Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Foster, Michael
FOSTER, Sir MICHAEL (1836–1907), professor of physiology in the University of Cambridge, born at Huntingdon on 8 March 1836, was eldest child in a family of three sons and seven daughters of Michael Foster, F.R.C.S., surgeon in Huntingdon, by his wife Mercy Cooper. Sir Michael's grandfather, John Foster, was a yeoman farmer of Holywell, Hertfordshire, with antiquarian tastes, who left to the British Museum a collection of coins found in his neighbourhood. The father was a baptist and his family lived in an atmosphere of fervent nonconformity. Foster was educated first at Huntingdon grammar school and later (1849-1852) at University College School, London. The religious tests demanded by the University of Cambridge stood in the way of his entering for a scholarship there. At the age of sixteen he matriculated at the University of London, and graduated B.A. in 1854 with the university scholarship in classics. Choosing his father's profession, Foster in 1854 began the study of science and medicine at University College. There in 1856 he obtained gold medals in anatomy and physiology, and in chemistry. In 1858 he proceeded M.B., and in 1859 M.D. of London University. The next two years were spent partly in medical study in Paris as well as at home, and partly in original investigation. Owing to threatenings of consumption he went on a sea voyage as surgeon on the steamship 'Union' without beneficial result. In 1861 he joined his father in practice in Huntingdon. His health improved, and in 1867 he accepted an invitation from Prof. Sharpey to become teacher in practical physiology in University College, London. There he rapidly showed his practical gifts as a teacher. Two years later he was appointed professor in the same subject, and he succeeded Huxley as Fullerian professor of physiology at the Royal Institution. In 1870 he left London for Cambridge, on his appointment, chiefly on Huxley's recommendation, to the newly established post of prælector of physiology in Trinity College. In the following year an honorary M.A. degree was conferred on him by the university, the complete degree being conferred in 1884. In 1872 also he was elected F.R.S., and became one of the general secretaries of the British Association, a post which he resigned after four years, though he continued throughout his life to take an active part in the working of the association. In 1881 he succeeded Huxley as biological secretary of the Royal Society, an office which he held for twenty-two years. In 1899 he was president of the British Association, and in the same year was created K.C.B. In 1900 he was elected M.P. for the University of London, and this led him to apply for a deputy to perform the duties of his Cambridge professorship, and three years later to his resignation. In politics Foster was a liberal, but on the introduction of Gladstone's home rule bill he joined the liberal unionists and gave a general support to the conservative government. On entering the House of Commons he sat at first on the government side of the house. He found himself unable to support the government in several of its measures, notably the education bill of 1902, and finally crossed the floor of the house, thenceforth voting with the liberal opposition. At the general election of 1906 he stood for the university as a liberal, and was defeated by 24 votes. On 28 Jan. 1907 he died suddenly from pneumo-thorax in London, and was buried in the cemetery at Huntingdon, For more than thirty years he had Uved at Great Shelf ord near Cambridge, where he engaged wdth ardour in gardening.
Foster was twice married: (1) in 1863 to Georgina (d. 1869), daughter of Cyrus Edmonds, by whom he had two children, a son, Michael George Foster, M.D. (Camb.), practising at San Remo and at Harrogate, and a daughter, Mercy, wife of J. Tetley Rowe, Archdeacon of Rochester ; (2) in 1872 to Margaret, daughter of George Rust of Cromwell House, Huntingdon.
Foster left his mark on his generation chiefly as a teacher, a writer of scientific works, and an organiser. As a teacher he had a large share in the development of the present method of making practical work in the laboratory an essential part of the courses in biological science. In his student days, zoology, botany, physiology and histology — the latter two being generally regarded as insignificant parts of human anatomy — were taught by means of lectures and the exhibition of specimens, macroscopic or microscopic. Sharpcy no doubt had somewhat extended this simple plan before he invited Foster to join him in London ; but the first course of practical physiology given in England appears to have been that given by Foster. In 1870 Huxley instituted a course of practical biology, with Foster as one of his demonstrators. Foster's first care on coming to Cambridge was to introduce practical classes in physiology, physiological chemistry, histology, and biology, and these were soon followed by a class in embryology. In order to facilitate the conduct of these classes he co-operated with Burdon-Sanderson, Lauder Brunton, and Klein in writing a 'Text-Book for the Physiological Laboratory' (1873), with his pupil F. M. Balfour in writing 'The Elements of Embryology' (1874), and obtained the assistance of another of his pupils, John Newport Langley, in writing ' A Course of Elementary Practical Physiology ' (1876), in which histology was included. His classes were the forerunners of those conducted in the laboratories of zoology and botany, subsequently established in Cambridge. The plan of teaching developed by Foster and by Huxley rapidly spread throughout Great Britain and America. Foster's belief in the value of direct observation of natural phenomena was accompanied by a belief in the virtue of research ; and this he had a faculty of communicating to his pupils. It was through his influence that most of his early pupils devoted themselves to original inquiry. The earliest of these, H. N. Martin, became professor in Johns Hopkins University, U.S.A., and potently helped to develop biological research in America. Foster's many occupations prevented him taking a leading position as an original investigator (cf. Journal of Physiology xxxv. 233 for an account of his work). The experimental trend of his mind was shown in his main, and almost sole, relaxation — gardening. He hybridised several plants, but chiefly irises, and in these chiefly the oncocyclus section. Now and again he published a short article in one of the horticultural journals (cf. The Garden, 15 Nov. 1890, 18 Feb. 1893), but a good many of Ms hybrids he left undescribed.
Foster's 'Text - Book of Physiology,' published in 1876, gave a critical account of the state of physiology at the time ; the evidence for and against the current theories being dispassionately weighed. Its attractive style and its occasional passages of vivid literary merit placed it, amongst text-books, in a class by itself. Both at home and abroad it had an immediate success. Six editions were published and part of a seventh ; the third edition was perhaps the best, since in the later remodelling it lost something of its original unity of purpose. He wrote also a 'Science Primer of Physiology' (1890), a life of Claude Bernard (1899), 'A History of Physiology during the Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries' (1901), and 'Simple Lessons in Health for the Use of the Young' (1906). He was also joint-editor of the collected edition of Huxley's 'Scientific Memoirs' (1898-1902). Foster in 1878 founded the 'Journal of Physiology,' the first journal in the English language devoted solely to the subject, and remained its sole editor until 1894. Its pages were confined to accounts of original investigation, though for some years an appendix was issued giving a fist of books and papers of physiological interest published elsewhere. In its early years most of the rising school of American physiologists used it as a means of publication.
Foster had great powers of organisation. It was chiefly through him that the Physiological Society was founded in 1875, and the International Congress of Physiologists established in 1889. During his long tenure of the office of secretary of the Royal Society he seized every opportunity of forwarding the cause of science, and took a prominent part in most of the plans for combined scientific action. He strengthened the connection between the Royal Society and the government, and the most varied forms of scientific expeditions and explorations found in him a strong supporter. His influence was perhaps more especially felt in the establishment of the International Association of Academies, and in the arrangements leading up to the publication of the 'International Catalogue of Scientific Papers.' He was a member of the committee appointed by the colonial office to advise as to the best means of combating disease; he served on the royal commissions on vaccination, disposal of sewage, and tuberculosis, and on the commission appointed to consider the reorganisation of the University of London.
Portraits of him were painted by Herkomer and by the Hon. John Collier; the former is in the possession of Trinity College, Cambridge; the latter belongs to his son, but a replica of the head and shoulders is in the possession of the Royal Society.
[Year Book of Roy. See. 1906, p. 13 (gives list of honours); Brit. Med. Journ. 9 Feb. 1907; Journ. of Physiol. xxxv. 233, March 1907; Rendiconti d. R. Accad. d. Lincei (Roma), xvi. Ap. 1907; Cambridge Rev. 30 May 1907; Proc. Linn. Soc. 1907, p. 42; Proc. Roy. Soc. B. lxxx. p. lxxi, 1908; Colorado Med. Journ. Oct. 1900; The Garden, 15 Nov. 1890, 18 Feb. 1893; Gardeners' Chron. 1883; Garden Life, 9 Feb. 1907.]