Professor Edward Forbes, F.R.S.

Journal of Science and Literary Gazette (1854)

[1016] The scientific world has sustained a severe, and it may with truth be added, an irreparable loss, during the past week, in the death, at the early age of thirty-nine, after a very short illness, of the Regius Professor of Natural History in the University of Edinburgh. The profound feeling of grief, which the unexpected intelligence of this event created among the numerous friends of Professor Forbes, on Monday last, in London, can scarcely be exaggerated, so truly was he beloved and so universally admired by those who had the happiness of his acquaintance.

Edward Forbes was born in 1815, in the Isle of Man, where his father was, we believe, a banker. "We have heard himself say," remarks a writer of an obituary notice in the 'Edinburgh Witness,' in which we recognise the sympathising and vigorous pen of Hugh Miller, "that his love of natural history dated from his earliest childhood. This propensity, or rather passion, was inbred and all his own, for no individual of his family, or even acquaintanceship, had the slightest taste for scientific studies. His first printed guide or text-book was one of the driest, 'Turton's Translation of the Systema Naturæ,' and by the time he was seven years of age he had collected a small but tolerably well arranged museum of his own. Next, though in very early life, came the perusal of Buckland's 'Reliquiæ Diluvianæ,' Parkinson's 'Organic Remains,' and Conybeare's 'Geology of England,'–rather hard reading that last for a boy, and probably rather wrestled with than understood. These books, however, when he was not more than twelve years old, inspired him with a warm and abiding love of geology. At this period also he compiled a Manual of British Natural History in all its departments, a youthful labour, a reference to which we know he afterwards found serviceable up almost to his close of life."

Having been sent to the University of Edinburgh, where the studies are less absorbed with more mathematical and classical learning than at our own Universities, he cultivated his taste for natural history, under the able teaching of those veterans in geology and botany, Professors Jameson and Graham. It was, however, chiefly to the zeal of the latter in leading forth his pupils in botanical excursions to the Highlands that Edward Forbes was indebted for the direction given to his pursuits in after-life. Animated with a love of nature in her gentlest and most attractive form, and possessed of singular kindliness of disposition, he inspired his companions with a rare ardour in their pursuits, and he was the centre of a band of naturalists, all of whom have risen more or less to scientific eminence. Scarcely a year passed without some botanizing or dredging excursion, and long before he arrived at manhood he had made himself acquainted with the fauna of the Irish Sea, inhabiting the shore of his native island. At the age of eighteen, Edward Forbes made a spirited excursion, in company with [1017] a fellow-student, to Norway. On reaching the Scandinavian coast, "the billowy aspect of whose little gneiss hills, presented a sight of a new and unaccustomed character," he wrote home in June 1833, "we entered Arandal, and settling ourselves for a week's stay, we strolled into the neighbourhood, with all the charms of novelty and a foreign land before us. The aspect of the scene of our Arandal rambles was that so beautifully expressed, in the fitting language for such scenery, by our poet laureate, the immortal Southey:–

"Pine cover'd rocks
And mountain forests of eternal shade,
And glens, and vales, on whose green quietness
The lingering eye reposes, and fair lakes
That image the light foliage of the beech,
Or the grey glitter of the aspen leaves
On the stillbough thin trending."

Desirous of penetrating to the wilder and more mountainous districts of the country, the youthful travellers took ship in about ten days to Bergen. Here they spent a week, and among other records characteristic of the zeal with which they pursued their researches, we find the following: "Amongst my Bergen treasures, I especially value a quantity of sand, which I found in a spitting-box in my lodgings. As yet I have only examined a small portion; but I expect many minute curiosities in the shell way from it. Several species hitherto only found in Britain, have rewarded my search already." From Bergen the naturalists started off on a regular walking expedition. "It was our first decided tramp under the knapsack in Norway; and what with our bags and hammers, and botanical boxes, and books, we were pretty well loaded, not forgetting boards enclosing the paper to dry our plants in;" and thus equipped, they spent several weeks collecting specimens and observations, and in visiting the glaciers.

Eight years after this, Professor Forbes joined, as naturalist, the surveying expedition to the Mediterranean of H.M.S. Beacon , under the command of Captain Graves, part of intervening years being spent in examining the plants and animals off the Isle of Man, towards the description of which appeared, in 1838, a little volume, entitled 'Malacologia Monensis,' and in researches among the Hebrides, Orkneys, and Shetland Islands. The year 1837;-1838 he, however, spent in Paris, attending the classes of the Jardin des Plantes, and here, as at Edinburgh, intermingling his scientific studies with miscellaneous literary pursuits. With the view of training himself for his future career, he gave lectures in the extra-academical school of Edinburgh, and in 1840-41 appeared his 'History of British Starfishes,' a book most delightfully written, and furnished with wood engravings, in which subjects of scientific detail, sentiment, and humour, are mingled together in novel variety and harmony. The tour to Asia Minor was made by Professor Forbes in H.M.S. Beacon , at the invitation of Captain Graves, while engaged in a survey of the islands of the Grecian Archipelago; and on two occasions he visited Lyela, to assist in the well-known explorations commenced in that locality by Sir Charles Fellowes–first in Oct. 1841, in company with Mr. Hoskyn, when the travellers undertook an excursion of four months' duration into the interior, and fixed the sites of two of the Cibyratic cities; and secondly, in the following spring, in company with Mr. Daniel and Lieut. Spratt, when no fewer than eighteen ancient cities, not hitherto known to geographers, were explored and determined. The Beacon was commissioned on this occasion to convey away the remains of antiquity discovered by Sir Charles Fellowes at Xanthus, but she proved unfitted for the task, and additional opportunities were thereby offered to Professor Forbes for carrying on that important series of deep-sea observations in the Ægean, by the light of which he founded his brilliant theories on the nature and distribution of submarine life in reference to geological changes. During this expedition Mr. Daniel perished from the malignant malaria of the country, and the life of Edward Forbes himself was at one time in imminent danger. "Poor Forbes, the naturalist," wrote Lieut. Spratt to a friend in England, "was taken ill, on the way from Rhodes to Syra, of the country fever, and remained for thirteen days together without tasting food, and without medicine or medical advice." He, however, gradually recovered, and was on the point of proceeding to Egypt and the Red Sea, on a dredging excursion, aided by a grant of money for that purpose from the British Association, when intelligence reached him that he had been elected to fill the Chair of Botany in King's College, vacant by the death of Professor Dorr. On the 8th May, 1843, Professor Forbes delivered his Inaugural Lecture in that institution, and a most original and masterly production it was. The fertility and novelty of his recent researches opened out new views to him, and brought powerfully to his conviction how little had as yet been accomplished in the higher walks of natural science. "Much, very much, remains to be done," said the new Professor, "and there is no fresher field for original research and the development of a grand philosophy than that of natural history." His vast knowledge of natural objects was now quickly appreciated, and he became Secretary and Curator of the Geological Society, and contributed greatly to the value of the Society's museum in the arrangement of its fossils. He had been elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society on his return from the Ægean in February, 1843, and in February, 1845, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and became ere long a member of its Council. On the establishment of the Government School of Mines in connexion with the Ordance Geological Society under the direction of Sir Henry de la Beche, Professor Forbes resigned the Curatorship of the Geological Society, and accepted the appointment of Palæontologist to that institution; and on its location in Jermyn-street, he was appointed its Professor of Natural History. He gave frequent lectures there, arranged and displayed the valuable collection of fossils, and he published a splendidly illustrated series of monographs of the new species. He also worked hard at intervals in different parts of England, Wales, and Ireland with his geological hammer, and it was during a campaign in the Isle of Wight that he made that shrewd discovery in the character of the eocene beds, which has caused it necessary to alter the tertiary classification of that locality. Last year Professor Edward Forbes filled the President's chair at the Geological Society, and at the meeting of the British Association at Liverpool in September last, he filled the President's Chair in the Geological Section. It was in that dignified and honourable post that his admiring geological colleagues, Lyell, Murchison, Sedgwick, Owen, Greenough, Portlock, Smith, Egerton, Ramsey, Jukes, Phillips, and others, saw him for the last time. On the death of Professor Jameson, the Regius Professor of Natural History in the University of Edinburgh, Edward Forbes was immediately recognised as the man, before all others in Great Britain, to succeed him. "The chair of Natural History," says a writer in an Edinburgh paper, "was with Forbes the highest object of ambition, and had his life been spared, it would have been dedicated to extending its already great reputation, so that no school probably in the civilized world would have equalled its greatness. With this view he had formed gigantic and most able plans, which, through his great influence with the Government, would have been liberally supported, and we have no doubt ultimately carried out. But, arrived at the culminating point of his ambition, and at the commencement of his long-matured schemes of usefulness, he has, by a mysterious dispensation of Providence, been removed from us when we were beginning to appreciate his worth. A chronic disease, contracted in the east, re-excited and rendered violent by a severe cold caught last autumn, and which burst out with uncontrollable fury about ten days ago, was the immediate cause of his premature death."

The published works of Professor Edward Forbes consist chiefly of scattered memoirs, and, in the 'Bibliographia' of Agassiz and Strickland, are eighty-nine in number. His largest works are the 'Natural History of the British Mollusca,' written in conjunction with Mr. Huxley, and his 'Travels in Lyela,' with Lieut. Spratt. During the last three years, he wrote an occasional article in the 'Westminster Review,' and between seventy and eighty reviews and articles during the same period in the 'Literary Gazette.' He was also a most valuable contributor to Johnston's 'Physical Atlas.' The Geological and Palæontological Map of the British Isles was constructed by him; and a World Map of the highest interest, embodying all the precious results of his own most original researches, entitled, 'Distribution of Marine Life, illustrated chiefly by Fishes, Molluscs, and Radiata, showing also the limits of the Homoiozoic Belts.'

Edward Forbes had a great intellect. He was an acute and subtle thinker, and the broad philosophical tone and comprehensive grasp of the many-sided mind enabled him to appreciate and to understand the labours of others in fields of inquiry far different from his own. A naturalist by inclination and by profession; a close observer in the museum and in the field; possessed of a vast acquaintance with the details of those branches of science which he had made his especial study; no less capable of the widest generalizations as his Ægean researches more especially show–in speculation a Platonist, delighting in Henry More–in literature and art, blessed with a solidity of judgment and a refinement of taste such as fall to the lot of few,–in social life a humorist of the order of Yorick: gifts like these are also sufficient to raise a man to eminence, and to lead us to lament, as a great calamity, his sudden and early death. But it was not these qualities which distinguished him so highly beyond his fellows. To say that he had them will not enable those who stood without the privileged circle of his friends to comprehend why, within that circle, the old mourn him as a son, and the young as a brother. It is not because he was so gifted that the veterans of science one and all affirm his loss to be irreparable; and the aspirants know that they may succeed, but cannot replace him. Our affections cling to character and not to intellect; and rare as was the genius of Edward Forbes, his character was rarer still. The petty vanities and heart-burnings which are the besetting sins of men of science and of men of letters, had no hold upon his large and generous nature–he did not even understand them in others. A thorough spirit of charity–a complete toleration for everything but empiricism and pettiness, seemed to hide from him all but the good and worthy points in his fellow men. If he ever wronged a man, it was by making him fancy himself better than he was. 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–they have grown into trees and brought forth fruit an hundred fold; but he never seemed to think it worth while to claim his share. As an instance of his unselfish generosity of character we may notice that it was once proposed to confer upon him one of the highest scientific honours in this country; but it so happened, on this particular occasion, that it seemed expedient to bestow it otherwise. An intimate friend who had had some share in the proceedings wrote to tell him exactly what he had done, and to ask whether he had or had not acted as became their relation. Thus he answered:–

"I heartily concur in the course you have taken, and had I been placed as you have been, would have done it exactly the same. . . . . Your way of proceeding was as true an act of friendship as any that could be performed. As to myself, I dream so little about medals, that the notion of being on the list never entered my brain, even when asleep. If it ever comes I shall be pleased and thankful; if it does not, it is not the sort of thing to break my equanimity. Indeed, I would always like to see it given not as a mere honour, but as a help to a good man, and this it is assuredly in ––'s case. Government people are so ignorant, that they require to have merits drummed into their heads [1018] by all possible means, and ––'s getting the medal may be of real service to him before long. I am in a snug, though not an idle nest,– he has not got his resting place yet. And so, my dear ––, I trust that you know me too well to think that I am either grieved or envious, and you, ––, and I are much of the same way of thinking."

It will be no matter of surprise that with so loveable and genial a character, Edward Forbes had a singular power of attracting to himself all those with whom he came in contact.

At a meeting of the Town Council of Edinburgh, on Tuesday, it was proposed "that the Council should express their deep sympathy with Professor Forbes' bereaved widow and family, at the loss of which they, in common with the community, had sustained, and should offer as a mark of respect to his memory, to attend his remains to the tomb."


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University