Born in London in 1825, Thomas Henry Huxley was destined to become one of the great men of the nineteenth century. He embarked upon a medical career and, after qualifying at Charing Cross Hospital, he joined the Royal Navy. In 1846 Thomas Henry Huxley was appointed assistant surgeon aboard H.M.S. Rattlesnake. The ship had been commissioned to survey areas of the Great Barrier Reef and the neighbouring seas. This gave Thomas Henry Huxley ample opportunity to study animal life and was the start of biological career. The voyage lasted four years during which time he gathered much information on the free swimming animals of the plankton. He published an important work on the structure and classification of coelenterates (jelly-fishes and their relatives) which showed clearly how they are built of two basic layers. After the voyage he continued to publish material that he had collected, including papers on sea squirts and pteropads.
On his return from the Rattlesnake’s voyage Thomas Henry Huxley was made a fellow of the Royal Society in recognition of his scientific work. In 1854 he was appointed as a lecturer in natural history at the Royal School of Mines, and later as a Naturalist to the Geological Survey. Although he continued to publish papers concerning coelenterates and other invertebrates, his interest was turning towards vertebrate animals. Fossil fishes and reptiles were the subjects of a number of papers published in the late 1850’s and in 1858 Thomas Henry Huxley lectured upon the origins of the vertebrate skull.
For some time Thomas Henry Huxley and his contemporaries had been discussing the possibility that animal species had evolved, one from another. No satisfactory theories had been put forward, but, in 1859, Darwin’s “Origin of Species” appeared.
Thomas Henry Huxley at once realised its importance and how the theory of Natural Selection provided “the working hypothesis we sought”. For the rest of his life Thomas Henry Huxley strove to ensure the full recognition of Darwin’s work. He naturally met with opposition from the Church and many non-scientists who believed man to be unique. In 1863 Thomas Henry Huxley published “Man’s Place in Nature” in which he compared Man and the great apes. He clearly showed similarities and related them to the remains of Neanderthal man that had been found some years earlier. The value of fossils to the new theory of evolution inspired many papers on fossils during the 1860’s. Thomas Henry Huxley also produced a number of educational books during this period.
From about 1870, Thomas Henry Huxley was too involved in other things to continue actual research. He had always been interested in education and held a number of appointments in this field. He pioneered the teaching of biology and his method of selecting “type animals” is still followed today. Many of his writings are to be found collected under the title “Science and Education” which appeared in 1899. He was, for a time, a secretary of the Royal Society and he also sat on various Royal Commissions enquiring into scientific and educational problems. Thomas Henry Huxley retired from his appointment in 1885 and spent the last ten years of his life writing essays on philosophical, biological and other subjects – a tradition carried on by his grandson Sir Julian Huxley, another famous biologist.