Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/February 1886/Sketch of Dr. W. B. Carpenter


President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.


THE long and busy scientific life of Dr. Carpenter, the wide extent and multifarious character of his researches, in which he was always a leader and always advanced knowledge, the catholicity of his views, the active interest he exhibited in every concern of life, his lovable personal qualities, and the painful circumstances of his death, have all contributed to invest the history of his career with an unusual degree of interest.

His life, as he observed to a friend less than a month before his death, was one of hard work. He was for years actively engaged in the drudgery of teaching; he was always preparing and compiling valuable manuals; he was an energetic writer for, and editor of, periodical publications; and, we may add, he spent much time in the direct service of the public and of public institutions. A sketch of his life and work down to 1872 was given in the first volume of "The Popular Science Monthly." But he has held so high a place, and has done so much that is valuable since then, and as that biography is probably not now accessible to a great many of our readers, no apology need be offered for reviewing the principal features of Dr. Carpenter's career, and adding, with the account of his later work, such new information as is afforded by the reminiscences which are always brought out by the death of a man who has played an important part.

William Benjamin Carpenter was born in Exeter, England, October 29, 1813. His father, the Rev. Dr. Lant Carpenter, was an eminent Unitarian minister, and a writer on theological subjects, who removed to Bristol in 1817. Hence the son's earlier life became so identified with that city that some of his biographers have said that he was born there. The whole family are characterized by ability. Dr. Carpenter's sister. Miss Mary Carpenter, who died a few years ago, was an eminent philanthropist, whose work in relation to the treatment of prisoners, and to questions affecting the well-being of the women of India, entitle her, as Dr. Ray Lankester happily says, to be remembered by future generations with no less gratitude than her brother. His sons are men of mark in the Unitarian ministry, in literature, and in science.

He received his earlier instruction in the school established by his father at Bristol, studying the classics and the principles of physical science, with a preference of taste for the latter class of studies. He intended to become a civil engineer, but, no suitable opening appearing in that profession, he entered upon the study of medicine, in 1828, with Mr. J. B. Estlin, a brother-in-law of Dr. Pritchard, the ethnologist, in connection with which he attended the lectures at the Bristol Medical School. In the winter of 1832 he visited the West Indies in company with Dr. Estlin, who went on a voyage for his health, to

resume his studies on his return, at Bristol, then at University College, London, and finally in the University of Edinburgh, where he received the degree of M. D, in 1839. His graduating thesis, which gained for him a gold medal, was on "The Physiological Inferences to be deduced from the Structure of the Nervous System of Invertebrated Animals." It attracted considerable attention on account of some peculiar special views advanced in it, and it pointed out the direction which his future studies were destined to take. previous to his graduation he had been appointed Lecturer on Medical Jurisprudence in the Bristol Medical School. He settled down to practice and married in Bristol; but, in 1844, feeling a distaste, according to Dr. Lankester, for the profession of medicine, he removed to London in order to devote himself entirely to a literary and scientific career. Here he was appointed Fullerian Professor of Physiology in the Royal Institution, and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society; in the next year he became a lecturer in the London Hospital; in 1847 a lecturer on geology in the British Museum, one of the examiners of the London University, and editor of the "British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review"; in 1849, Professor of Medical Jurisprudence at University College; and in 1852, Principal of University Hall.

Dr. Carpenter began the researches with which his name is associated and the publication of results upon them while still quite young. Two books—Sir John Herschel's "Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy," and Lyell's "Principles of Geology"—exerted a great influence over his mind while he was a student, and served in a certain sense as models in the execution of the literary part of his work. Dr. Lankester remarks that from the first his work showed the tendency of his mind to seek for large generalizations and the development of philosophical principles. "He was a natural philosopher in the widest sense of the term—one who was equally familiar with the fundamental doctrines of physics and with the phenomena of the concrete sciences of astronomy, geology, and biology. It was his aim, by the use of the widest range of knowledge of the facts of nature, to arrive at a general conception of these phenomena as the outcome of uniform and all pervading laws. His interest in the study of living things was not therefore primarily that of the artist and poet so much as that of the philosopher, and it is remarkable that this interest should have carried him, as it did, into minute and elaborate investigations of form and structure." Among his earliest contributions was a paper "On the Voluntary and Instinctive Actions of Living Beings." Before he was twenty-five years old he had published articles on "Vegetable Physiology" and "The Physiology of the Spinal Marrow," and a review of that part of Whewell's "History of the Inductive Sciences" which relates to physiology. His first important essay in the study of the nervous system, the special branch of the science to which he more closely devoted his attention, was a review of Noble's "Physiology of the Brain," in which he exposed the unscientific character of the claims of phrenology. In this paper he also extended the idea of reflex nervous function to the centers of sensation and ideation, and enunciated the fundamental notions of "consensual" and of "ideo-motor" action. Curiously Mr. Carpenter's arguments converted the author of the book, Dr. Noble, who in a short time surrendered the principal hypotheses which he had endeavored to enforce in it.

His first systematic work, produced in 1839, was the "Comparative Physiology," or, to cite it by its full title, the "Principles of General and Comparative Physiology, intended as an Introduction to the Study of Human Physiology, and as a Guide to the Philosophical Pursuit of Natural History." This work, which has passed through many editions, and is even now, though out of print, hardly behind the times, is acknowledged to have been when it was first published the best arranged and most clearly written work on physiology in the English language. It was a pioneer and successful effort to deal with the phenomena of animal and vegetable life as parts of a single whole in the manner that is now almost universally done in treating of the science of biology. While residing at University Hall, from 1851 to 1859, he remodeled this work and divided it into two parts: the "Comparative Physiology," comprehending the general biological portion; and the "Human Physiology," consisting of the part relating to the special physiology of man and the higher animals. The "Human Physiology" embodied the most complete and thorough exposition of the subject that had yet been presented, and was particularly remarkable for the manner in which the physiology of the brain and nervous system was treated, and for the introduction of the theories of cerebral localization which have since been elaborated with increasing exactness and remarkable results. The part of the book relating to this branch of the subject, developed and matured by subsequent studies, was published separately in 1874 as the "Principles of Mental Physiology," a book which "Nature," in its review of it, characterized as marking the author as one of those philosophers "who refuse to treat the phenomena of mind as though they were in no way connected with the body through which they find their expression." Rejecting the method of treating mental phenomena as abstracted from their surroundings. Dr. Carpenter based his system on the construction and working of the nervous system. "But while shunning the metaphysical system," the reviewer in "Nature" continues, "he does not adopt the other extreme, the doctrine, we mean, of the thorough materialist, who regards all mental phenomena without exception as the outcome of previous physical causes which necessarily produce certain results. He steers a middle course, inasmuch as, while he advances the theory 'of the dependence of the automatic activity of the mind upon conditions which bring it within the nexus of physical causation,' he yet believes in 'an independent power controlling and directing that activity which we call will.'" This doctrine of the independence of the will is regarded as one of the distinguishing characteristics of the philosophy of the treatise, running "through the entire work as the one grand exception among a series of physical sequences, interdependent, and standing to each other in the relation of cause and effect, of antecedent and sequent." Another important feature of the book is found in its discussions of the subjects of mesmerism, spirit-rapping, table-turning, and the like, in which the author's philosophical spirit is eminently displayed. He set himself soberly at work to find out what is true in these manifestations, and to verify the facts, and explain on rational grounds those which were susceptible of explanation, while "he did not hesitate to denounce those he thought were due to insincerity or fraud." He found the key to such of the phenomena as are real in what he called ideo-motor action, which he defined to be "the direct manifestations of ideational states, excited to a certain measure of intensity, or, in physiological language, reflex actions of the cerebrum." His observations on this branch of the subject were also published separately in the work "Mesmerism, Spiritualism, etc., historically and scientifically considered."

Dr. Carpenter's appointment to the office of Registrar of the University of London, in 1856, gave him more leisure than he had previously enjoyed to pursue his studies systematically and untrammeled by the drudgery of routine duties; and the fruits of the employment of this leisure are seen in the greater fullness and perfection of his scientific work subsequent to that time. He had already, during most of his residence in London, been occupied with the minute study of the calcareous shells of the Mollusca, and this had led him to the regular use of the microscope. One of the earlier fruits of these studies was his book on "The Microscope and its Revelations," a manual most highly prized by all followers of the enchanting study of microscopy, of which the sixth edition was published in 1881 Other fruits of them are to be found in his reports on the microscopic structure of shells, which he presented to the British Association from 1844 onward. In these papers much light was thrown on the structure, which was found to be more complex than had been supposed, and the law of growth of shells. His studies in the Foraminifera, which were continued through his life, furnished the occasion for several memoirs in the "Philosophical Transactions," and for an illustrated monograph, which was published by the Ray Society in 1862. One of the most interesting of his studies in this line was that on the structure and development of the Comatula, or feather-star, in which he proposed a theory of the nervous function of the axial cords running through the arms of the animal, differing from or contradicting the views commonly held. A re-examination of the structure of the animal, and repetition of his experiments, made some five years ago at the Marine Laboratory of Dr. Dohrn, at Naples, and the experiments of other naturalists, have given confirmation to his opinion. Pertaining to the investigation of the Foraminifera and growing out of it, was the part which he took in the discussions respecting the nature of Eozoön Canadense, in which he maintained that the fossil in question exhibits the distinctive structure of the shell-substance of the higher Foraminiferæ. He was preparing a memoir on this subject, which he left uncompleted at the time of his death.

Dr. Carpenter, with Professor Wyville Thomson, was one of the prime movers of the expeditions for deep-sea research, which have since been so extensively carried on, and have resulted in so great and valuable additions to our knowledge of zoölogy and the physics of the globe. He took part in the earlier expeditions in 1868 and subsequent years, but was not able to go on the Challenger Expedition. He had an important part, however, in collating and formulating the results of the last expedition, and in making them accessible to the understanding of the public. To this series of investigations belong his theories and publications on ocean-currents.

In 1872 Dr. Carpenter was President of the British Association, at its Bristol meeting, and had the pleasure of announcing in his inaugural address the approaching departure of the Challenger on a circumnavigating expedition of at least three years' duration. The subject of his address was "Man as the Interpreter of Nature," and its purpose was to lead the minds of his audience "to the consideration of the mental processes by which are formed those fundamental conceptions of matter and force, of cause and effect, of law and order, which furnish the basis of all scientific reasoning, and constitute the philosophia prima of Bacon"; and to show "that those who set up their own conceptions of the orderly sequence which they discern in the phenomena of nature, as fixed and determinate laws, by which those phenomena not only are within all human experience, but always have been and always must be governed, are guilty of the intellectual arrogance they condemn in the systems of the ancients, and place themselves in diametrical antagonism to those real philosophers, by whose comprehensive grasp and penetrating insight that order has so far been disclosed." At the close of his address, having shown how man had arrived at the recognition of the unity of the power of which the phenomena of nature are the diversified manifestations, and how all scientific inquiry now tends toward this point, he declared that the science of modern times had taken a more special direction: "Fixing its attention exclusively on the order of nature, it has separated itself wholly from theology, whose function it is to seek after its cause. In this, science is fully justified, alike by the entire independence of its objects, and by the historical fact that it has been continually hampered and impeded, in its search for the truth as it is in nature, by the restraints which theologians have attempted to impose upon its inquiries. But when science, passing beyond its own limits, assumes to take the place of theology, and sets up its own conception of the order of nature as a sufficient account of its cause, it is invading a province of thought to which it has no claim, and not unreasonably provokes the hostility of those who ought to be its best friends. For while the deep-seated instincts of humanity, and the profoundest researches of philosophy, alike point to mind as the one and only source of power, it is the high prerogative of science to demonstrate the unity of the power which is operating through the limitless extent and variety of the universe, and to trace its continuity through the vast series of ages that have been occupied in its evolution." In harmony with these views, he has maintained the genetic unity of all organic beings, and has had no difficulty in insisting that evolution is compatible with theism, and in fact gives a stimulus to the religious emotions.

Dr. Carpenter retired from the registrarship of London University in May, 1879, on a pension, and was chosen a member of the senate of the institution. Among the most important incidents of his career as registrar is mentioned the fact that he secured for the study of natural science the recognition it has enjoyed at the university, and the important place it has always held in the examinations. Shortly after his retirement a movement was instituted, with Earl Granville, Sir John Lubbock, and Dr. William Smith at its head, to procure a portrait of him to be presented to the university, as a memorial of his labors in its behalf.

Arduously as Dr. Carpenter was engaged in scientific research, he found time to make himself useful and appreciated in public and social life. lie took pleasure in making science intelligible to the public, and for this purpose accepted a part in the management of the Gilchrist trust for popular lectures, and delivered lectures in the Gilchrist and Swiney courses. His articles on the zoetrope and other similar toys, in the "Intellectual Observer," are commended for their clearness, and the same quality of style contributed very largely to make his physiological treatises popular. He took the highest interest in social questions, and was always glad to throw the light of scientific knowledge upon them. He was quick to perceive the evils of indulgence in intoxicating liquors, became an advocate of total abstinence, and lectured on temperance, while he afterward concluded that there was a legitimate use for wine. Upon Dr. Ray Lankester, who knew him from his own boyhood, "he always produced the most vivid impression of a man of indomitable energy, who had accepted as the highest duty and keenest delight of his life the promotion, whether by advocacy or by research, of true knowledge." "No man of science," Dr. Lankester says in another notice of him, "could witness without respect and sympathy the ardent devotion of the veteran naturalist to the cause of scientific progress, and the earnest simplicity of his character." Whatever he said when his researches were the subject of conversation "was admirable, and his willingness to meet fairly an antagonist was no less indicative of the true, single-hearted man of science than the almost boyish eagerness with which he would rush into the fray."

From a sketch by a member of his own family, published in the Unitarian paper of London, we learn that he was well versed in literature; that he had a keen relish for political memoirs of his own time; that he took a high view of a citizen's obligations; that he was surprised when in Italy by evincing to himself a susceptibility to the enjoyment of art; that he found unfailing recreation in music; that Nature was to him full of charm and delight; that various qualities made him a genial and ever-welcome companion, trusted for his fidelity; that the dominant conception of his life was that of duty; and that he was rich in family affections.

He was a member of the principal learned societies of his own and other countries; he received the Royal medal of the Royal Society in 1861 and the degree of LL. D. at Edinburgh in 1871, and was elected a corresponding member of the Institute of France in 1873. An illustration of the popularizing tendency of his efforts is given in the fact that the Society of Arts opened one of its life-memberships to him in consideration of the valuable assistance he had afforded it when medals were awarded by it for microscopes to be sold to the public at a cheap rate.

Dr. Carpenter's death, which took place on the 10th of November, 1885, was in consequence of injuries received from an accident which occurred while he was taking a vapor-bath. The lamp of the apparatus being out of order, he used instead a gallipot containing alcohol. In his movements while changing position, he overturned the vessel, and was in consequence severely burned about the body, legs, and face, so that he died about four hours afterward.