Huxley Family - Mental Problems in The Family

Mental Problems in The Family

Biographers have sometimes noted the occurrence of mental illness in the Huxley family. T.H. Huxley's father became "sunk in worse than childish imbecility of mind", and later died in Barming Asylum; brother George suffered from "extreme mental anxiety" and died in 1863 leaving serious debts. Brother James was at 55 "as near mad as any sane man can be".

His favourite daughter, the artistically talented Mady (Marion), who became the first wife of artist John Collier, was troubled by mental illness for years. By her mid-twenties it was becoming clear that she was not sane, and was getting steadily worse (the diagnosis is uncertain). Huxley persuaded Jean-Martin Charcot, one of Freud's teachers, to examine her with a view to treatment; but soon Mady died of pneumonia.

About THH himself we have a more complete record. As a young apprentice to a physician, he was taken to watch a post-mortem dissection. Afterwards he sank into a 'deep lethargy' and though he ascribed this to dissection poisoning, Cyril Bibby and others are probably right to suspect that emotional shock precipitated a clinical depression. The next episode we know of in his life was on the third voyage of HMS Rattlesnake in 1848. This voyage was mostly to New Guinea and the NE Australian coast, including the Great Barrier Reef, which is a kind of wonderland for any zoologist, especially a young man hoping to make his career. The story is clear from the diary Huxley kept: p112 'little interest in the Barrier Reef'; p116 'two entries in seven weeks'; p117 '3 months passed and no journal' p124 'the black months of struggle and depression'. For him to pass up such a golden opportunity speaks of his state of mind.

THH had periods of depression at the end of 1871, alleviated by a cruise to Egypt. And again in 1873, this time coincident with expensive building work on his house. His friends were really alarmed, and his doctor ordered three months rest. Darwin picked up his pen, and with Tyndall's help raised £2,100 for him — an enormous sum. The money was partly to pay for his recuperation, and partly to pay his bills. Huxley set out in July with Hooker to the Auvergne, and his wife and son Leonard joined him in Cologne, while the younger children stayed at Down House in Emma Darwin's care.

Finally, in 1884 THH sank into another depression, and this time it precipitated his decision to retire in 1885, at the age of only 60. He resigned the Presidency of the Royal Society in mid-term, the Inspectorship of Fisheries, and his chair as soon as he decently could, and took six months' leave. His pension was a fairly handsome £1500 a year.

This is enough to indicate the way depression (or perhaps a moderate bi-polar disorder) interfered with his life, but he was able to function well at other times.

The problems continued sporadically into the third generation. Two of Leonard's sons suffered serious depression: Trevenen committed suicide in 1914 and Julian suffered a number of breakdowns. Of course, there are many family members for whom no information one way or the other is available, but both the talent and the mental problems would have interested Francis Galton: "The direct result of this enquiry is... to prove that the laws of heredity are as applicable to the mental faculties as to the bodily faculties".

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