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Thomas Henry Huxley; A Sketch Of His Life And Work

Thomas Henry Huxley; A Sketch Of His Life And Work

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CHAPTER I FROM SCHOOL TO LIFE-WORK

Birth—Parentage—School-days—Choice of Medical Profession—Charing Cross Hospital—End of Medical Studies—Admission to Naval Medical Service.

Some men are born to greatness: even before their arrival in the world their future is marked out for them. All the advantages that wealth and the experience of friends can bring attend their growth to manhood, and their success almost loses its interest because of the ease with which it is attained. Few of the leaders of science were in such a position: many of them, such as Priestley, Davy, Faraday, John Hunter, and Linnæus were of humble parentage, and received the poorest education: most of them, like Huxley himself, have come from parents who were able to do little more for their children than set them out into life along the ordinary educational avenues. In Huxley's boyhood at least a comfortable income was necessary for this: in every civilised country nowadays, state endowments, or private endowments, are ready to help every capable boy, as far as Huxley was helped, and in his progress from boyhood to supreme distinction, there is nothing that cannot be emulated by every boy at school to-day. The minds of human beings when they are born into the world are as naked as their bodies; it matters not if parents, grandparents, and remoter ancestors were unlettered or had the wisdom of all the ages, the new mind has to build up its own wisdom from the beginning. We cannot even say with certainty that children inherit mental aptitudes and capacities from their parents; for as tall sons may come from short parents or beautiful daughters from ugly parents, so we may find in the capacities of the parents no traces of the future greatness of their children. None the less it is interesting to learn what we can about the parents of great men; and Huxley tells us that he thinks himself to have inherited many characters of his body and mind from his mother.

Thomas Henry Huxley was born on the 4th of May, 1825, at Ealing, then a little country village, now united to London as a great suburb. He was the seventh child of George Huxley, who was second master at the school of Dr. Nicholson at Ealing. In these days private schools of varying character were very numerous in England, and this establishment seems to have been of high-class character, for Cardinal Newman and many other distinguished men received part of their education there. His mother, whose maiden name was Rachel Withers, was, he tells us himself:

"A slender brunette of an emotional and energetic temperament, and possessed of the most piercing black eyes I ever saw in a woman's head. With no more education than other women of the middle classes in her day, she had an excellent mental capacity. Her most distinguishing characteristic, however, was rapidity of thought. If one ventured to suggest she had not taken much time to arrive at any conclusion, she would say, 'I cannot help it. Things flash across me.' That peculiarity has been passed on to me in full strength: it has often stood me in good stead: it has sometimes played me sad tricks, and it has always been a danger....