Who was George Busk?

George Busk

George Busk, in Huxley Papers, ICL

Those of you who know me know that I’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to learn more about George Busk. Busk was a surgeon and paleontologist who lived in London in the nineteenth century, a scientist who studied everything from sea moss, to cave bears, to human skulls. I’ve sifted through dozens of his old notebooks, tried to track down any of his surviving letters, and read every article he ever wrote (there are quite a few).

Why? Well, though he’s not well remembered, Busk actually did a lot of interesting things in his day. He was a silent figure who didn’t make waves and didn’t end up in textbooks, but if you look closely at the science of his time, he.was.everywhere. Don’t believe me? I’ve pulled 3 scenes of moments in history that Busk was present for. All of these moments were monumental in the history of science. Check it out:

Scene 1: Introducing Darwin’s theory to the world

When: July 1, 1858. Where: A meeting of the Linnean Society, London. What: The first public reading of Darwin and Wallace’s papers on natural selection.

Why is Busk important here? Busk was the zoological secretary of the Linnean Society at the time, so he was instrumental in getting Darwin and Wallace’s papers pushed through to the meeting . He was also likely the person that read the paper out loud to the Society. Let’s meditate on that for a minute. The first time Darwin’s theory was being read in public, and this guy did the reading? Pretty cool.

Neanderthal Cranium, outlined by Busk

Neanderthal Cranium, from Huxley’s Man’s Place

Scene 2: The Neanderthal comes to Britain

When: April 1861. Where: London. What: The English-speaking world first reads about the strange cranium discovered in the Neander Valley in 1856.

Why is Busk important here? Busk was the one who translated the paper from the original German. Following his translation, he added his own remarks on the skull and illustrated it from various views. His paper–along with his illustrations–allowed many other scientists to get involved with the debate over what the Neanderthal truly was. The first scientifically recognized Neanderthal, and Busk was central to its dispersal!

Scene 3: “An event, probably of some importance…” The X Club

When: Thursday, November 3, 1864. Where: St George’s Hotel, Albemarle Street, London. What: The first ever meeting of the X Club, a small group of Victorian scientists including famous figures such as Huxley, Tyndall, and others. The influential group pledged a “devotion to science, pure and free, untrammeled by religious dogmas” (Hirst journals 6 Nov 1864). They went on to meet every month for decades and were incredibly influential throughout the nineteenth century.

Why is Busk important here? Busk chaired the first X Club meeting. The oldest member by almost 2 decades, Busk was the thoughtful, careful elder member of the group. Additionally, his wife came up with the club’s name, suggesting that they call themselves the X because X could stand for anything, and therefore they weren’t tied to any particular “dogma.”

A portrait done by his daughter, which hangs in the Linnaen Society. 


So what?

I hope these scenes illustrate Busk’s presence–if not his central role–in key moments of Victorian science. There are plenty of others too, for example, the edits and corrections Busk made to Darwin’s Origin of Species and Descent of Man, or the time he realized that Neanderthals were, in fact, a distinct group of humans rather than just a weird, diseased individual. All these moments lead me to believe Busk deserves just a little credit in the textbooks…or at least deserves to be the focus of a blog post or two!

One thought on “Who was George Busk?

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. 9 | Whewell's Ghost

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