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Biography of Thomas Henry Huxley

Photo of Thomas Henry Huxley

Thomas Henry Huxley was a nineteenth century scientist known for his evolutionist theories.

When and Where was he Born?

4th May 1825, Ealing, Middlesex, England.

Family Background:

Thomas Henry Huxley was the seventh of eight children of a mathematics master at Ealing School, George Huxley and Rachel (nee) Withers. The family fell on hard times when the school closed down.


Ealing School for two years until the age of ten. Taught between the ages of 8 and 12 at Charing Cross Medical School. Huxley was largely self taught and became one of the great autodidacts of the century.

Timeline of Thomas Henry Huxley:

1838: Huxley is apprenticed to various medical practitioners starting with his brother in law John Cooke who lived in Coventry. He then moves on to study with Thomas Chandler in Rotherhithe, a very poor district of London. Chandler was well known for his experiments using mesmerism.

1841: He is apprenticed next to another brother in law John Salt and he begins to study at Sydenham College near Univeristy College Hospital. Here he had a thorough grounding in anatomy. He also starts on a programme of reading so that he could be self taught.

1842: He wins a Silver Medal in the Apothecaries Competition and is admitted to study at Charing Cross Hospital after obtaining a scholarship. He is taught by Thomas Wharton Jones a professor of Surgery at University College. Prof Jones had been an assistant to Robert Know in Edinburgh who had bought cadavers from the notorious grave robbers Burke and Hare.

1845: Professor Jones encourages Huxley to publish his first scientific papers which showed the existence of another layer in the inner sheath of hairs which is now known as Huxley’s layer.

1845: Huxley passes his first medicine examinations at the University of London and wins the Gold Medal for anatomy and physiology. He fails to get his degree however as he never sat for his secondary examinations. Nevertheless his certificates so far qualified him for acceptance by the Royal Navy. At twenty he was too young to receive a licence to practice medicine from the Royal College of Surgeons and his friend suggests the Navy and he was interviewed by Sir William Burnett, the Physician General of the Navy.

1846: Huxley is appointed as an Assistant Surgeon to HMS Rattlesnake which was about to set sail for New Guinea and Australia doing scientific work. Huxley devotes himself to the study of marine invertebrates on the voyage.

1849: He was particularly good at drawing and he makes illustrations for his paper “on the Anatomy and the Affinities of the Family Medusae” which is published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. In the article Huxley made up a new class called the Hydroza which he formed from the Hydroids and the Sertularian Polyps.

1850: He is elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.

1851: Thomas Henry Huxley is elected to the Council of the Royal Society. He meets John Tyndall and and Joseph Dalton Hooker who were to become lifelong friends.

1852: He wins the Royal Society Medal.

1854: He resigns from the Navy as he refused to return to active service and becomes Professor of Natural History at the Royal School of Mines.

1854: He is appointed naturalist to the Geological Survey and Fullerian Professor at the Royal Institution until 1858.

1855: He marries Henrietta Anne Heathorn.

1858: Lyell and Hooker present a lecture to the Linnean Society on Wallace, natural selection and Darwin’s ideas. Huxley’s now famous response to the idea of natural selection was “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!”

1859: Thomas Henry Huxley reads the Origin of Species which had just been published and warned Charles Darwin that it might meet with some controversy with the anti-evolutionists. He said that he would fight himself against the creationists. From that point on he dedicated himself to defending “Darwinism” which was an entire scientific outlook and not just the work of one man. He receives a grant from the Royal Society for the printing of graphical plates and summarised his own work in “The Ocenanic Hydroza” which is published by the Ray Society.

1860: Huxley writes an article in the Times newspaper supporting the ideas in the “Origin of Species” and backs this up with several others in different scientific journals and a famous lecture at the Oxford University Museum in June where he defends the theory against Samuel Wilberforce and the Bishop of Oxford and Robert FitzRoy, the captain of HMS Beagle. Wilberforce is coached by Richard Owen whom Huxley had previously debated the idea that humans were related to the apes. Despite the fact that Huxley was slow to accept Darwin’s Gradualism he publicly supported him to the hilt. Wilberforce’s famous jest to Huxley as to whether Huxley was descended from an ape on his mother’s side or his father’s side backfired. Huxley replies that he would rather be descended from an ape than a man such as Wilberforce who attempted to suppress debate. Huxley and Wilberforce were later to work together on the Metropolitan Board of Education but Owen never forgave him.

1862: Huxley sits on the first of eight Royal Commissions.

1863: He is appointed Hunterian Professor to the Royal College of Surgeons to 1869.

1865 to 67: He becomes Fullerian Professor at the Royal Institution.

1868: Huxley is appointed President of the Geological Society.

1869 to 1870: He serves as President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

1870: He becomes President of the British Association at Liverpool and is elected a member of the newly constituted London School Board.

1871: A famous caricature of Huxley by Carlo Pellegrini is printed in “Vanity Fair” magazine. He becomes Secretary of the Royal Society.

1873: Huxley along with Hooker and Tyndall from the Oxford debate are made Knights of the Order of the North Star by the King of Sweden.

1876: He is awarded the Wollaston Medal by the Geological Society.

1881 to 85: He becomes Inspector of Fisheries.

1883 to 85: Serves as President of the Royal Society.

1884: He starts his depressive illness.

1885: he retires from the Chair of Natural History at the Royal School of Mines after 31 years. He also resigns the Presidency of the Royal Society, the Inspectorship of Fisheries and takes six month’s leave.

1888: He is awarded the Copley Medal.

1890: He moved from London to Eastbourne where he edits the nine volumes of his Collected Essays. He is awarded the Linnean Medal by the Linnean Society.

1892: He is appointed as a Privy Councillor and given a pension by the state which was something Darwin never achieved.

1894: Thomas Henry Huxley hears of discovery in Java of the remains of Pithecanthropus erectus by the scientist Eugene Dubois. This is now known as Homo Erectus. He is awarded the Darwin Medal.

When and Where did he Die?

29th June 1895, Eastbourne, Sussex, England of a heart attack after contracting influenza and pneumonia.

Age at Death:


Written Works:

1849: “On the anatomy and the affinities of the family of Medusae”
1863: “Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature”
1890: “Collected Essays”.


1855: Henrietta Anne Heathorn.

Site of Grave:

Finchley Cemetery, Finchley, London.