Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Balfour, Francis Maitland
BALFOUR, FRANCIS MAITLAND (1851–1882), naturalist, the third son of James Maitland Balfour, of Whittinghame, East Lothian, and Lady Blanche, daughter of the second Marquis of Salisbury, was born at Edinburgh, during a temporary stay of his parents there, on 10 Nov. 1851
His first years were spent at Whittinghame, where a love for natural science, carefully fostered by his mother, early developed itself in him, and led him, while still a boy, to make not inconsiderable collections of the fossils and birds of his native county. After two years spent in a preparatory school at Hoddesdon, Herts, he entered at Harrow in 1865. In the ordinary studies of the school he did not greatly distinguish himself, but, under the guidance of one of the masters, Mr. G. Griffith, he made rapid progress in natural science, especially in geology. His attainments in this direction, together with the increasing proofs that he possessed a character of unusual strength, led those around him thus early to conclude that he would before long make his mark. In October 1870 he entered into residence at Trinity College, Cambridge, and, being now able to devote his whole time to his favourite studies, soon began to show what manner of man he was. At Easter 1871 he became natural science scholar of his college, and very shortly afterwards, under the guidance of the Trinity prælector of physiology, Dr. Michael Foster, threw himself with great ardour into the investigation of certain obscure points in the development of the chick. For by this time his earlier love for geology had given way to a desire to attack the difficult problems of animal morphology, and these he, like others, saw could be best approached by the study of embryology, that is the history of the development of individual forms. The results at which he arrived in this, so to speak, apprentice work were published in the 'Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science' in July 1873.
In December 1873 he passed the B.A. examination in the natural sciences tripos, and almost immediately after started for Naples to work at the Stazione Zoologica, which had recently been established by Dr. Anton Dohrn. He foresaw that the embryonic history of the elasmobranch fishes (sharks, rays, &c.), about which little was at that time known, would probably yield results of great morphological importance. Nor was he mistaken. His first year's work on these animals yielded new facts of supreme importance concerning the development of the kidneys and allied organs, concerning the origin of the spinal nerves, and concerning the initial changes in the ovum and the early stages of the embryo. And these facts did not in his hands remain barren facts. With remarkable power and insight he at once grasped their meaning, and showed how great a light they shed on the relations of sharks both to other vertebrates and especially to invertebrates. He made them tell the tale of evolution.
The worth of the young observer's works was soon recognised. In his college it gained for him a fellowship, while both in England, and perhaps even more abroad, biologists at once felt that a new strong man had arisen among them. The elasmobranch work took, however, some time to complete; it was carried on partly at Cambridge, partly at Naples, for the next two or three years, and the finished monograph was not published till 1878. Meanwhile, in 1876, he was appointed lecturer on animal morphology at Cambridge, and he threw himself into the labour of teaching with the same ardour, and showed in it the same power, that were so conspicuous in his original investigations. His class, at first small, soon became large, and before long he had pupils not content with knowing what was known, but anxious like himself to explore the unknown; besides, students in embryology came to him from outside the Cambridge school, it may almost be said from all parts of the world. No sooner was the elasmobranch monograph off his hands than he set himself to write a complete treatise on embryology, the want of such a work being greatly felt. This opus magnum, which appeared in two volumes, one in 1880, the other in 1881, is in the first place a masterly digest of the enormous number of observations, the majority made within the last ten or twenty years, which form the basis of modern embryology. As a mere work of erudition and of lucid exposition it is a production of the highest value. But it is much more than this. In it there are embodied the results of so many inquiries carried out by Balfour or by his pupils under his care, that the book comes near to being even in matter an original work, while on almost every page there is the touch of a master hand. Every problem is grasped with a strong hold, cobwebs are brushed away with a film but courteous sweep; and as the reader passes from page to page, subtle solutions of knotty points and bright suggestions for future inquiry come upon him again and again. Not once or twice only, but many times, the darkness in which previous observers had left a subject is scattered by a few shining lines. It is a work full of new light from beginning to end.
Nor was the world tardy in acknowledging the value of the young morphologist's labours. In 1878 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1881 received a 'royal medal' for his discoveries. Oxford was most anxious to gain him as a successor to the late Professor G. Rolleston, and Edinburgh made repeated efforts to secure him for her chair of natural history. But he would not leave his own university, and in recognition of his worth and loyalty a special professorship of animal morphology was in the spring of 1882 instituted for him at Cambridge.
In June 1882, his health having been impaired by an attack of typhoid fever during the previous winter, he started for Switzerland, hoping by some Alpine climbing, of which he had become very fond, and in which he showed great skill, to make comp1ete the recovery of his strength. On 18 July he and his guide set out from Cormayeur to ascend the virgin peak of the Aiguille Blanche de Peuteret. They never came back alive. A few days later their dead bodies were found on the rocks by an exploring party. Either on the ascent or descent, some time apparently of the next day, the 19th, they must have fallen and been killed instantaneously. His body was brought home to England and buried at Whittinghame.
Probably few lives of this generation were so full of promise as the one thus cut short. The remarkable powers which Balfour possessed of rapid yet exact observation, of quick insight into the meaning of the things observed, of imaginative daring in hypothesis kept straight by a singularly clear logical sense, through which the proven was sharply distinguished from the merely probable, made all biologists hope that the striking work which he had already done was but the earnest of still greater things to come. Nor do biologists alone mourn him. In his college, in his university, and elsewhere, he was already recognised as a man of most unusual administrative abilities. Whatever he took in hand he did masterly and with wisdom. Yet to his friends his intellectual powers seemed a part only of his worth. High-minded, generous, courteous, a brilliant fascinating companion, a steadfast loving friend,he won, as few men ever did, the hearts of all who were privileged to know him.