Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Forbes, Edward
FORBES, EDWARD (1815–1854), naturalist, son of Edward Forbes, banker, and brother of David Forbes (1828–1876) [q. v.], was born at Douglas, Isle of Man, on 12 Feb. 1815, and was educated at home and at a day-school at Douglas. He very early displayed marked and widespread tastes for natural history, literature, and drawing. When at school he is described as tall and thin, with limbs loosely hung, and wearing his hair very long. His school-books were covered with caricatures and grotesque figures, and his parents were so impressed by his artistic talent that at the age of sixteen they sent him to London to study art. Being, however, refused entrance to the Royal Academy School, and found not sufficiently promising by his teacher, Mr. Sass, Forbes entered at Edinburgh University in November 1831 as a medical student. While in London he had made his first contribution to the ‘Mirror’ (August 1831), ‘On some Manx Traditions.’ In his first year at Edinburgh he attended Knox's lectures on anatomy, Hope's on chemistry, and Graham's on botany, and became a devoted student of natural history in Jameson's museum and in the country round Edinburgh. At this early period his powers of generalisation and abstraction were as noticeable as his perfect familiarity with natural objects and his varied experimental studies. His peculiar vein of humour showed itself in sketches of the most grotesque kind, and equally broad comic verses. During the vacation of 1832 he investigated the natural history of the Isle of Man. He returned to Edinburgh with a bias against medicine, which turned his note-books into portfolios of caricatures, and he was far more congenially employed in 1834–5 in writing and drawing for the ‘University Maga,’ which he and a few other students brought out weekly from 8 Jan. to 26 March 1835. In this the professors and other prominent persons were severely satirised, and the complete volume was dedicated to ‘Christopher North.’ The death, early in 1836, of his mother, who had particularly wished him to become a physician, left him free to resign medical study. Meanwhile the Maga Club had developed into a ‘Universal Brotherhood of the Friends of Truth,’ whose membership demanded good work already done as well as good fellowship, and the maintenance of a character free from stain. In this society Forbes always continued to take an interest.
Meanwhile Forbes's vacations had been utilised for much natural history work. In the summer of 1833, with his friend Campbell, afterwards principal of Aberdeen University, he went to Norway, sailing from the Isle of Man to Arendal in a brig. Both the voyage and the land trip were occupied with the keenest observation of natural history, and an account of it was given by Forbes in the ‘Magazine of Natural History,’ vols. viii. and ix. The return journey was through Christiania and Copenhagen, and at these places Forbes made several botanical friends. In the summer of 1834 Forbes dredged in the Irish Sea and continued to explore the natural history of the Isle of Man. The results of the dredging appeared in the ‘Magazine of Natural History,’ vols. viii. and ix. In the summer of 1835 he visited France, Switzerland, and Germany, and was so much attracted by the Jardin des Plantes that he resolved to spend the winter of 1836–7 in Paris, studying at the Jardin and attending the lectures of De Blainville and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. From their lectures he was much impressed with the necessity of studying the geographical distribution of animals. After this winter he travelled in the south of France and in Algeria, collecting many natural history specimens, on which he based a paper in the ‘Annals of Natural History,’ vol. ii.
In 1837–8 Forbes was back in Edinburgh, working at natural history, bringing out his little volume on ‘Manx Mollusca,’ and taking an active part on behalf of the students in the notable snowball riots of 1838, which were the subject of much of the contents of the revived ‘University Maga’ of 1837–8. He also published, under the title of ‘The University Snowdrop,’ a collection of his songs and squibs on the riots, being especially severe on the town council, who, as patrons of the university, had made themselves obnoxious to the students by calling out the military. Owing largely to Forbes's exertions, the thirty-five students who were arrested were fully acquitted. In the summer of 1838, after a fruitful tour through Austria, during which he collected about three thousand plant specimens, Forbes attended the British Association meeting at Newcastle, read before it a paper ‘On the Distribution of Terrestrial Pulmonifera in Europe,’ and was asked to prepare another on the distribution of pulmoniferous mollusca in the British Isles, which he presented at the succeeding meeting after much original study. After studying the star-fishes of the Irish Sea he published a paper on them in the ‘Wernerian Memoirs,’ vol. viii. The winter of 1838–9 found him delivering a course of lectures before the Edinburgh Philosophical Association on ‘The Natural History of the Animals in the British Seas.’ At this period he describes himself as studying ‘with a view to the development of the laws of species, of the laws of their distribution, and of the connection between the physical and mental development of creatures.’
At the British Association meeting of 1839 at Birmingham Forbes obtained a grant for dredging researches in the British seas, with a view to illustrating the geographical distribution of marine animals, and started the famous club of ‘Red Lions,’ named from the place of the first dinner. Throughout his life Forbes's humorous songs, the subject often taken from some branch of science, were among the most conspicuous after-dinner features. About this time Forbes undertook to publish a ‘History of British Star-fishes,’ many of which had been first observed by himself. The work was published in parts, illustrated from his own drawings, and completed in 1841. In 1839–40 he lectured on natural history both at Cupar and St. Andrews with great success, having much original material, and aiding his lectures by excellent chalk drawings on the spot. Towards the end of 1839 he founded a ‘University Club,’ under whose auspices an ‘Academic Annual’ (the only one which appeared) was published, containing Forbes's paper ‘On the Association of Mollusca on the British Coast considered with reference to Pleistocene Geology,’ in which he established his notable division of the coast into four zones, and pointed out the effects on the fauna of subsidence and elevation. He gave a series of lectures at Liverpool in the spring of 1840, visited London and made the acquaintance of many leading men of science, and travelled and dredged extensively before the meeting of the British Association at Glasgow. In the following winter he was disappointed by failure to gain a class for lectures in Edinburgh.
In 1841 Forbes was appointed naturalist to H.M.S. Beacon, engaged on surveying work in the Levant. Gaining the interest of all on board in his studies, he made extensive collections of marine animals and learned many facts of importance in the natural history of the Ægean Sea. He also studied the relations of animals and plants on the islands of the Archipelago. His friend William Thompson of Belfast [q. v.] accompanied the expedition from April to June. In the autumn Forbes dredged on the south-west coast of Asia Minor, and made antiquarian and natural history excursions into the uplands of Lycia. In the spring of 1842 he took an extended journey in Lycia with Lieutenant Thomas Abel Brimage Spratt [q. v.] and the Rev. Edward Thomas Daniell, M.A. of Balliol College, Oxford (who died on 24 Sept. 1843 at Adalia in Syria), discovering the ruins of Termessus, and exploring other interesting sites. Some sketches by Daniell are in the British Museum. Besides antiquarian discoveries Forbes made collections of land and fresh-water mollusca, and of plants, and ascertained the main features of the geology of Lycia. In the early summer Forbes returned to Rhodes, and learned that his father's losses precluded further remittances, and that his friend John Goodsir and others were canvassing for his appointment as professor of botany at King's College, London. The British Association, however, granted him 60l., and he proposed to compare the fauna of the Red Sea with that of the Mediterranean. But a week's fever on board a becalmed caique impaired his constitution for life. On recovering, he was cheered by an increased grant from the British Association, and prepared to go to Egypt, but being strongly urged to return to London if he wished to secure the King's College chair, he reluctantly came back in October 1842.
During his absence he had been elected to the coveted professorship at King's College, but it was worth less than 100l. a year. He consequently applied for the curatorship of the museum of the Geological Society at 150l. a year, and was elected, thus relieving the society from a dangerous conflict about other candidates. The detailed work of the new appointment absorbed nearly all his time, and necessitated the postponement of full publication of his researches in the Ægean; but he presented a valuable ‘Report on the Mollusca and Radiata of the Ægean Sea’ to the British Association in 1843, which raised his reputation greatly. His botanical lectures opened well, and became popular from their philosophical tone and practical illustrations based on a wide knowledge of plants in their native habitats. He had frequent returns of intermittent fever, and his labour at the Geological Society was incessant. The want of a skilled palæontologist on the Geological Survey became evident in 1844, and at Mr. (now Sir A. C.) Ramsay's suggestion Forbes received the appointment in October. Meanwhile he delivered an important lecture before the Royal Institution (23 Feb. 1844) on ‘The Light thrown on Geology by Submarine Researches,’ in which he expounded his discoveries about littoral zones, the characters of deposits formed at various depths in the ocean, and the migration of mollusca. The government now granted 500l. towards the publication of his Ægean researches, which unfortunately he never had time to complete for the press. The Fullerian professorship at the Royal Institution was also offered to him but declined. The success with which his fertile mind was still grappling with important zoological questions is shown by his ingenious paper ‘On the Morphology of the Reproductive System of the Sertularian Zoophyte, and its analogy with the Reproductive System of the Flowering Plant,’ in ‘Annals and Magazine of Natural History,’ December 1844.
His work in connection with the Geological Survey gave a new and most important development to Forbes's ideas. His work was not only to discriminate, name, describe, and arrange the fossils collected by the survey, but also to visit the districts where the surveyors were working and examine the rocks with the fossils in them. Relieved by his improved income, Forbes now became a fellow of the Geological (4 Dec. 1844) and of the Royal Societies (13 Feb. 1845), and founded the club of the Metropolitan Red Lions, to which not only the younger scientific men, but also such literary men as Douglas Jerrold, Lover, and Jerdan were admitted. Forbes's songs and stories, as well as his brilliant conversation, encouraged good fellowship and cemented many friendships. Early in 1845 he gave a course of lectures at the Royal Institution on ‘The Natural History and Geological Distribution of Fossil Marine Animals.’ On 28 Jan. 1845 he was elected a member of the Athenæum Club by special vote, on the strong recommendation of Professor Owen. All this time he was struggling with debility and mental distress, during which he writes: ‘Had I foreseen the torrent of misfortunes which has poured on my family, I should have taken some other course in life that might have enabled me to assist them.’ To this year's meeting of the British Association at Cambridge he contributed a remarkable paper on the geographical distribution of local plants. After the meeting he went on a dredging expedition from the Shetlands round the west of Scotland and found many new medusæ and several living molluscs which had up to that time only been known in a fossil state. Wearied by routine work at the survey and the attempt to complete his book on Lycia, he had a severe illness in the winter of 1845–6, but between 30 March and 4 May 1846 he gave a course of lectures at the London Institution on ‘The Geographical and Geological Distribution of Organised Beings.’ The King's College lectures on botany followed immediately, but Forbes was able to finish his important paper ‘On the Connection between the Distribution of the existing Fauna and Flora of the British Isles and the Geological Changes which have affected their Area,’ published in the first volume of the ‘Memoirs of the Geological Survey,’ and to complete his ‘Lycia,’ which appeared in the autumn and became a standard work. In the autumn he was with the survey party in the North Wales mountains. At times he would amuse his companions by fantastic contortions of his body in imitation ‘of the elvish forms that he loved so much to design.’ Early in 1847 a remark of Forbes's led to the formation of the Palæontographical Society, which has done so much for British palæontology. In a lecture at the Royal Institution on 14 May, on ‘The Natural History Features of the North Atlantic,’ Forbes referred to the bearing of scientific research on deep-sea fisheries, and censured the government and the public for their neglect of the subject, which has only lately received much attention. He continued his preparation for his great work on the ‘History of British Mollusca’ (in conjunction with Mr. Sylvanus Hanley), which appeared in four volumes (1848–52). It was a work of vast research, for which many summer dredging excursions and visits to the museums of well-known collectors were made. During the autumn of this year, as throughout his remaining years in London, geological excursions were made on survey work. Of Forbes on these excursions Mr. (afterwards Sir A. C.) Ramsay wrote: ‘There never was a more delightful companion. It was on such occasions that his inner life best revealed itself. His knowledge was so varied, his conversation often so brilliant and instructive.’
On 31 Aug. 1848 Forbes married Emily Marianne, youngest daughter of General Sir Charles Ashworth [q. v.] After this his mind was continually unsettled by the prospect of Jameson's resignation or death, and the consequent chances of his succession to the Edinburgh chair of natural history. During the autumn of 1849 he made important discoveries in relation to the true position of the Purbeck beds, showing that they belonged to the oolitic series, and inferring the probable existence in them of mammalian remains afterwards found by the Rev. P. B. Brodie and Mr. S. H. Beckles (Quart. Journ. Geol. Soc. xiii. 261). The winter of 1849–50 found Forbes busy with the arrangement of the new geological museum of the survey at Jermyn Street, but literary and lecturing work absorbed most of his time. In the summer a dredging expedition among the Western Hebrides, with Goodsir and MacAndrew, added many species to the British fauna and many valuable facts to geology. In the spring of 1850 he gave twelve lectures at the Royal Institution on the ‘Geographical Distribution of Organised Beings.’ The Jermyn Street museum was opened by Prince Albert on 12 May 1851, and during the summer a scheme for establishing a school of mines was matured. Forbes was appointed lecturer on natural history as applied to geology and the arts. The school opened in November with a few pupils, but it is recorded that the districts that memorialised for mining schools sent no pupils; and matters improved little during the remainder of Forbes's life in London, so that he had to make the serious effort of lecturing in his best style without adequate pay or results. He wrote a delightful article on ‘Shellfish, their Ways and Works,’ for the first number of the new series of the ‘Westminster Review’ (January 1852). During the winter of 1852–3 he worked out important new views on the classification of the tertiary formations, which he did not live to complete in memoir form, but which were published by his colleagues in 1858 (see infra). In February 1853 he was elected president of the Geological Society, an office never before held by so young a man. In the summer he spent a short holiday in geologising in France. Returning to London, Jameson's resignation was conditionally announced, but the temporary appointment of a deputy postponed a new appointment till Jameson's death in April 1854. Backed by overwhelming influence, Forbes was elected to the Edinburgh professorship and was pressed to commence lecturing at once. His leave-taking of the Geological Society on going north was marked by an eloquent speech from Sir R. Murchison, dwelling especially on Forbes's power of attaching every one to him.
The Edinburgh work was entered on with an eager zeal far too exhausting. Crowded audiences stimulated the lecturer's powers to the highest degree. He set vigorously to work to remodel Jameson's museum. Geological excursions with large numbers of students filled up each week. Early in August he returned to London to complete unfinished work, but illness overtook him. He was, however, present at the Liverpool meeting of the British Association, and presided over the geological section, but was considerably worn. His last writing was a review of Murchison's ‘Siluria,’ which appeared in the ‘Quarterly Review,’ October 1854. He had also undertaken to be joint editor of the ‘New Philosophical Journal,’ formerly conducted by Jameson. He lectured through the first week of the winter session in manifest ill-health, but in the second week had to desist, owing to disease of the kidneys, of which he died on 18 Nov. 1854, in his fortieth year. He was buried on 23 Nov. in the Dean cemetery, Edinburgh. By his will he left his papers to Mr. R. Godwin-Austen and his natural history collections to the College Museum at Edinburgh. Mrs. Forbes and two children, a boy and a girl, survived him. Mrs. Forbes married in 1858 Major William Charles Yelverton [q. v.], afterwards fourth viscount Avonmore. Busts of Forbes were subscribed for and placed in the Museum of Practical Geology, Jermyn Street, and in the Edinburgh Museum, and a bronze medal and prize of books were founded, to be given to the most deserving student in natural history at the Royal School of Mines.
Forbes lived an unusually full life, occupied in promoting science and arousing enthusiasm and awakening intelligence in others. To almost every department of biology he rendered much service, especially by connecting various branches together and illustrating one by the other. He played an important part in elevating palæontology to a high position in practical geology, and in elucidating ancient British zoology. He had a remarkable talent for discovering the relations of detached phenomena to the general scheme of nature and making broad generalisations; and he looked on the world not as a mere piece of mechanism, but as a visible manifestation of the ideas of God. Many who knew him testified that ‘the old mourned him as a son, the young as a brother.’ An eminent naturalist, writing in the ‘Literary Gazette,’ 25 Nov. 1854, said: ‘Rare as was the genius of Edward Forbes, his character was rarer still. … A thorough spirit of charity seemed to hide from him all but the good and worthy points in his fellow-men. Worked to death, his time and his knowledge were at the disposal of all comers; and, though his published works have been comparatively few, his ideas have been as the grain of mustard-seed in the parable.’ Forbes's love of social life and his vigorous and genial humour are apparent throughout his career. His humorous verses have not been collected, but several are published in the first two lives mentioned below. One on the ‘Red Tape Worm’ contains the following lines:—
In Downing Street the tape worms thrive;
In Somerset House they are all alive;
And slimy tracks mark where they crawl
In and out along Whitehall.
When I'm dead and yield my ghost,
Mark not my grave by a government post;
Let mild earth worms with me play,
But keep vile tape worms far away.
And if I deserve to rise
To a good place in Paradise,
May my soul kind angels guide,
And keep it from the official side!
A list of Forbes's principal writings is given in the appendix to his ‘Life’ by Wilson and Geikie, but many of his articles and critiques in periodicals, some not being identified, are not included. A list of his scientific papers is given in the Royal Society's ‘Catalogue of Scientific Papers,’ vol. ii. The following chronological list gives only the more important of the memoirs, in addition to the separate works: 1835. ‘Natural History Tour in Norway;’ four papers in Loudon's ‘Magazine of Natural History,’ 1st ser. vols. viii. and ix.; many papers in ‘University Maga;’ ‘Records of Dredging,’ ‘Mag. Nat. Hist.’ vols. viii. and ix. 1837–8. Many articles in ‘University Maga,’ vol. ii. 1838. ‘Malacologia Monensis;’ ‘The University Snowdrop;’ ‘On the Distribution of Pulmoniferous Mollusca in Europe,’ ‘British Association Report.’ 1839–40. ‘On the British Ciliograda’ (with J. Goodsir), ‘Brit. Assoc. Reports.’ 1841. ‘A History of British Starfishes.’ 1842. ‘Letters on Travels in Lycia,’ ‘Ann. Nat. Hist.’ vols. ix. and x. 1843. ‘On the Radiata of the Eastern Mediterranean,’ ‘Trans. Linn. Soc.’ vol. xix.; ‘Report on the Mollusca and Radiata of the Ægean Sea,’ ‘Brit. Assoc. Report.’ 1844. ‘On the Morphology of the Sertularian Zoophyte,’ ‘Ann. Nat. Hist.’ vol. xiv. 1845. ‘Report on and Catalogue of Lower Greensand Fossils,’ ‘Quart. Journ. Geol. Soc.’ vol. i.; ‘Geographical Distribution of Insects’ and other articles in ‘Penny Cyclopædia,’ supplement. 1846. ‘On the Geology of Lycia’ (with Lieutenant Spratt, R.N.), ‘Quart. Journ. Geol. Soc.’ vol. ii.; ‘Travels in Lycia’ (with Lieutenant Spratt), 2 vols.; ‘On the Connection between the Distribution of the existing Fauna and Flora of the British Isles and Geological Changes,’ ‘Memoirs of the Geological Survey,’ vol. i.; ‘Monograph on the Cretaceous Fossils of Southern India,’ ‘Trans. Geol. Soc.’ 2nd ser. vol. vii.; ‘On Palæozoic and Secondary Fossil Molluscs of South America,’ Appendix to Darwin's ‘Geology of South America.’ 1848–52. ‘History of British Mollusca’ (with Mr. Hanley), 4 vols. 1848. ‘Palæontological Map of the British Isles,’ Keith Johnston's ‘Physical Atlas;’ ‘Monograph of the Naked-eyed Medusæ,’ Ray Soc.; ‘Monograph of the British Fossil Asteriadæ,’ and ‘Monograph of the Silurian Cystideæ of Britain,’ ‘Mem. Geol. Survey,’ vol. ii. pt. ii. 1849. ‘British Organic Remains,’ Decade I., ‘Mem. Geol. Survey.’ 1850. ‘British Organic Remains,’ Decade III. (Echinoderms), ‘Mem. Geol. Survey.’ 1851. ‘On Australian Mollusca,’ ‘Voyage of the Rattlesnake,’ vol. ii. 1852. ‘On Arctic Echinoderms,’ Appendix to Dr. Sutherland's ‘Arctic Voyage;’ ‘Monograph of British Tertiary Echinoderms,’ Palæontographical Soc.; ‘The Future of Geology,’ ‘Westminster Review,’ July. 1853. ‘On the Fluvio-Marine Tertiaries of the Isle of Wight,’ ‘Quart. Journ. Geol. Soc.’ vol. ix.; ‘On the Geology of Lebanon,’ Appendix to Risk Allah Effendi's work on Syria. 1854. Map of Homoiozoic Belts, Johnston's ‘Physical Atlas;’ Presidential address to Geol. Soc.; Inaugural address at Edinburgh, ‘Edinb. Monthly Journ. of Science.’ 1855. Literary papers selected from contributions to the ‘Literary Gazette,’ edited by Lovell Reeve, 1 vol. 1858. ‘On the Fluvio-Marine Tertiary Strata of the Isle of Wight,’ completed by Austen, Ramsay, and Bristow, ‘Mem. Geol. Survey.’ 1859. ‘Natural History of European Seas,’ completed by Mr. R. Godwin-Austen, 1 vol.[Memoir by Professors George Wilson and A. Geikie, 1861; by Professor J. Hughes Bennett, in Monthly Journ. of Medicine, January 1855; by Hugh Miller, in Witness, 22 Nov. 1854; Scotsman, 22 Nov. 1854; British Quarterly Review, 1861, vol. xxxiv.; Literary Gazette, 25 Nov. 1854.]