Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/January 1896/A Student's Recollections of Huxley
|A STUDENT'S RECOLLECTIONS OF HUXLEY.|
IT was my pleasant fortune, a few years back, to have my name enrolled with a limited few in the registry book of the Royal School of Mines in London, destined for work at one of the ten or twelve tables which covered the greater part of the ground space of Prof. Huxley's laboratory. The building was a comparatively new one, having been erected as an adjunct to the new South Kensington Museum on Exhibition Road, and from the top floor looked out the various rooms in which we were to receive our tutorage from the great naturalist. A climbing flight of stone steps, with landings, wound round to this summit, to which at times of irregular journey also conducted a box "lift." On one of my daily upward saunterings I chanced to stumble upon my master, who, always a rapid walker, overtook me on the grand "round," and cordially greeted me as a fellow-traveler. Possibly I allowed myself a little to be overtaken, for, though I had already been in the workshop and lecture theater a number of days, and had answered questions on Torula, Paramœcieum, and other low grades of organisms, and had even swallowed a good-natured rebuke for attempting to use a compound binocular in place of the simple, and confessedly clumsy, microscopes which were furnished gratuitously to the students, the opportunity to meet the man as man and not as teacher had not yet presented itself. Prof. Huxley's private rooms almost adjoined the laboratory, and frequently on passing the door the temptation grew strong upon me to knock and allow myself the honor of an interview, but each time a certain Tootsian timidity overcame me, and directed my course either to the right or to the left. The meeting on the landing was thus a deliverance, and Huxley allowed me to make the most of it by himself opening the conversation. It began with a reference to the deficiencies in modern building construction, particularly applied to the South Kensington annex, and evoked by the absence of proper mounting appliances. "Our lifts are not like the grand elevators in your country," remarked the professor—a thought in which it was not difficult to concur.
This first bit of extra-class conversation impressed itself forcibly upon my mind, both for the pleasure that it gave me and the surprise it occasioned in the knowledge that I was from American soil. No reference to foreign studentship had heretofore been made, and I was a little puzzled to know what kind of information had led to the betrayal of my personality. Considerably later I learned that a close friend of my father's, the late Prof. Youmans—himself a friend equally to science and to the scientific student—had addressed a personal note to Prof. Huxley, advising him of my presence and commending me in the usual way to a kind consideration and to an equally considerate esteem. It was characteristic of the justness and fairness of the master that this letter, while it may have paved the way to a more informal acquaintance outside of the class room, in no way influenced favoritism within, or saved me from sound criticism of my work when it merited it. This was not exactly at long intervals, and particularly do I recall the painful awaiting of judgment on a mangled dissection of the nerves of the frog. "Your blue papers are where the red should be, and the sympathetic is gone"—a piece of information, the basis of a portion of which had already only too keenly been realized.
At no time was criticism given in' a way to hurt, and more commonly encouragement and commendation took the place of criticism. But a thing had to be really well done to call out praise, and an exuberance of it rarely broke an echo from the laboratory walls. On one occasion I was startled by the inquiry if my drawing—a drawing of the division lines in the cells of a certain water plant—was made from the object or from imagination, an inquiry which threw doubt in my mind as to whether I was receiving praise or condemnation. The representation was considered unusually true to Nature, but I was forced to admit that it was a combined product of the visual and mental eye, and not a mere transcript of Nature. This explanation was in no way a satisfaction to Prof. Huxley, who took the opportunity to admonish the class that drawings, however true they may appear to Nature, are only true when they strictly copy the objects which they are intended to portray.
Huxley himself was an excellent draughtsman, and it was frequently remarked of him, as it was also of our own Dr. Leidy, that had he devoted himself to painting, instead of to science, he would have forced himself to a position not less prominent as an artist than that which he occupied as a naturalist. He was always precise in his drawings on the blackboard, and if he could not, perhaps, like Prof. Weisbach, of Freiberg, jump to a circle and punch its middle point with a stub of chalk, he could, apparently without any hesitancy, draw the most complex anatomical constructions, and in such a way as to make every point clearly intelligible to the student. It was probably from the father's side that Mrs. Thomas Collier, née Huxley, who had well earned her several premiums from the fine-art institutions of London, inherited her tendencies and capabilities in the direction of painting. Inspired in a measure, probably, through his love for art, and with an inborn feeling for mechanical constructions. Prof. Huxley always held a kindly sympathy for all that pertained to the science of engineering; and he frequently expressed the thought, which will doubtless seem strange to many, that he had missed his vocation, and that the true field of his activities should have been the field of an engineer. Yet it is singular that with this proclivity for a branch of study which requires for its successful accomplishment a generous supply of mathematical stimulus, the fact that he was in no way a mathematician did not terrify Huxley. He frequently admitted that he had neither a liking nor an aptitude for figures, and it was a timely forethought in lecturing, when a condition required a mathematical calculation for its elucidation, to have the answer written in advance at one corner of the board. This, as was naively explained by the lecturer, was to avoid the easy possibility of an error creeping into an offhand calculation or problem in sums.
In lecturing to his classes Huxley adhered strictly to business, and it was rarely that a matter of levity was introduced to give merriment to his listeners, I recall, in a course of some seventy lectures, only a single instance of this kind, when, for some reason (no longer in my memory), a reference was made to Chamisso's Peter Schlemiel—a book which Prof. Huxley frankly admitted gave him more genuine pleasure than any other in nonscientific literature. Whether it was the refreshing frankness of this admission, or the fact in itself that was quoted, which on this occasion brought forth an unbounded merriment from his students, was perhaps not fully decided for all of us, but there was no questioning the spontaneousness of the applause which followed the utterance. And this, as I now recall it, was the only instance of applause greeting the lecturer in the middle of the lecture during the entire course of my studentship. Huxley, like Tyndall, was always careful to have his lectures fully prepared. A few notes jotted down on a fly-sheet of paper or in small notebooks were the only guide for the full hour, which to most of the students passed very rapidly. There was no display of eloquence, no attempt to clothe description or explanation in floral verse, but everything was stated in terse and succinct language, although with due emphasis on important points, and this it was that made it easy to follow. These class lectures were naturally very different from public addresses, in which Huxley always maintained that wonderful dignity of expression and choice rhetoric which have been the despair of his combatants, scientific no less than clerical, and have for all time rendered classical that which he has chosen to put in print.
Contrary to what is generally supposed, Huxley was not a ready speaker, or perhaps it would be more true to say that his deliverances were not unaccompanied by stage fright, or a nervous uneasiness which frequently required for its subjugation a strong mental eif ort. It was this that told heavily on his health, and more than once the quiet resolve had been made to forever abandon the public platform. I was present on one occasion at a rather extensive gathering where, following a few after-dinner remarks by Sir Joseph Hooker, Prof. Tyndall, and Sir Wyville Thomson, Huxley, contrary to previous agreement, was also called upon for a few words, and with the pleasing introduction (as nearly as I can now recall the passage), "There is one among us who, by reason of his witty tongue and ever-readiness, it is a pleasure to call upon."
Following the applause which greeted his name—the mention of which was unmistakably a disagreeable surprise to the one more particularly concerned, Huxley took occasion to explain in emphatic language that were it only generally known how much of an effort it cost him to speak, his friends would willingly allow him more peace, and save the lingering wreck of his bodily frame. This admission—which was followed by a short but most happy ex-tempore utterance—appeared to me so strange that I was determined on the first proper occasion to obtain at first hand its true meaning. The opportunity presented itself a few days later, immediately after the conclusion of a stirring public address (read from manuscript) on "Sunday Opening," if by this name we may designate the liberty of displaying and using on the Sabbath-day collections of books and paintings, museum and other treasures, and of listening to scientific discourses. Dean Stanley and one or two other speakers had preceded him, but manifestly the audience was waiting for the speaker of the occasion. A more brilliant and incisive arraignment of those who by legal process attempted to forever remove from the workingman his one day of self-improvement could hardly have been formulated, and the speaker was greeted with vociferous applause. Meeting him on the way homeward from the lecture hall, I asked for a significance of the explanation made a few evenings before at the dinner table, for it did not seem possible to me that one gifted with such fluent powers of speech, and backed by an almost unfathomable fund of knowledge, could feel any fear or hesitancy in speaking, no matter what the occasion. In his answer. Prof. Huxley repeated in substance what he had before said, only more clearly emphasizing the nervous fear with which he mounted the platform. He then assured me that he might have saved himself an African journey, undertaken for health recuperation, had he abstained from public deliverances.
It has been frequently assumed that Huxley cared for little beyond science, and especially for that side of it which was combative either with the Church or with the State, but nothing could be further from the truth than the belief that this was in fact the case. It is perfectly true that Huxley used all the vigor of speech of which he was capable to emphasize what he considered to be the proper position of science in any education, and perhaps he even considered the acquisition of scientific knowledge to be of more importance than any other form of learning, but he was always careful to emphasize that education was only such when it was broad and comprehensive, when it comprised not only science, but in addition a goodly share of the world's history and literature. His own resource in the fields of literature (English, French, German, and Italian) and history was prodigious, and he rarely was at a loss to instantly take advantage of a citation from some early scholar to demolish at first or second hand an adversary at arms. When I was in London he was reading, with the assistance of a friend, Russian, and mainly for the purpose of fully familiarizing himself with the work of the great anatomist, A. Kovalewski, whose writings he was seemingly the first to bring to the critical notice of English-speaking naturalists. It was this thorough familiarity with what one is almost tempted to call universal knowledge that made Prof. Huxley such a dreaded foe to his enemies, and it has well been remarked, "Woe be to him who attempts to measure arms with such an antagonist!"
Huxley was a firm believer in thorough knowledge, and he took no stock in brain-stuffing; to have known a thing once, and to be able to put your hand upon it when you again want it, was his maxim. The opening address delivered by him before the Johns Hopkins University, in 1876, gives the keynote to his position in the matter of special training, "Know a thing directly," he often remarked, "and do not assume that you know more of it by knowing around it." He had no patience with those who spoke with a pseudo-authority begotten of chance, and was bitter in his denunciation of officialism as affording a pretext for either defending or attacking scientific dogma. An interesting anecdote, which Prof. Huxley himself related to me, shows the occasional happy frame of mind in which our savant found himself when he, in turn, was receiving blows. A prominent bishop of the English Church, whose name it is not here necessary to mention, had been for some time endeavoring to smash the Darwinian hypothesis through some actual researches in zoölogy which he claimed to have undertaken. Toward the accomplishment of this laudable effort he used many pages of the current magazines and equally many columns of the daily press, in each of which the "undernurse of Darwinism" came in for an uncommonly large share of ridicule. Finding that none of these papers brought forth any comment from Prof. Huxley, their author in a personal letter called his attention to them, at the same time asking to be advised as to what particular course of reading would most readily enable him to grapple with the various scientific questions which at that time agitated the world. Prof. Huxley's full and laconic answer was, "Take a cockroach and dissect it." No further inquiry came from that source.
I once found Prof. Huxley much depressed over a small paragraph which also touched, and in a very depreciatory manner, the evolutionary hypothesis, which had been contributed to the daily press by his friend Carlyle. He greatly deplored the recklessness of the utterances contained in the squib, and especially painful to him was a markedly undignified reference to the one man for whom Huxley had a greater reverence than for any other—Charles Darwin. To my interrogatory as to whether he considered it necessary to reply to the paragraph, he promptly and emphatically answered, "No!"
Remorseless as Huxley occasionally was in the cold exposition of the blunders of his colaborers in science, he was usually very lenient to those who pointed out his own mistakes. I remember one occasion when a post-graduate student of the Royal School of Mines, Patrick (now Professor) Geddes, intimated to the professor that his interpretation of the mechanism of the radula in the common garden snail, as was set forth in the Anatomy of Invertebrated Animals, was not supported by the newer laboratory dissections. Prof. Huxley's response was a request of Mr. Geddes to try a new dissection; it was done, and it was found that the pupil was right and the master wrong. Only once do I recall when a correction was received with a regret almost akin to displeasure—the case of the Bathybius, the all-pervading protoplasm of the oceanic deep. When Sir Wyville Thomson separated this substance as a mineral precipitate, it smashed a thought that had already become pregnant with English and German naturalists, and which threatened to become of genuine usefulness in explaining the origin and development of the organic life forms of the earth.
Among his many eminent scientific contemporaries there were few for whom Huxley had greater admiration than the German morphologist, Gegenbaur, and Karl Vogt; the latter he regarded as a tower of strength and in a certain sense a genius. When, nearly two years after leaving London, I returned to my alma mater and informed my past master that I had in the meantime been enrolled as a student, although in the class of paleontology instead of zoölogy, under Vogt, he appeared to be really pleased, and expressed himself freely on the advantage of being guided by so eminent an authority and so liberal a thinker as was the self-imposed exile of the University of Geneva. And in truth it must be admitted that there was much in Vogt that reminded me of Huxley. Like the latter, he was fearlessly outspoken in his utterances. Witness his tirade against the late Emperor William of Germany, delivered as a protest against the expenditure of the state's money on bronze and iron cannon when it could have been more humanely and profitably used in the purchase of the then recently discovered second specimen of Aarchæopteryx—that strange fossil hybrid connecting bird and reptile which has since found its way to the Berlin Museum. Like his English prototype, Vogt was also an admirable lecturer, fluent in diction and facile with the crayon, but it can hardly be claimed that either the quality or the tone of his lectures was fully representative of the scholarship of their author.
Vogt never allowed the opportunity of a pun to escape him, and his bons mots were at times hardly more elegant than they were appropriate; but, for all that, he was very popular, and equally so with the few women students of his class as with the men. He spoke in French with a decided German intonation, frequently relieving himself of a sigh brought about by an uncomfortably asthmatic condition. His powerful bodily frame, disproportionably shortened through a generous development of tissue about the equatorial region, was in marked contrast to the tall and nearly upright carriage of Prof. Huxley, whose slightly stooping head and shoulders reduced somewhat what might otherwise have been considered a more than average height. Huxley never entered the class lecture room except in a dress in which he was immediately prepared to go to the street; Vogt rarely appeared without a coat which did not in one or more places show visible signs of underlying shirt sleeves. The presence of women in no way affected his Wohlgefühl, and in truth it must be said that this class of students was to him in a measure a blank, as he invariably addressed the class only as "Messieurs."
Among the many warm friends and admirers that Huxley numbered within the ranks of the scientific fraternity there was none who was more enthusiastic in his admiration of the great man than the distinguished comparative anatomist of the Royal College of Surgeons, the late Prof. Kitchen Parker. An afternoon and evening spent at the home of this most genial and alloverflowing host serves my memory as the record of one of the pleasantest incidents of my student life in London. Huxley and Parker had not many years before announced their new classification of birds—worked out conjointly on characters founded principally on the position and construction of the bones of the palate and beak—and the stir which that radical departure in classification brought out had not yet subsided. Prof. Parker was still largely engaged in proving his case, and was naturally, to use an expression that is less elegant than determining, full of it. The overjoyful manner in which he pointed out a confirmatory character here and there, or an exception to the rule elsewhere, kindled a glowing enthusiasm within the listener to follow in the line of the master, and a desire to make immediate friends with basi-sphenoid and pterygoid bones. Drawer after drawer of neatly prepared bird skulls, colored in correspondence so that identical or homologous parts could be immediately detected, were pulled out and hastily scanned over; but the explanations that were given, whatever they might have been, were liberally sprinkled with admiration for the genius of Huxley—who first broke into the method which Parker so successfully elaborated—a second to whom was not to be found in all Britain. I shall not easily forget the ocular gleam of pleasure, perhaps even delight, with which Prof. Parker announced dissent on certain anatomical points from the opinions of his friend and colaborer. The following very graceful tribute to the clearness of Prof. Huxley's expositions appears in this author's article on Birds, contributed to the ninth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (page 717): "The writer will often use the very words of Prof. Huxley, despairing as he does of coming near that excellent writer either in condensation or order."
Huxley, as is well known, was a master hand in the construction of the English language. For elegance and force of diction he had no superior—perhaps not even an equal—among the writers of his day, and there are few purely literary men whose productions maintain so uniformly a high quality of excellence. In borrowing from the decorative side of language, he never allowed the embellishment of phrases to interfere with the clear statement of what he had to convey either by word of mouth or of pen, or to in any way cloud his meaning. Friends and foes thus knew his position precisely, and he was always taken on his own recognizance. A strict adherence to the sequence of truth, fact, and a logical deduction from facts, was his maxim, and it was this that assured his ground for battle, and carried him triumphantly through nearly all his combats. As has before been remarked, Huxley took little stock in brain-stuffing, yet it can in no way be complained of that his own brain was "of the empty kind." The range of topics that his conversation touched was almost bewildering, yet so discreetly was his knowledge dispensed that oftentimes one assumed that he was making an inquiry, when, in fact, he was giving the answer to it. Well do I recall a meeting on Brompton Road when the conversation almost immediately turned upon American racing and race horses, a topic on which I was obliged to confess myself an absolute ignoramus by the side of my interlocutor.
A few parting words. In 1893 I had the pleasure of being constituted one of a committee of five on the award of the Hayden Memorial Medal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia—a medal (and accompanying fund) awarded for meritorious work in the domain of geology and paleontology. The award was made unanimously, and almost without discussion, to Prof. Huxley, and his name thus appears in association with the names of James Hall, Cope, Suess (of Vienna), and Daubrée (of Paris), other recipients and masters in a field with which the labors of Prof. Huxley are not very generally associated. The following characteristic reply, acknowledging the receipt of the award, was addressed to the Academy.
Gentlemen: The Hayden Memorial Medal, with your draft (which will incorporate itself into an ornament for my wife's drawing room), reached me the first of the month, a New-Year's gift of a value quite unexampled in my experience. I am very sensible of the great honor which the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia has conferred upon me—a retired veteran who has much reason to suspect that he has already received quite as much promotion as he has deserved.
But increasing years, if they bring a diminution of variety (I am not sure they do), leave the desire for the esteem of those who have a right to judge us intact, perhaps intensify it; and I beg leave to assure you and your colleagues—fellow-workers of Hayden and of Leidy that the kindly and sympathetic terms of your award have given me very great pleasure.
With all respect, I have the honor to be, gentlemen.
Your obedient servant and colleague,
Thomas Henry Huxley.
It is not for the student to sum up either the quality or the quantity of the labors of his teacher and master, but for those who still doubt and there are some such the justice of the position which has by almost common consent been given to Huxley in the realm of science, it may be recommended as a healthy exercise to carefully read the titles of the hundreds of papers with which this indefatigable writer, for the better part of half a century, has crowded the pages of scientific journals and popular magazines; and after that, with equal care, the inquirer into fame will take an advantageous turn in mastering the papers to which these titles relate. Huxley was great not because he correctly deciphered the history of a fossil bone, not because he probed deep into the anatomical or physiological mysteries of the living world, nor yet for the reason that he was well-nigh the first—one might say, indeed, the first—to pound the truths and consequences of evolution into the material world, but because in addition to these accomplishments, and much more, he molded the tendencies of modern thought, and to a greater extent than any scientist of his generation with the exception of Charles Darwin. Well could this great philosopher observe that, had it not been for Huxley, the acceptance of the evolutionary hypothesis would have been removed from us by probably at least a generation.