Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Carpenter, William Benjamin
CARPENTER, WILLIAM BENJAMIN (1813–1885), naturalist, was the fourth child and eldest son of Dr. Lant Carpenter [q. v.], and brother of Mary and Philip Carpenter [q. v.] He was born at Exeter on 29 Oct. 1813. His father removed to Bristol in 1817; young Carpenter received his early education there in his father's notable school, and acquired both exact classical and scientific knowledge. He was anxious to be a civil engineer, but sacrificed his inclination when pressed to become the pupil of Mr. Estlin, the family doctor. He passed some time in the West Indies as companion to Mr. Estlin, and his experience of social conditions preceding the abolition of slavery led him to be throughout life a cautious and moderate rather than an ardent reformer.
After some preliminary work at the Bristol Medical School, Carpenter entered University College, London, in 1833, as a medical student, and it is significant of a mania for lectures then encouraged that he often attended thirty-five lectures a week, as his note-books show. He also attended the Middlesex Hospital for some time. After obtaining the Surgeons' and Apothecaries' diplomas in 1835 he went to the Edinburgh Medical School and commenced researches on physiology. He wrote papers which showed a marked tendency to seek large generalisations and to bring all the natural sciences to the elucidation of vital functions. His early papers, ‘On the Voluntary and Instinctive Actions of Living Beings’ (‘Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal,’ xlviii. 1837, pp. 22–44), ‘On the Unity of Function in Organised Beings’ (‘Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal,’ xxiii. 1837, pp. 92–116), ‘On the Differences of the Laws regulating Vital and Physical Phenomena’ (ib. xxiv. 1838, pp. 327–53), which obtained the Students' Prize of 30l., and ‘The Physiological Inferences to be deduced from the Structure of the Nervous System of Invertebrated Animals’ (graduation thesis, 1839), the latter of which obtained the notice of Johannes Müller, the first physiologist of the day, who inserted a translation of it in his ‘Archives’ for 1840, were the precursors of his great work, ‘The Principles of General and Comparative Physiology,’ published in 1839. This was the first English book which contained adequate conceptions of a science of biology. A second edition was called for in 1841, and it was recognised that the author was a man of no ordinary mental grasp and range of study.
Before his graduation at Edinburgh Carpenter had become lecturer on medical jurisprudence at the Bristol Medical School, and he afterwards lectured there on physiology also. He found the anxieties of general medical practice too great for his keen susceptibilities, and undertook further literary work, including a useful and comprehensive ‘Popular Cyclopædia of Science,’ 1843. In 1844 he removed to London, gaining the post of Fullerian professor of physiology at the Royal Institution, and being elected a fellow of the Royal Society in the same year. He was appointed lecturer on physiology at the London Hospital, and professor of forensic medicine at University College. He was also for some years examiner in physiology and comparative anatomy at the University of London, and Swiney lecturer on geology at the British Museum. From 1847 to 1852 he edited the ‘British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review,’ and from 1851 to 1859 he was principal of University Hall, the residence for students at University College. In 1856, on appointment as registrar of the University of London, he resigned his lectureships, and thenceforward was the chief worker in the great development of that university till his resignation in 1879, when he received the distinction of a C.B. He was appointed a crown member of the senate on the next vacancy, and continued an active member till his death, which occurred on 19 Nov. 1885, from severe burns received by the accidental upsetting of a makeshift spirit-lamp while he was taking a vapour bath.
Carpenter was one of the last examples of an almost universal naturalist. Some of his most valuable and laborious work was done in zoology. In a series of papers and reports to the British Association, commencing in 1843, and to the Royal, Microscopical, and Geological Societies, he gave the results of his own and others' inquiries into the microscopic structure of shells. These were followedby a set of four memoirs in the ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ 1856–60, on the foraminifera. In 1862 the Ray Society published his ‘Introduction to the Study of the Foraminifera,’ in which he was largely assisted by Professors W. K. Parker and T. Rupert Jones; it is a memoir of fundamental importance on the subject. As late as 1882 he contributed an important paper on Orbitolites to the ‘Philosophical Transactions.’ Marine zoology also largely interested him, and out of his summer excursions to Arran, when he studied the feather-stars, grew a large scheme of deep-sea exploration. In the spring of 1868 he studied the crinoids near Belfast with Professor Wyville Thomson, and in the same year they explored the fauna and other phenomena of the sea-bottom between the north of Ireland and the Faroe islands in the Lightning. This was followed by further explorations in the Porcupine (1869 and 1870), and in the Shearwater (1871), in which he traversed the Mediterranean and the Atlantic between Great Britain and Portugal, and by the Challenger expedition under Wyville Thomson, in the preparations for which Carpenter took an active part.
Some of Carpenter's most important zoological contributions related to the question of the animal nature of Eozoön canadense, as found in masses in the Laurentian rocks of Canada. He contributed numerous papers on this subject to the Royal Society, the ‘Canadian Naturalist’ (ii. 1865), the ‘Intellectual Observer’ (vii. 1865), ‘Philosophical Magazine’ (1865), ‘Geological Society's Quarterly Journal,’ &c. For some years before his death he had been collecting materials for a monograph on Eozoön, which he did not complete. Another favourite subject of his research was the structure, embryology, and past history of the featherstars and crinoids, in which he demonstrated important facts of structure and physiology which were long controverted. His chief paper was ‘On the Structure, Physiology, and Development of Antedon rosaceus’ (‘Philosophical Transactions,’ 1866, pp. 671–756). Among his services to zoology, and in a lesser degree to botany, may be reckoned his work on ‘The Microscope and its Revelations,’ 1856, which reached a sixth edition in 1881. His zoological and botanical and other contributions to the ‘Cyclopædia of Science’ were afterwards published in separate volumes in Bohn's ‘Scientific Library.’ The ‘Comparative Physiology’ of his early ‘Physiology’ was published separately as an enlarged fourth edition in 1854.
In addition to his principal book, Carpenter's contributions to physiology were chiefly to the mental and the physical aspects of the science. His early papers were followed by others: ‘On the Mutual Relations of the Vital and Physical Forces’ (‘Philosophical Transactions,’ 1850), and ‘On the Application of the Principle of Conservation of Force to Physiology’ (‘Quarterly Journal of Science,’ i. 1864). His great work on physiology attained a fifth edition in 1855, and has subsequently been edited by Mr. Henry Power. A smaller ‘Manual of Physiology,’ 1846, reached a fourth edition in 1865. In 1874 Carpenter expanded the chapters of his previous work on mental physiology into a treatise, ‘The Principles of Mental Physiology’ (fourth edition, 1876). His views on the relation of mind and brain were acute and in advance of his time. While unsparing in his exposures of quackery in phrenology, mesmerism, electro-biology, and spiritualism, he did much to educate the public in sound views of mental processes, and especially to bring into prominence the importance of those operations of which we are unconscious. In 1851, in the ‘Proceedings of the Royal Institution,’ i. 147–53, he wrote ‘On the Influence of Suggestion in Modifying and Directing Muscular Movement, independently of Volition,’ and in 1868 (ib. v. 338–45) ‘On the Unconscious Activity of the Brain.’ He made the subject of unconscious cerebration (his own phrase) a speciality, further discussing it in a lecture at Glasgow in 1875, ‘Is Man an Automaton?’ It is worth noting that while editor of the ‘Medico-Chirurgical Review’ he published a criticism of Noble's ‘Physiology of the Brain,’ which had the effect of converting Dr. Noble. He was one of the editors of the ‘Natural History Review’ (1861–5).
Carpenter's deep-sea explorations led him into an extensive field of marine physics. He developed in this country the doctrine of a general oceanic circulation, due largely to heat, cold, and evaporation, which had been previously little suspected. His more important papers on this question are contained in the ‘Royal Society's Proceedings,’ xvii. xx.; ‘Geographical Society's Proceedings,’ xv. 1871; ‘British Association Reports,’ xli. xlii. xliii. His views were persistently assailed by Mr. James Croll and others, but have been sustained by many other writers.
Carpenter's incessant industry enabled him to take part in many public movements with effect. In 1849 he gained a prize for an essay ‘On the Use and Abuse of Alcoholic Liquors’ (1850), and he wrote further ‘On the Physiology of Temperance and Total Abstinence’ (1853). He was a singularly lucid lecturer on scientific subjects, and organised the Gilchrist scheme of popular science lectures, which has been of great value in spreading sound scientific knowledge and awakening interest in science among the working classes. He was a zealous champion of vaccination and other scientific measures for checking disease, and wrote many magazine articles on such topics. He was a large contributor to various cyclopædias. His labours received numerous marks of high distinction, including a royal medal of the Royal Society (1861), the Lyell medal of the Geological Society (1883), the LL.D. of Edinburgh (1871), the presidency of the British Association (1872), and the corresponding membership of the Institute of France (1873).
In person Carpenter was above middle height, of quiet and somewhat formal manner, spare, keen-eyed, and tenacious-looking. He was an active member of the unitarian church at Hampstead, at which he played the organ and conducted the psalmody for some years. He regarded miracles not as violations of natural order, but as manifestations of a higher order. His acceptance of Darwin's views of evolution was somewhat limited and reserved. He believed that natural selection leaves untouched the evidence of design in creation. In philosophy he especially clung to the reality of an independent will beyond automatism. He was well versed in literature and philosophy, and this no doubt influenced his scientific writing, which was always lucid and often highly ratiocinative. Carpenter was married in 1840, and left left five sons, including Mr. W. Lant Carpenter, B.Sc, and Dr. P. Herbert Carpenter, F.R.S.
[Obituary notices: Nature, 26 Nov. by Prof. Ray Lankester; Inquirer, 14 Nov., by sons of Dr. Carpenter; Times, Daily News, Standard, 11 Nov.; Pall Mall Gazette, 13 Nov., by Grant Allen, incorrect in several points; Athenæum, Christian Life, Lancet, 14 Nov. 1885. English Cyclopædia, Biography, ii. 91.]