Birds, Dinosaurs & Booming Guns
HUXLEY'S LABORATORY WAS a necrophiliac's delight, with its peeling tendons and pickled brains. And the 'General', as his students nicknamed him in the late 1860s, was positively intimate with his bones. He would hang his arm over the shoulder of a skeleton and take its hand as he talked. Then, turning to the blackboard, with a flash of strokes and smudges, he would transform one animal into another before their eyes.
Everybody's pupils became his protégés. His science was modern and tinged by the controversial. His responses were fast and as often as not Biblical. The ornithologist Alfred Newton, shrieking from the surgeons' gallery that he had found extinct great auk's eggs, would hear Huxley's shout that Newton 'was like Saul who went out to seek his father's asses and found a Kingdom'. A pugilistic fame put Huxley in the papers almost weekly. As the General organized flanking attacks on a posturing Disraeli or plodding Owen, or moved against the cotton racists or reactionary church, as he strove, above all, to put science's Whitworth gun at the front of Britain's cultural armoury, he grew in legendary status among the students.
University men migrated over for his lectures in Piccadilly or Lincoln's Inn Fields. They talked of his 'agreeable voice', and his homely style, which made abstruse subjects sound 'natural'. Flashes of 'caustic humour' would put 'an extra gleam in his bright eyes', or a 'gravity of look' would give a point depth. He 'never posed, was never starched, or prim' and it made the difference. Proficiency had come with age. No longer did he get up to speak with 'my tongue cleaving to the roof of my mouth'. Nor did he cling to his manuscript 'as a shipwrecked mariner to a hencoop'. Practice had