taught at all levels became far too much the product of one man.

Huxley was comfortable with comparative anatomy, at which he was the greatest master of the day. He was not an all-round naturalist like Darwin, who had shown clearly enough how to weave together detailed factual information and subtle arguments across the vast web of life. Huxley chose, in his teaching (and to some extent in his research) to take a more straightforward course, concentrating on his personal strengths.

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