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Medical School At Last

When he thought he was prepared, he moved in with his sister Lizzie and family, in a part of town with a medical college. He got loans from his medical-doctor brothers-in-law to enroll in an inexpensive medical school. Professors and students alike came from backgrounds not too different from that of Thomas. It was not Oxford or Cambridge. Here, rank meant little. Merit counted. But the graduates of Thomas’s medical school did not get the plum assignments of graduates from prestigious medical schools. Tom and his classmates were humble general practitioners who only got access to less desirable practices.

Thomas distinguished himself academically in medical school, although physically he looked like a long-haired hippy. Politically he was a radical. Despite his social background, he was admitted for clinical training to Charing Cross Hospital, which normally accepted mostly the sons of clergy and surgeons. It was a charity hospital and Huxley was at last able to provide significant help to some of the downtrodden poor of London society.

Huxley got his first taste of real science from his Charing Cross chemistry professor, George Fownes, who had come from Germany with a fresh PhD, which was unheard of at the school. Fownes inspired an interest in experimentation in the laboratory. When not perusing his official formal education, Huxley could be found a mile away at the library of the prestigious Royal College of Surgeons. Here he read inspiring works from the leading German and French scientists of the time.

Huxley finished medical school (taking first prize in anatomy and physiology exams) at the age of 20. He was too young to obtain a license to practice, yet was deeply in debt for the loans that put him through college.

A New Life at Sea

Drawing of H.M.S. Rattlesnake, the ship where Huxley worked as a Navy doctor. Click here for more.

A Navy friend suggested that Tom get a job at sea. He could be a ship doctor. Thomas cut through the red tape and sent a personal letter of application to the Surgeon General of the British Navy. His initiative and academic credentials impressed the General and the Navy top brass. They hired him and assigned him at first to a Navy hospital on land. Huxley had what he needed most: a job and 7 shillings a day to start chipping away at his debt.

This was the Golden Age of British imperialism and the Royal Navy was the "right arm of England." England was opening new colonies and trade routes around the world. The Navy provided crucial security for England’s ships of commerce. The Navy recognized Thomas’ talent and kept him at work in their medical museum. However, this assignment would not advance a medical career in the Navy. Thomas needed to get ship duty. Then the break of his life came. Ship Captain Owen Stanley had contacted the Admiral to request assignment of a ship doctor with "a flair for science." Guess who fit that bill? The ship’s mission was to explore New Guinea, a part of the world where animal and plant life had not been studied. Huxley was assigned as ship doctor with Stanley on The Rattlesnake. Huxley was promised full permission to collect specimens of New Guinea’s exotic animals.

Huxley found that life was hard on the long voyages in small, cramped ship. The Rattlesnake was only 113 feet long, had a crew of 180, and was 44 years old at the time. At least Huxley had officer quarters on board and was free to collect specimens and pursue his scientific bent. However, he had to finance the resources he needed. The Navy provided no books.

The ship’s mission was ambitious. It was to secure Northern Australia for British settlement and make the surrounding South Seas safe for British merchant ships. Port landings could be dangerous. They were sure to encounter savages, some cannibalistic. Doing science in such an environment was a challenge. Some of Huxley’s fellow officers shared his interest in science and encouraged him.

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