A Woman in Ten Thousand
In nineteenth century science, it is often men that are the better remembered heroes. However, historians have begun to show that women often played crucial and interesting roles in scientific development. In honor of Women’s History Month, I’d like to introduce Ellen Busk, the wife of a major player in my dissertation, George Busk. Ellen is an example of the many intelligent, memorable women who contributed to the history of science. In fact, Ellen is so interesting that I often wonder if her husband actually stands in her shadow. This is exemplified in quotes such as one from George’s closest friend, Thomas Henry Huxley who stated that while George was “a man in a thousand” Ellen was “a woman in ten thousand.” Though I am unable to find any pictures of Ellen, I thought I’d talk a little bit about her and her interest in science.
The Most Intelligent Lady I Ever Knew
Much of what historians know about Ellen comes from letters of other naturalists describing her. Thanks to members of the mid-nineteenth century X Club, for example Huxley and Thomas Hirst, we know that Ellen was interested in the natural world. Huxley once described Ellen to his future wife as “almost as enthusiastic a Naturalist as her husband.” Ellen corresponded throughout her adult life with naturalists such as John Tyndall, often borrowing his books and attending his lectures. After Ellen’s death, Hirst wrote that she was the “most intelligent, coureagous and high minded lady [he] ever knew.” These are just a few of many examples of this type of praise from her friends.
In addition to being smart and interested in science, Ellen appears to have been a caring friend. Huxley told his fiance that “of all my friends over here she is I feel the only one who thoroughly understands the good and evil of me.” In fact, while his fiance waited in Australia for Huxley to gain steady enough employment to bring her to London and marry her, Ellen was the only person he told that he was engaged. Ellen stayed close with her friends, especially Huxley and Tyndall, throughout her life. She corresponded with naturalists long after her husband died, and many of these men attended her funeral.
She May have been Theologically “Progressive”
Huxley often hinted at having deep conversations with Ellen in letters to his wife. One time he even stated “we [he and Mrs. Busk] had much talk about theological matters. It did me good to open my scepticism” to her. In fact, her progressiveness may have caused a major rift between Victorian naturalists. Apparently, though the Busks lived down the street from the famous geologist Charles Lyell, he and his wife Lady Lyell never invited Ellen over for parties and the like. This infuriated some of the naturalists, such as Thomas Huxley and John Lubbock, who argued that this was especially wrong because Charles Lyell regularly invited George over and “pumped him dry of his knowledge.” Darwin’s close friend, Joseph Hooker responded to issue in a letter, writing that Ellen was “a most thoroughly accomplished clever person” and “more of a lady than all the fluttering socialites who flocked to lady l’s soirees.”
Thus far, it is unclear how much Ellen actually contributed to her husband’s work. It seems very likely that she contributed in various ways to much of George’s study of fossils, but this is the kind of thing I hope to uncover in the future. Fingers crossed. In the meantime, letters and notes from other naturalists illustrate a very bright, interesting woman in the history of science.
Desmond, Adrian J. Huxley: from devil’s disciple to evolution’s high priest. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1997.
Jensen, J. Vernon. “‘The most intimate and trusted friend I have’: A note on Ellen Busk, young TH Huxley’s confidante.” (1977): 315-322.
Tyndall Letters, Tyndall Correspondence Project