Huxley’s Scientific Friendship


Thomas Huxley

It’s fair to say that Thomas Henry Huxley is well remembered in the history of science. His incredible work ethic, quick wit, and strong opinions have burned Darwin’s Bulldog into the history books. However, Huxley was not always a confident, established scientist. In fact, early in his career, Huxley leaned on others for help in both his scientific career and his personal life.

One person Huxley especially leaned on in the early years of his career was a fellow naturalist named George Busk. Like Huxley, Busk had experience with surgery and was interested in the natural world. But, unlike Huxley, Busk’s skill set did not include public lecturing or scientific quibbling. Huxley’s letters and papers show that Busk, who was an older, already established Victorian scientist, played an important role in Huxley’s work and life. He played an important role in Huxley’s life as he worked his way into the  scientific community. However, while Huxley continues to be a household name in history, Busk has been pretty much erased from the history books.

This scientific friendship is interesting because Huxley and Busk had very different personalities. I would love to have overheard a conversation between them. Their friendship also raises questions about how scientific figures are remembered. The nature of Huxley and Busk’s relationship sheds light on why Busk has been forgotten.

Returning from the Rattlesnake

Coming back from a journey around the world in order to settle down and pick a career is never easy. Huxley especially faced extensive challenges upon his return to London from his Rattlesnake voyage. Struggling to make a career out of science and make ends meet, Huxley worked like crazy to publish, attend meetings, and work his way into the scientific elite. Huxley had difficulty making meaningful connections with the London naturalists, as seen by letters he penned to his fiance in 1851 complaining that he was no good at making friends and that “it is not so much getting as keeping” the friendship of the scientific community.

People Quite of my Sort

Around this time, Huxley met George Busk, who he described to his fiance as one of two “people quite of my sort” he had recently met (along with surgeon Edwin Lankester). Busk had served as a surgeon on the HMS Dreadnought for decades, retiring in the 1850’s to commit himself to science. Busk and Huxley’s shared experiences dredging, working as surgeons, and studying marine organisms likely played a role in creating their bond. They became close friends, spending time at Busk’s seaside home and working on projects together, for example a Manual of Human Histology, which they translated from German in 1853.

Busk and Huxley continued to collaborate on various projects over the years. A close reading of Huxley’s 1863 Man’s Place in Nature reveals many hints of his and Busk’s collaborations, with references to Busk’s unpublished works, drawings by Busk, and more. But their relationship developed far beyond their work. During hard times Huxley was invited to live with Busk and his wife–Busk told him to even “bring his microscope.” Busk’s wife also developed a close relationship with Huxley, which some historians have argued was crucial to Huxley’s mental state at a time when he struggled to raise the money to bring his fiancé to London from Australia. (I’ve written a little about Busk’s spectacular wife, Ellen Busk, here).

This illustration, traced by Busk, appeared in Man's Place

Huxley, Man’s Place

Opposites Attract

Despite their close relationship, historical records paint Busk as a very different person from Huxley. He was described as “a man of unaffected simplicity and gentleness of character, without a trace of vanity, a devoted friend, and an upright, honest gentleman.” Busk was applauded for his “calmness of judgment” and his “quiet appreciation of new [scientific] discoveries.” He edited journals, worked in secretary positions for major scientific societies, and more–but he did this all quietly, sort of behind the scenes.

There’s no record of Busk ever starting an argument during a scientific meeting, and from what I can tell he never angered a soul. This image of a calm, cool, and collected gentleman contrasts sharply in some ways with Huxley’s theatric, sometimes argumentative, personality. This contrast is even more interesting if this friendship is considered as a mentorship as well. Busk was eighteen years older than Huxley, and it is possible that he served as a sort of mentor for the younger man, especially in those early years when Huxley struggled with finances, no immediate familial support, and a fiancé abroad. This is something I hope to explore more fully in my dissertation research.


Busk and Huxley’s friendship is particularly interesting because while these two men worked together extensively, they left very different legacies. This raises interesting questions in the history of science, for example what does it take for a naturalist to be remembered, both during their lifetime and throughout history?  As is the case with science today, individuals with a range of personalities and skills made up Victorian science. Some individuals’ talents were visible in more public spheres, for example lecturing and speaking to larger audiences. Other naturalists’ talents were confined to more private spheres, for example editing manuscripts and journals, or being influential in small committees.

Busk, Linnean Society


At Busk’s funeral, his friends and fellow X Club members complained that the scientific societies Busk had worked so hard for were not represented to pay their respects. This shows that Busk’s contributions were not even fully recognized during his lifetime. History has remembered the individuals whose skills included upholding a public image, raising controversy, or partaking in public lectures or debates. Individuals with a different skill set, those working behind the scenes in scientific societies and providing mentorship to young naturalists, are often forgotten. Victorian naturalist George Busk is one example of this phenomenon, but there are certainly many more.

3 thoughts on “Huxley’s Scientific Friendship

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #50 | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Pingback: Who was George Busk? | Paige Fossil History

  3. Pingback: Who was George Busk? – Paige Fossil History

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s