Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lankester, Edwin

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LANKESTER, EDWIN (1814–1874), man of science, was born 23 April 1814, at Melton, near Woodbridge, Suffolk. His father, William Lankester, was a builder, and died of phthisis at the age of twenty-seven, leaving a widow, his son Edwin, four years old, and a daughter still younger. An injudicious use of the small property left by William Lankester made the family poor. Edwin's school education came to an end when he was barely twelve years old. He was about to be apprenticed to a watchmaker when Samuel Gissing, surgeon, of Woodbridge, took him as an articled pupil. In 1832 his articles expired, and he became assistant to a surgeon named Stanisland of Fareham, Hampshire. He was not well treated, and after a few months left to become assistant at the 'Repertorium,' in Seymour Street, Euston Square, London, where he suffered literally from semi-starvation. In 1833 he became assistant to Mr. Spurgeon of Saffron Walden in Essex, who, though severe and ascetic, took a pleasure in furthering the intellectual development of his assistants. He admitted Lankester to his excellent library, and helped him in the study of Latin and Greek and the English classics. Lankester was made secretary of a vigorous natural history society in the town and curator of the museum. The friends, won by his honesty and ability, lent him 300l. to support him through a medical course at the recently opened London University, where from 1834 to 1837 he studied medicine and the natural sciences. He studied zoology under Grant and botany under Lindley, in whose class he gained the silver medal. His fellow-students elected him president of the college medical society. In 1837, being unable to afford the expense of the full course necessary for the university of London degree, he qualified as M.R.C.S. and L.S.A. Through the friendship of his teacher, Lindley, he obtained a valuable appointment as resident medical attendant and science tutor in the family of Mr. Wood of Campsell Hall, near Doncaster. With his pupils, youths of exceptional talent, he increased his scientific knowledge, and he formed a lifelong friendship with his colleague, Dr. Leonard Schmitz. In 1839 he went to Heidelberg to learn German and to graduate as M.D., a feat which he accomplished after a residence of six months. He now settled in London, and supported himself by literary work, popular lectures, and such practice as fell in his way. Between 1840 and 1846 he made many friends, including Charles Dickens, Douglas Jerrold, and Arthur Henfrey [q.v.]. He lodged with Edward Forbes [q.v.] in Golden Square; wrote regularly for the 'Daily News' (chiefly on medical reform, in support of Mr. Wakley), and began a connection with the 'Athenæum' which lasted till his death. He was a regular attendant at the British Association, and for five-and-twenty years (1839–64) was secretary of section D. He was an original member of the famous 'Red Lions,' founded by Edward Forbes [q.v.] in 1839. In 1844 he became secretary of the Ray Society. In 1845 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

Lankester's career after his marriage in 1845 was divided between the pursuit of science and the extension of a knowledge of scientific results. He had in 1841 taken the extra-license of the College of Physicians, with a view to practice in Leeds. But his failure in 1847 to obtain the London license of that body led to his gradually abandoning the practice of medicine for more distinctly scientific work. In 1847 he wrote the article 'Rotifera' for the 'Cyclopædia of Anatomy and Physiology;' in 1849 he produced a translation of Schleiden's 'Principles of Scientific Botany,' and in 1850 was appointed professor of natural history in New College, London. In 1853 he became lecturer on anatomy and physiology at the Grosvenor Place School of Medicine, and from that year till 1871 was joint editor of the 'Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science' (until 1868 with George Busk, and from 1869 to 1871 with his son, E. Ray Lankester). He was led to take an active part in the microscopic examination of drinking-waters during the cholera epidemic of 1854, and, in conjunction with Dr. Snow, demonstrated the connection of the celebrated 'Broad Street pump' with that epidemic. In 1855 he edited for the prince consort, at the suggestion of Sir James Clark [q. v.], an important work by William Macgillivray [q. v.] on the 'Natural History of the Dee Side and Braemar;' it was issued for private circulation. In 1856 he published a little book on the 'Aquarium, Fresh Water and Marine.' Alfred Lloyd, the originator of all the great aquaria, publicly attributed his first interest in the subject to a lecture by Lankester. In 1857 he produced a translation of Küchenmeister's important work on 'Animal and Vegetable Parasites of the Human Body' (Sydenham Soc.), and in 1859 was elected president of the Microscopical Society of London. In 1862 he was appointed examiner in botany to the science and art department. He also did much anonymous literary work. He edited the natural history section of both the 'Penny' and the 'English Cyclopædia,' and many editions of the 'Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.'

Lankester at the same time engaged in a very ardent attempt to spread a knowledge of physiology and the causes of disease among laymen, and in important sanitary investigations. In 1845 he had published a work on 'Natural History of Plants yielding Food,' and in 1851 and 1862 he was a juror in the department of economics of the International Exhibition held in London. In 1858 he succeeded Dr. (now Sir Lyon) Playfair as superintendent of the food collection at South Kensington Museum. He devised methods of rendering the analysis of various kinds of food appreciable by the uninstructed visitor, and gave courses of lectures upon food (printed in 1860), and upon the uses of animals to man in relation to the industry of man (printed in 1861). On his appointment as coroner in 1862, Sir Henry Cole (1808–1882) [q. v.], secretary of the science and art department, terminated his appointment, and, on the opening of the Bethnal Green Museum in 1872, removed the food collection thither.

His services in regard to the cholera of 1854 led in 1856 to his appointment as the first medical officer of health for the parish of St. James, Westminster, a position which he held until his death. In 1859 he wrote, in conjunction with Dr. William Letheby, the article 'Sanitary Science' in the eighth edition of the 'Encyclopædia Britannica,' and not only published his official reports to the vestry of St. James, but initiated a system of leaflets for distribution among the households of the parish, which has since been taken up and carried on by the National Health Society. In 1862, on the death of Thomas Wakley, Lankester was selected by the medical profession as the medical candidate for the post of coroner for Central Middlesex. He was opposed by Mr. (now Sir Charles) Lewis, a solicitor. Lankester was elected after a hard and expensive fight by a majority of forty-seven in a total poll of 10,894, but incurred a debt which weighed him down till his death. He now threw himself entirely into work connected with the public health, and except occasional lectures in ladies' schools and the summer courses at the gardens of the Royal Botanical Society, he abandoned his connection with botany and natural history. He advocated the teaching of physiology in schools, and produced a school manual of 'Health, or Practical Physiology' (1868). For twelve years he was known to the public by the newspaper reports of his inquests. He was condemned by the county financiers, but was approved by the public, for insisting upon proper medical evidence as to the cause of death. He drew attention to the frequency of infanticide, to baby-farming, and the neglect of workhouse infirmaries. His conclusions (sometimes misrepresented by the press) are to be found in his (voluntarily produced) 'Annual Reports,' published from 1866 onwards by the Social Science Association in the 'Journal of Social Science,' which Lankester founded in 1865, and edited until his death.

Lankester died, 30 Oct. 1874, at the age of sixty, from diabetes, after a brief illness. He married, in 1845, Phebe, eldest daughter of Samuel Pope of Highbury (formerly a mill-owner in Manchester). His wife (the authoress of books on British wild flowers, inspired by his teaching) and eight children survived him. His eldest son, Edwin Ray Lankester, born in 1847, is Linacre professor of anatomy at Oxford.

Lankester was above the middle height and portly; his complexion was high-coloured, eyes and hair dark brown. He had a singularly agreeable voice and manner, corresponding to a natural kindness of heart, which rendered it impossible for him to be harsh or unjust. He was a genial public speaker and an admirable lecturer. His chief mental characteristic was his intense love of natural scenery and of wild plants and animals, combined with which he had good judgment in matters of art. Until his last illness he was a man of very active habits.

His works are (besides those already noticed and many anonymous articles in periodicals):

  1. 'Lives of Naturalists,' 1842.
  2. 'An Account of Askern and its Mineral Springs; together with a sketch of the Natural History and a brief Topography of the immediate neighbourhood,' 1842.
  3. 'Memorials of John Ray,' Ray Society, 1845.
  4. 'Correspondence of John Ray,' Ray Society.
  5. 'Half-hours with the Microscope,' London, 1859.

[Private information; Nature, 5 Nov. 1874; Lancet, 7 Nov. 1874; Times, 31 Oct. 1874; Medical Directory, p. 1177; Athenæum, 7 Nov. 1874; Proc. Royal Soc. xxiii. 50.]