The Surgeon's Mate
HOW COULD HUXLEY MEET his mounting pile of debts? The solution came from his nautical friend Joseph Fayrer. He suggested the sea. The sick bay afloat had its appeal; Her Majesty would pay, while his other liege lady, Nature, could be followed lasciviously around the globe. The Navy fostered scientific assistant surgeons. Look at the son of Kew Garden's Director, Joseph Hooker, who had stepped off HMS Erebus in 1843 after his Antarctic herborizations. Or the young crustacean expert Harry Goodsir, not long gone with Sir John Franklin to the Canadian ice packs, searching for the North-West Passage. So good did it sound that Fayrer took his own advice; he enlisted himself. 1
Huxley saw the benefits. An assistant surgeon's lot had improved by 1846. He was now saluted as a subaltern, with pretty good pay at 7s 6d a day. These were minor points, but medical reformers had fought for them furiously, and they were still fighting on other fronts. He would have to endure abominable conditions, and it was a high-risk career; the death rate among surgeons' mates in the West Indies and Africa was notorious. 2 But who else would pay him to anatomize voraciously around the world?
Fayrer goaded him into writing personally to the Physician General of the Navy, Sir William Burnett. It seemed 'rather a strong thing to do', but a poor boy without patrons had little option. A long confab on 31 January 1846 'ended in our concocting a letter'. Huxley duly excused himself:
Having a great desire to enter the Medical Department of Her Majesty's Naval Service and being at the same time totally unprovided with any friendly influence by which