Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gosse, Philip Henry

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GOSSE, PHILIP HENRY (1810–1888), zoologist, was born at Worcester on 6 April 1810. His father, Thomas Gosse (1765–1844), was a miniature-painter of very considerable skill, and a persistent but entirely unsuccessful writer of prose and verse. The future naturalist was the second of a family of four children. In July 1810 the parents removed to Coventry, and the next year to Leicester, finally settling in 1812 at Poole in Dorsetshire, whence the father periodically started on his miniature-painting perambulations from town to town. As the boy grew up in this quaint maritime port, his special gifts were noticed by his aunt, Mrs. Bell, the mother of Professor Thomas Bell (1792–1880) [q. v.], herself a woman of scientific attainments then very unusual. She encouraged him to collect sea-anemones in the harbour, and gave him his earliest rough instruction in the metamorphoses of insects. In 1823, having attended a day-school at Poole for five years, he was sent to the grammar school at Blandford, where he remained until 1825. In June of that year he was placed in a counting-house at Poole. The reading of various books, but of Byron's ‘Lara’ in particular, now stirred up in him a strong literary ambition, and in ‘The Youth's Magazine’ for 1826 he made his début in publication. Any attempt to write for the public, however, was nipped in the bud by circumstances which removed him in the early part of 1827 to a whaler's office in the little town of Carbonear in Newfoundland, where he remained, save for a few months spent in the remote station of St. Mary's in the same colony, until 1835. These eight years of seclusion, however, were of great value to him. His office work was not arduous, and it was at Carbonear that he learned to be a naturalist. He has himself [remarked?]: ‘In 1832 I commenced that serious and decisive devotion to scientific natural history which has given the bent to my whole life.’ In May of that year he bought, at an auction in Harbour Grace, Adams's ‘Essays on the Microscope,’ and instantly turned his attention to microscopy, especially as regarded the insects of Newfoundland, of which very little was then known. In 1835 he left Newfoundland and bought a farm at Compton in Canada, which he was glad to sell again in 1838, having during these three years barely extracted from it a subsistence. In 1838, however, while at Compton, he wrote his first work, ‘The Entomology of Newfoundland,’ which still remains unpublished, and he made innumerable observations and drawings of Canadian fauna and flora. In March 1838 he made his way south to Philadelphia, where he met with encouragement from Professor Nuttal, and was courteously received by the Academy of Natural Sciences. He made no long stay there, however, but proceeded onward to Alabama, where in the remote township of Dallas, far up the country, he acted as a village schoolmaster for nine months. Early in 1839 he returned from Mobile to Liverpool, and on the voyage wrote his ‘Canadian Naturalist.’ After a period of great anxiety and even destitution he succeeded in selling this manuscript for a good sum. The ‘Canadian Naturalist’ was published early in 1840, and was well received. Gosse did not, however, even now take to the literacy profession. He opened a small school in the suburbs of London, and lived precariously in this way until 1843, when he wrote and successfully sold his second book, the ‘Introduction to Zoology.’ Now, at the age of thirty-three, he first attracted the notice of the scientific world, and was recommended by the authorities of the British Museum to undertake the collecting of undescribed birds and insects in the tropics. Accordingly, in October 1844 he sailed for the island of Jamaica, and, after a short stay at Kingston, he took up his abode at Bluefields, a pastoral estate in the neighbourhoud of Savannah-la-Mar, which became his home for the next eighteen months. During this period he was actively engaged in procuring and sending home specimens of rare animals of every description. At length, in July 1846, he quitted Jamaica, returning to England, which country he never left again. Early in 1847 he published the ‘Birds of Jamaica,’ accompanied in 1849 by a folio volume of splendid plates. In 1848 he married Miss Emily Bowes [see Gosse, Emily], and in 1849 his son and only child, Edmund, was born. At this time Gosse was occupied with a great deal of minor and miscellaneous literary work, residing all the while in London. In 1851 appeared one of the most valuable and best written of his books, ‘A Naturalist's Sojourn in Jamaica,’ in the preparation of which he was assisted by the gifted West Indian naturalist, Mr. Richard Hill of Spanish Town. In 1852 Gosse compiled a volume on ‘The Antiquities of Assyria,’ and he undertook many other tasks for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

He was now, however, about to turn his attention to that branch of zoology by which he is mainly known, namely the marine invertebrates. In January 1852 he went to reside at St. Marychurch, South Devonshire; nervous dyspepsia from excess of brain work making a country retirement absolutely imperative. Gosse, however, could never be unemployed, and he instantly occupied himself with the zoophytes of the rocky shore of that village; the climate, however, proved not bracing enough, and before the summer set in the family moved to Ilfracombe, where they continued till the end of the year. The result of these excursions appeared in 1853, as ‘A Naturalist's Rambles on the Devonshire Coast;’ in the appendix of which the invention of a marine aquarium, which had occupied Gosse since the beginning of 1852, was first given to the public; and the fact stated that the writer had successfully preserved marine animals alive in captivity for eleven months, a feat till then supposed to be impossible. This notion proved extremely popular, and in 1854 Gosse issued one of the most acceptable of his books, ‘The Aquarium,’ illustrated as usual by five coloured plates. Amateurs complained, however, that they knew not how to identify and name their marine captures, no handbook of our maritime fauna existing. To meet this want, Gosse issued (1855-6) the two volumes of his ‘Manual of Marine Zoology,’ embellished by nearly seven hundred illustrations drawn on wood by the author. Gosse's contributions to science were now too considerable to be overlooked, and in 1856 he was elected an F.R.S.; he had already become a very frequent contributor to the ‘Transactions’ of the society. In 1856, in the volume called ‘Teoby,’ he gave a detailed account of a summer spent in scientific investigation of the fauna of a Welsh watering-place and its neighbourhood. The problem of evolution was now beginning to agitate public opinion, though as yet not widely accepted; and Gosse attempted, in two rather unfortunate volumes, ‘Life’ (1857) and ‘Omphalos’ (1857), to meet the difficulties of animal development in a conservative spirit. He was disturbed during this year by the death of his wife, to whom he was most tenderly attached, and whose intellectual sympathy had become a necessity to him. These last volumes were not warmly received, either by savants or the public, and Gosse left London in great depression, never to return to town for more than a few days at a time. He took up his abode in St. Marychurch again, where he bought a house in which he lived for more than thirty years.

After a few months he recovered his mental activity, and turning from speculation to the true bent of his genius, independent observation of animals, he slowly wrote what is considered the most important of all his contributions to knowledge, the elaborate work on the sea-anemones, entitled ‘Actinologia Britannica,’ 1858-60, which is likely long to remain the standard authority on the subject. It is profusely illustrated, and contains a coloured representation of every British species at that time identified. His ‘Letters from Alabama,’ written more than twenty years before, had appeared in 1859. In 1860, moreover, was published ‘The Romance of Natural History,’ an attempt to ‘present natural history in æsthetic fashion.’ This is the one of Gosse's works which has been most frequently reprinted; it contains his famous theory of the sea-serpent as a surviving plesiosaurus. A second series followed in 1862. In 1860 Gosse married again, his second wife being Miss Eliza Brightwen of Saffron Walden, who survives him. In 1861 he published ‘A Year at the Shore,’ and in 1865 ‘Land and Sea.’ With these volumes his professional career as an author closed, and he devoted himself for the future in private to the cultivation of orchids, of which he formed a remarkable collection, and at intervals to the microscopic study of the rotifera, a section of British zoology till then almost wholly neglected. As late as 1885 he returned to scientific literature and published an elaborate and abstruse monograph on ‘The Prehensile Armature of the Papilionidæ,’ with microscopic plates drawn by himself in his seventy fifth and sixth years. About this time he placed his drawings and scattered papers regarding the rotifera, the labour of twenty years, in the hands of Dr. C. T. Hudson, who helped him to embody them in 1886 in a handsome work in two volumes. Gosse's eyesight remained remarkably good, and his general health gave no anxiety to his family until within a short time of his decease. In the winter of 1887, however, while using his telescope on a bitterly cold night, he was attacked by bronchitis, which he threw off in the spring of 1888, but too late. The weak condition in which he found himself rapidly developed a latent cardiac disease, under which he suffered for about six months; he passed away in the seventy-ninth year of his age, at his house in St. Marychurch, on 23 Aug. 1888. He was throughout his life an earnest student of Holy Scripture, and a believer in the doctrines which are known as evangelical.

Gosse published the following volumes, which are not mentioned in the foregoing survey:

  1. ‘The Monuments of Ancient Egypt,’ 1847.
  2. ‘Natural History: Mammalia,’ 1848.
  3. ‘Natural History: Birds,’ 1849.
  4. ‘Popular Ornithology of Britain,’ 1849.
  5. ‘Natural History: Reptiles,’ 1850.
  6. ‘Sacred Streams,’ 1850.
  7. ‘The History of the Jews from the Christian Era to the Dawn of the Reformation,’ 1851.
  8. ‘Natural History: Fishes,’ 1851.
  9. ‘A Text Book of Zoology for Schools,’ 1851.
  10. ‘The Ocean,’ a book which has been frequently reprinted.
  11. ‘Natural History: Molluscs,’ 1854.
  12. ‘A Handbook to the Marine Aquarium,’ 1855.
  13. ‘Wanderings through Kew,’ 1857.
  14. ‘Memoir of Emily Gosse,’ 1857.
  15. ‘Evenings at the Microscope,’ 1859.
  16. ‘The Great Atlas Moth of Asia’ (Atticus Atlas), 1879.
  17. ‘The Mysteries of God,’ 1887.

He contributed in all about sixty-two separate papers to the ‘Transactions’ of the Royal Society, the earliest being ‘Notes on an Electric Centipede,’ 1843. Of these papers most are quite short, but the following, all as it happens dealing with the rotifera, are large pamphlets or small volumes:

  1. ‘On the Structure, Functions, and Homology of the Manducatory Organs in the Class Rotifera,’ 1854.
  2. ‘On the Dioecious Character of the Rotifera,’ 1856.
  3. ‘On Stephanoceros,’ 1862.
  4. ‘On Floscularia,’ 1862.
  5. ‘On the Melicertidæ,’ 1862.

[Gosse's own writings, family papers, and personal knowledge.]

E. G.