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Michael Foster and Thomas Henry Huxley: Correspondence, 1865–1895

May 7, 2012

Book review – by Stefania Crowther

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895) and his less remembered colleague Michael Foster (1836–1907), professor of physiology and Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, shared a close friendship over three decades. During that time they wrote to one another frequently, and this volume brings together all of their surviving correspondence for the first time. The 385 letters that make up the volume are sensitively and unobtrusively edited. Helpful explanatory footnotes elucidate the abbreviations used by the two correspondents, and give full names and brief biographical details for the many persons mentioned in passing in the letters. The spelling and punctuation have been modernised and the grammar corrected, an index has been supplied and the letters are helpfully cross-referenced. An introduction sets the scene by emphasising the importance of letter writing as the key means of communication in the Victorian period, when the postal service was more efficient and deliveries more frequent than they are today, and provides biographies of both men.

The volume grows more interesting as it progresses, as the relationship between Huxley and Foster moves from formality, with letters that are generally short and perfunctory, to a close friendship. The letters grow in length and level of detail, and the men express themselves increasingly openly and frankly. The most interesting sections cover the periods when Huxley and his wife travelled in Italy to facilitate Huxley’s recovery from illness. Foster keeps Huxley abreast of events at home, particularly regarding the Royal Society, of which Huxley was by then President, and Huxley shares details of his travels. Work is never far from either man’s mind, and some of the letters originally accompanied drafts of Huxley’s Lessons in Elementary Physiology (1866), which Foster was helping him to revise for a new edition in 1884–85.

As the more senior of the two, Huxley writes in a more informal style, which makes his letters more engaging reading, but from both we get a sense of the culture of the scientific community of the period. We learn much about Huxley’s approach to teaching science, from the planning of the summer course they ran in South Kensington for biology teachers, their comments on successive drafts of A Course of Practical Instruction in Elementary Biology (Huxley and Martin, 1875) and their discussion of the Cambridge curriculum for medical undergraduates. Huxley vehemently advocated the abolition of botany, zoology and materia medica from the curriculum, which he regarded as “superfluities”, writing: “send the drug business into outer darkness”. These, he felt, should be replaced with pathology and therapeutics (pharmacology).

This volume will claim for Foster his rightful place as an important influence on his more famous colleague, and it will prove invaluable for medical historians interested in Huxley. Thanks to the careful editing, it will also provide an accessible insight into the medical community of the Victorian era for the general reader.

Bynum WF, Overy C (eds). Michael Foster and Thomas Henry Huxley: Correspondence, 1865–1895. Medical History, Suppl 28. London: Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL; 2009.

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