Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/October 1872/Sketch of Dr. Carpenter

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William Benjamin Carpenter LL.D., F.R.S.,

President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.




WILLIAM BENJAMIN CARPENTER was born in Exeter, October 29, 1813. His father, Dr. Lant Carpenter, was a dissenting minister, favorably known as a writer on theological subjects. More widely known, however, as a zealous worker in the cause of juvenile reformation, is his sister, Miss Mary Carpenter. Only his earliest childhood was spent in Exeter, for in 1817 the family removed to Bristol. Like several distinguished Englishmen of the present day, among whom are to be named Mr. John Stuart Mill and Mr. Herbert Spencer, Dr. Carpenter's subsequent achievements cannot be traced to the training received at any of the public schools; since his early instruction was carried on entirely under his father's roof. Besides the ordinary branches of an English lad's education, he devoted himself to physics and chemistry, for which he already showed a special taste and aptitude. His wish was to become a civil engineer, but, no suitable opening presenting itself at this time in that profession, he yielded to the desire of his family that he should study medicine. Mr. J. B. Estlin, a general practitioner of high standing in Bristol, and brother-in-law of Dr. Pritchard the ethnologist, having offered to take him as a pupil and apprentice to the medical profession, an engagement to this effect was entered into. This was in 1828. Besides receiving private instructions, Mr. Carpenter attended lectures at the Bristol Medical School, and at the Bristol Philosophical and Literary Institution, and had hospital practice at the Bristol Infirmary. In the winter of 1832, the state of Mr. Estlin's health rendering it desirable that he should make a voyage to the West Indies, Mr. Carpenter accompanied him to St. Vincent, where he stayed several months, and also visited the island of Grenada.

On his return to Bristol, Mr. Carpenter resumed his medical studies and practice. In 1834 he went to London, where he prosecuted his studies at University College and Middlesex Hospital. It was at this time, while attending the lectures of Dr. Grant on Comparative Anatomy, that he imbibed that special love for the subject which has resulted in the production of those volumes on Physiology by which he is most generally known. Having passed his examination at the College of Surgeons and the Apothecaries' Hall, he went in 1835 to Edinburgh, where he devoted himself to professional studies, under the able guidance of the distinguished men who at that time upheld the fame of Edinburgh University as one of the first medical schools in Europe. While here, he was elected the first of the four annual presidents of the Royal Medical Society.

After having spent two sessions in Edinburgh, Mr. Carpenter accepted the lectureship on Medical Jurisprudence in the Bristol Medical School, and at the same time commenced general practice in Bristol, intending to devote what spare time he might have to scientific pursuits. About this time he became a frequent contributor to various periodicals. Among the first of these contributions was a paper, "On the Voluntary and Instinctive Actions of Living Beings," published in the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal. In the British and Foreign Medical Review, of which he eventually became the editor, his papers are remarkable alike for number and for varied contents. The first, which appeared in the July number of 1837, was on "Vegetable Physiology." This was succeeded in the following year by a critique on that portion of Whewell's "History of the Inductive Sciences" which relates to physiology; and by an article on his favorite subject, "The Physiology of the Spinal Marrow," where the writer discusses the doctrine of reflex action which Dr. Marshall Hall had recently propounded as new. These are tolerably good beginnings for a young man of twenty-four years.

An impulse and direction were given to Mr. Carpenter's studies about this time, by his becoming possessed of a microscope, which a prize of thirty pounds, gained at Edinburgh University in 1837, for the best essay of that year, enabled him to purchase. He had already formed, and begun to execute, his design to write the now famous treatise entitled "General and Comparative Physiology," the first edition of which appeared in 1838. The scientific reader will not need to be told the general character of this work; and any account of it, to be of use to the non-scientific reader, would transgress the limits of this biographical sketch. Dr. Carpenter confesses that the course of study he had to go through in bringing out the work was of immense service to him, though it was rather detrimental than otherwise to success in the practice of his profession.

Up to this time the subject of this memoir had not received the degree of M. D. According to one of the regulations of the University of Edinburgh, a three-years' attendance was requisite for graduation; and when Mr. Carpenter accepted the post of lecturer at the Bristol Medical School he had only completed his second year. Now, however, a change in the rules enabled him to graduate in 1839 by an additional residence of three months. His thesis on the occasion of taking his degree—"On the Physiological Inferences to be deduced from the Structure of the Nervous System of Invertebrated Animals"—gained for its author one of the gold medals annually distributed. The views advanced by the essayist, though meeting with some opposition for a time, were at once adopted by Prof. Owen and others, and have since passed into general acceptance among scientific men.

The scientific aspects of medicine having from the beginning possessed attractions superior to the strictly practical, Dr. Carpenter resolved to devote himself wholly to the study of physiology, the delivering of lectures, private tuition, and writing. On being appointed Fullerian Professor of Physiology in the Royal Institution, he resigned his post in the Bristol Medical School, and came, in 1844, to London, where he has resided ever since. Hitherto he had been engaged chiefly in reducing to system the results of the investigations of others; as in his "Comparative Physiology," and "Human Physiology," the latter of which first appeared during this year. But about this time he began to be known as an original investigator, in connection with his researches into the microscopic structure of the shells of Echinodermata, Mollusca, Crustacea, etc. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1844, and in the following year he obtained a lectureship at the London Hospital. A lectureship in geology was bestowed on him, by the trustees of the British Museum, in 1847, and in the same year he became one of the examiners of the London University. He also succeeded Dr. Forbes as editor of the British and Foreign Medical Review, to which he had been a constant contributor for years, and which was now amalgamated with the Medico-Chirurgical Review, under the title British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review. Besides editorial supervision, he continued to contribute articles to this periodical, on a wide range of subjects. In 1849 he was appointed Professor of Medical Jurisprudence at University College, a post which he held for ten years.

Some six or eight years had already elapsed from the time when Mr. Grove first promulgated his views on the now well-known doctrine of the "Correlation of Physical Forces." As indicated by the title of his treatise, Mr. Grove did not attempt to show the equivalence of the so-called "vital force" with the physical forces; but confined himself to proving the mutual convertibility of the physical forces—motion, heat, electricity, light, magnetism, etc. In a memoir communicated to the Royal Society in 1850, Dr. Carpenter carried the argument further; he attempted to bring the "vital force" also within the generalization, proving that it has its origin in solar light and heat, and not, as is commonly believed, in a power inherent in the germ.

The reader will form an idea of the success of Dr. Carpenter's two principal, works from the fact that, as early as in 1851, a third edition of the "Comparative Physiology," and a fourth of the "Human Physiology," were called for. Very high authorities have expressed their appreciation of these works, and the debt which recent physiology owes to them. Among these authorities may be mentioned Sir Benjamin Brodie, who, in his presidential address at the annual meeting of the Royal Society in 1861, said that Dr. Carpenter's works "have served, more perhaps than any others of their time, to spread the knowledge of those sciences, and promote their study among a large class of readers;" and that, "while they admirably fulfil their purpose as systematic expositions of the current state of knowledge on the subjects which they comprehend, they afford evidence throughout of much depth and extent of original thought on some of the great questions of physiology." The field where, perhaps, Dr. Carpenter has been most successful, is that border-land between the physical and the psychical, between matter and mind—the nervous system and its functions. He has also given his thoughts on another topic of present interest, in an article on the "Varieties of the Human Race;" where he argues strongly on physiological and psychological grounds for the specific unity of mankind.

In 1852 Dr. Carpenter relinquished the editorship of the Medico-Chirurgical Review, on being appointed principal of University Hall—an institution for the reception of students at University College, similar to the halls at Oxford and Cambridge. By this change he was enabled to devote more time to scientific pursuits.

Of these pursuits a very important one was the study of the Australian and Philippine Foraminifera; the results of which were given in memoirs to the Royal Society, between 1856 and 1860. In these papers, says Sir B. Brodie in the address already referred to, Dr. Carpenter "described some remarkable types which were previously quite unknown; he gave a detailed account of the very complex organization existing alike in the foregoing and in types previously well known by external configuration; he demonstrated the entire fallacy of the artificial system of classification hitherto in vogue, the primary divisions of which are based on the plan of growth; he laid the foundation of a natural system, based on those characters, in the internal structure and conformation of the shell, which are most closely related to the physiological conditions of the animal; and, finally, by the comparison of very large numbers of individuals, he proved the existence of an extremely wide range of variation among the leading types of Foraminifera, often reassembling under a single species varying forms, which, for want of a sufficiently careful study, had not merely been separated into distinct species, but had been arranged under different genera, families, and even orders."

Another important series of subjects that engaged Dr. Carpenter's attention about this time was the phenomena of mesmerism, hypnotism, electro-biology, etc. The result of his investigations will be found in the Quarterly Review for October, 1853. In this paper he endeavors to explain the phenomena by the automatic action of the mind under the influence of suggestion, the will being in abeyance. The same explanation he considers applicable to all the phenomena of spiritualism, with the exception of those which are referable either to trickery or self-deception.

A detailed account of Dr. Carpenter's contributions to the general body of scientific knowledge would be out of place here. Let it suffice to say that he continued to prosecute with success his researches into the microscopic structures of organisms. In 1856 he published "The Microscope and its Revelations." New editions of his two great works on physiology being again urgently demanded, there was entailed upon him immense labor in reorganizing them and bringing them up to the highest level of that rapidly-advancing science. So great, indeed, has been the toil required to keep the successive editions of the "Human Physiology" (which is at present in its eighth edition) abreast of the times, that the author has of late years been compelled to hand over to others this important duty, while he himself has devoted all his spare time and energy to original investigation in certain departments of zoology.

In this self-imposed task it would still have been impossible for Dr. Carpenter to accomplish any thing very noteworthy, had he continued to be distracted by the multifarious engagements which occupied so much of his time during the first ten or twelve years of his stay in London. But, fortunately for him and for science, he was appointed, in 1856, registrar of the University of London. Though the duties of this office have considerably increased since he entered upon them, they still leave him many intervals of leisure for his favorite pursuits, while the salary attached to it is such as enables him to forego other engagements.

The Royal Medal awarded to Dr. Carpenter in 1861, by the Council of the Royal Society, was a well-earned recognition of the important services he has rendered to the cause of truth. And he has continued to lay us under additional obligations. For to him, as to other devoted students of Nature, the conquest of one field is but the prelude to yet further conquests. He has latterly been much occupied with a subject of special interest; to wit, the investigations connected with the deep-sea dredging expeditions, carried on in one of her Britannic Majesty's ships, and conducted by him, Mr. J. Gwyn Jeffreys, and Prof. Wyville Thompson. Though no final conclusions have as yet been arrived at, it seems to be clearly indicated that there is a vast sheet of the lowest type of animal life, which probably extends over the whole of the warmer regions of the sea. And there can be little doubt that, conducted by such experienced naturalists, these expeditions will result in correcting and enlarging our present knowledge regarding the distribution of life on the globe.

Dr. Carpenter is a man of much versatility of scientific attainment, of a philosophical cast of mind, inclining him to take broad views, with a good capacity of original investigations (although this is seen more in the speculative and generalizing field than in special experimental researches), and, withal, he is an unusually clear and able scientific writer. His election to the presidency of the British Association, at its Edinburgh meeting last year, was one of the highest honors that British science has to bestow. To guide the deliberations of the largest and ablest scientific body in the world, and to occupy the chair formerly filled by such men as Herschel, Whewell, Airy, Rosse, Stokes, Grove, Hooker, Huxley, and Thompson, is a tribute to Dr. Carpenter's worth and character which is doubtless as gratifying as it is just and deserved.