Surely it would be the most undesirable thing in the world that one half of the population of this country should be accomplished men of letters with no tincture of science, and the other half should be men of science with no tincture of letters? 1
Born above a butcher's shop in Ealing, then on the outskirts of London, Thomas Henry (Hal) was the seventh of eight children of Rachel and George Huxley, an unsuccessful schoolmaster. Despite having very little formal schooling, he won in 1842 a scholarship to Charing Cross Medical School, where he did well but lacked the funds to complete a medical degree. Qualified at the lower grade of surgeon, he enrolled in the Royal Navy. Sir John Richardson, explorer and the Navy's senior doctor perceived his talents, and arranged his posting as Assistant Surgeon on HMS Rattlesnake setting out on a voyage of discovery in 1846 to survey the passage between Australia and New Guinea. Provided they kept the crew healthy, surgeons on such voyages were expected (in a tradition going back to the eighteenth century) to investigate the natural history they encountered. The Captain was the sickly Owen Stanley, son of an aristocratic parson-naturalist who had become a Bishop and President of the Linnean Society of London; and he himself was keen to advance science, in the tradition of James Cook and Matthew Flinders. Voyages had become a recognized route to scientific eminence.
On the voyage Huxley dredged up previously unknown marine invertebrates; but he found great frustration in what he perceived as the Captain's neurotic reluctance to allow prolonged visits ashore. Huxley did in fact participate in an overland expedition through the jungles of tropical Australia, which nearly ended badly for him; and was tantalized by Stanley's refusal to allow more than superficial contacts with the natives of New Guinea (no doubt because of their fearsome reputation). His relationship with Stanley, who evidently took a fatherly interest in him, was fraught; refusing to be patronized, Huxley would not be the Captain's pet. Placing himself as plebeian, identifying with the crew and the poor patients at Charing Cross, he was to see himself throughout his life as the scourge of the establishment-even when he had in later life become part of it. In Australia the awkward surgeon met Henrietta Heathorn, and they fell in love. The ship returned to England in 1850, and after an engagement conducted by letters taking up to six months each way, she joined him and they were married very happily in 1855 and founded an intellectual dynasty.
Huxley's research was so outstanding that in 1851 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society; but this brought him no income. Given three years leave to write up his discoveries, when it came to an end he decided to abandon the Navy and carry on with a career in science. Richard Owen became his patron, subsequently like Stanley to be despised as patronizing. After honing his literary skills, supporting himself by journalism and translation (notably from German), Huxley was appointed in 1854 Lecturer at the School of Mines in London. This involved shifting his interests to fossils and teaching students. In the evenings he gave courses to working men; these were not a new idea of Huxley's, but were something in which he particularly delighted and where his rhetorical skills were particularly