Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Goodsir, John
GOODSIR, JOHN (1814–1867), F.R.S. and professor of anatomy in the university of Edinburgh, was born at Anstruther, Fifeshire, on 20 March 1814. His father was Dr. John Goodsir of that town, and his grandfather Dr. John Goodsir of Largo, a man of marked individuality, who carried on a large country practice, and during the last twenty years of his life officiated as preacher to the Largo baptists (for his biography and portrait see the Evangelical Mag. and Theol. Rev., June 1821). The family had been settled on the east coast of Fife for several generations, and were said to have come from Germany; the name was locally pronounced Gutcher. Goodsir's mother was Elizabeth Taylor, great-granddaughter of Grizzel Forbes, the sister of Duncan Forbes, president of the court of session. From the Anstruther schools he was sent at the age of twelve to college at St. Andrews. He went through the four years' course of arts, but did not take a degree; ‘at this early period of his life he was fond of the study of metaphysics, and imbibed the doctrines of Coleridge, which gave a colour to the whole of his subsequent thoughts and speculations’ (Obituary in Proc. Roy. Soc. vol. xvi. p. xiv). In November 1830 his father, to save a surgeon's premium, apprenticed him to Nasmyth, an Edinburgh surgeon-dentist; the indenture was cancelled at Goodsir's request before the legal term, but he continued to assist Nasmyth and took charge of the practice in his absence in 1835. At the same time he attended Knox's classes in anatomy and some of the university medical classes. He learned practical surgery from Syme and practical medicine from Macintosh, both of the ‘extra-mural’ school. His decided turn for dissection and for making preparations, casts, &c., attracted notice. In 1835 he obtained the license of the Edinburgh College of Surgeons (he did not take the M.D. degree), and joined his father in practice at Anstruther, where he spent the next five years. His first piece of scientific work, and one of his best, grew out of his dental practice; it was a careful and elaborate memoir ‘On the Origin and Development of the Pulps and Sacs of the Human Teeth,’ published, with figures, in the ‘Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal,’ January 1839, but read in abstract at the British Association in the previous autumn. It gave him an assured place among the rising men of science, for it furnished a consecutive account of the process of human dentition. His five years' practice at Anstruther was varied by researches in marine zoology, geology, and archæology, by lecturing now and then at St. Andrews and Cupar, by keeping up with the newer writings in anatomy and physiology, and by making a considerable collection of pathological specimens. In May 1840 he went to Edinburgh, and established himself, along with one (or two) of his brothers, with Edward Forbes [q. v.], and with G. E. Day, in a half-flat at the top of the house 21 Lothian Street, which became well known as ‘the barracks,’ and cost 17l. a year. It was the chief meeting-place of a coterie known as ‘The Universal Brotherhood of the Friends of Truth,’ to which belonged Samuel Brown, George Wilson, John Hughes Bennett, and others, as well as the inmates proper; the club had been started by Edward Forbes some years before on the model of a German students' club (rose and black ribbon across the breast), but had to be reconstituted on a more select and less convivial footing. After about a year of unattached work Goodsir was appointed (in April 1841) curator of the museum of the College of Surgeons, in which capacity he gave courses of lectures upon the specimens, illustrated by his own microscopic researches. The original studies were afterwards communicated to the Royal Society of Edinburgh and other societies. In May 1843 he transferred his services to the university as curator of part of the museum, to which office he added that of demonstrator of anatomy in 1844, and the care of the rest of the museum in 1845. On the death of Monro tertius in 1846 he became a candidate for the valuable chair of anatomy, declaring that he would yield his claims to no one in Britain except Owen; he was elected by vote of the town council (22 to 11). With his appointment to the professorship Goodsir became less active as a writer of scientific memoirs. Beginning with his researches on the growth of the teeth (1838), and ending with his embryological paper on the suprarenals, thyroid, and thymus sent to the Royal Society and printed in the ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ 1846, he brought out thirty papers, most of them short, dealing with original points in development, in zoology, and in microscopic physiology and pathology. The more important of these were collected into a small volume (‘Anatomical and Pathological Observations,’ Edinburgh, 1845). The volume contained also two or three papers by his brother Harry Goodsir, who sailed the same year with Franklin's expedition and perished with it. This small collection was all that Goodsir ever published in book form, and it was mainly on it that his reputation for original research rested at home and abroad. The paper on ‘Centres of Nutrition’ has affinities to a certain part of the cell-doctrine afterwards worked out by Virchow, who dedicated the first edition of his ‘Cellular-Pathologie’ (1859) to Goodsir ‘as one of the earliest and most acute observers of cell-life both physiological and pathological.’ The memoir on ‘Secreting Structures’ was also important, and remains of interest still, although his conclusion ‘that secretion is exactly the same function as nutrition’ is too much in the transcendental manner. Other noteworthy papers are those on the placenta, on the structure, growth, and repair of bone, and on the amphioxus. A subordinate discovery, that of the sarcina ventriculi, or vegetable spores in the human stomach, brought him more credit with the profession at large than his researches did. His writings subsequent to 1846 were mostly on the morphology of the skeleton and the mechanism of the joints; his various plans for some great and comprehensive work were never carried out.
On entering upon his duties as professor of anatomy his enthusiasm for his subject soon raised the department from the state into which it had fallen in the incompetent hands of Monro tertius. He took great pleasure in dissection, especially in displaying the muscular system. He worked much for the university museum, making preparations mostly of the invertebrata. He dissected the horse twice, and left written descriptions of the anatomy, which were brought out after his death by Strangeways (1870). Electric fishes were also a favourite subject with him. Upwards of a thousand specimens prepared by himself and his assistants are striking evidence of the reality of his work. He gave for several years a course of summer lectures on the invertebrata, the first in 1847. He was consulted on questions of pisciculture and agriculture, and took part in the examination of veterinary students. In his proper anatomy lecture he was heard with interest, not for his good speaking, but on account of the numerous ideas, suggestions, and comparisons that he threw out. He would often expound at great length, and with more of enthusiasm than when lecturing, to a few pupils who stayed behind to put questions. At the outset of his career as professor he intended to join private and hospital surgical practice to his other work. With that end he took a house in George Square, and in 1848 applied for the vacant post of assistant-surgeon to the infirmary. He was greatly disappointed at not being elected, and told the managers that he had been unfairly treated. After this his domestic life became careless. He removed to a smaller house in the New Town, then to Trinity on the shore of the Firth, then back to Edinburgh for a year and a half, and finally to Edward Forbes's old cottage at Wardie (also on the Firth), where he spent the last ten years of his life. He saw no company, slept on a sofa in the midst of his papers and preparations, took his meals irregularly, and did nearly everything for himself. In his later years his sister kept house for him. The long illness of which he died (wasting of the spinal cord) began in 1853. His health was completely shattered by the gratuitous labour which he took upon himself in lecturing for the invalid professor of natural history in the summer of 1853; instead of reading the old lectures he gave an original and brilliant course, remembered long after, which prostrated him so much that he required a year's leave of absence abroad. He came back greatly set up, but fell into his old careless way of living. From that time he had to delegate much of his work to assistants, and at last spent most of the day in the museum, except the lecture hour. When on visits to Vienna, Berlin, and Paris in the vacations he spent nearly all his time in the anatomical collections and in seeking out new pieces of ‘philosophical’ or physiological apparatus. Of the latter he brought home the first collection that came to this country, which was acquired after his death for the use of the physiological laboratory. The favourite speculation of his later years was that the triangle was the ground-plan of all organic forms; in this way he sought to bring living organisms into the same view with crystals, man being a tetrahedron. His various papers ‘On the Dignity of the Human Body’ and other morphological subjects were collected, together with his scientific memoirs of an earlier period, in two posthumous volumes, Edinburgh, 1868. In 1850 he issued the first part of the ‘Annals of Anatomy,’ consisting of original papers by pupils and others; but the serial stopped at the third number. The progressive disease from which he suffered doubtless prevented him from leaving more work (apart from his museum work) in a finished state. He began the winter session as usual in 1866, but broke down exhausted, and died on 6 March 1867. He was buried in the Dean cemetery, next to the grave of his early friend Edward Forbes.[Biography by H. Lonsdale, M.D., prefixed to Goodsir's Anatom. Memoirs, 2 vols., Edinb., 1868; Proc. Roy. Soc. vol. xvi.; Edinb. Med. Journ. 1867.]