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Memoir of Henry Nottidge Moseley

Moseley part of 1998.267.85Henry Nottidge Moseley [part of 1998.267.85]by G.C. Bourne. From Moseley's Notes by a Naturalist, second edition 1892.

[p. v] To give an account of the scientific work of the late Professor Moseley, to enumerate his contributions to scientific literature, and to show the place which he filled in the intellectual world, would be a comparatively easy task. It is far more difficult to picture the man as he was known to his friends and colleagues, to describe his kindliness, his humour and good common sense; all those characteristics, in short, which made him the best and most loyal of friends, the most genial and interesting of companions.

Fortunately he has left, in the very pages to which this slight sketch serves as an introduction, a better portrait of himself than any biographer could hope to present. He would be a dull reader indeed who failed to appreciate the exceptional powers of observation, the absorbing love of nature, and the numerous evidences of tact, humour, and cheerful good temper under trying circumstances with which these pages abound. The "Challenger" voyage was an epoch in Moseley's life; it went a long way towards determining his career and shaping the final bent of his mind. So his narrative may well be taken as a faithful account of his aims and feelings, and of the opinions which he formed then, and held in later life.

Henry Nottidge Moseley was born at Wandsworth in 1844. His father, the Rev. Henry Moseley, a canon of Bristol and rector of Olveston, near the Severn, was a mathematician of much ability, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and author of numerous works on applied mathematics. Brought up in the country, young Moseley had ample opportunities for indulging [p. vi] his inherent taste for natural history and field sports, and he did not fail to take advantage of them; but in other respects he does not appear to have shown any promise of future intellectual eminence, and was certainly not a bookish boy in any sense of the word. He has said that his favourite reading was Robinson Crusoe, and that he first acquired from Defoe's story the desire to see foreign countries and study their inhabitants and productions; a desire which was much strengthened when he subsequently read Darwin's "Voyage of a Naturalist on the 'Beagle.'"

In due course he was sent to Harrow school, where he spent five years, gaining no reputation as a scholar, but devoted to his out-door pursuits. His house master, Mr. Rendall, [2] has kindly furnished me with the following particulars:—

"His school life was thoroughly characteristic of the future naturalist: the boy was true father of the man ... His school career was always creditable, though not brilliant, ending in the lower Sixth. He had plenty of ability, but his heart was already given to the study of external nature, and our Harrow course did not then comprehend Natural Science as it did afterwards. But his time at Harrow was by no means thrown away; he followed his own bent very freely, collecting and experimenting in all his spare hours. He had many friends, and no enemies; but W. Warden, who came to Harrow just after him, but was somewhat senior in age and standing, was his devoted chum, and shared his pursuits. I was able to give them a large room together for some time, a little detached from other boys, and this formed a regular laboratory—not always the sweetest—for experiments on plants, preservation of insects, etc. The interest and the ‘stinks’ of that room were a delight or a horror to the house, and I sometimes feared that I should have to interfere on sanitary grounds. But we managed to let things alone, and the future professor developed his powers there admirably.”

No doubt, in this case, a wise master was better than the best equipped science school.

It is worthy of remark, that Harrow, which then did little or nothing to encourage the teaching of Natural Science, should [p. vii] have produced, within a short space of time, two such leaders as Moseley and the late Francis Maitland Balfour; [3] and there is the melancholy parallel between them, that both were cut off prematurely in the zenith of their scientific careers. Balfour, it should be remembered, was by some years Moseley’s junior.

A field naturalist loves the meadows and hedgerows better than the cricket and football field, and thus Moseley gained no distinction in ordinary school games, though he took a great interest in them throughout his life; he was, however, a very good racket player, a game in which his exceptionally quick eyesight served him in good stead. He was above all things a sportsman, and had a marvellous eye for objects in the country. I often wondered at the quickness with which he detected birds’ nests, insect, etc., on a country walk, and this during his later days at Oxford, when he was often suffering from severe headaches and depression, the result of overwork.

In 1864 Moseley entered Exeter College, Oxford. He was intended, very much against his own will, for a mathematical or a classical degree, and consequently spent his first undergraduate days much as he had spent his time at Harrow, in rat-hunting and collecting. He used to tell me that, had it not been for the intervention of a clergyman, an old friend of his father’s, who discovered him at Exeter given up to idleness and collecting beetles, he would never have had the chance of starting on the career in which he made himself so great a name. He was allowed, as a last chance of academical salvation, to join Professor Rolleston’s laboratory, and to enter for the examination in the Honour School of Natural Science. Into this congenial work Moseley threw himself heart and soul, and come out with a First Class in 1868, together with Ray Lankester, [4] with whom he had made fast friends in Rolleston’s laboratory. In those days honours in Anatomy led naturally to a medical career; Moseley was elected to a Radcliffe Travelling Fellowship, and in company with Ray Lankester—the two were inseparable up to the date of the “Challenger” voyage—went to Vienna, where he studied in Rokitanski’s laboratory, and attended courses under Jaeger, Politzer, Braun, [p. viii] and Hebra. [5] On returning to England he entered as a medical student at University College, London, and in 1871 again went with Lankester to the Continent, this time to Leipzig, to study under Professor Ludwig, [6] who was quick to appreciate the exceptional gifts of his pupil. Here he published his first scientific memoir in the Berichte der Kön. Sächs. Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften.

On his return to England, in the autumn of the same year, Moseley was invited to join the Government Eclipse Expedition, then fitting out for Ceylon, under Mr Norman Lockyer; [7] and from this time he discontinued his medical studies, and turned all his energies to pure science; though it would appear, from his own account, that he did not finally abandon the intention of following the profession of medicine until the next year, when the offer of an appointment on the “Challenger” decided him in the course along which he had been for some time drifting.

His first experience of the tropics was a source of unbounded delight, frequently referred to in his conversation in later life. He not only did good service as a member of the expedition by making valuable spectroscopic observations in the neighbourhood of Trincomali, but made, as he was wont, the fullest use of his opportunities as a naturalist, travelled all over the island, and returned home with a miscellaneous collection, including a quantity of land Planarians. [8] These last he worked out at Oxford, and produced an important memoir “On the Anatomy and Histology of the Land Planarians of Ceylon”; an admirable piece of work, and much appreciated by Professor Rolleston, by whom it was communicated to the Royal Society, appearing in the Philosophical Transactions for 1874.

In 1872 came the appointment as a naturalist on the scientific staff of the “Challenger.” Moseley of course was delighted. Here was an unlooked-for opportunity of travelling to the remotest corners of the earth, of emulating in some degree the example of the great author of the “Voyage of a Naturalist on the ‘Beagle.’” For some time he was engaged in making preparations for the voyage, and in superintending the fitting up of the zoological laboratory on board ship. The [p. ix] “Challenger” started on her cruise in December 1872, not to return till May 1876.

Of the incidents of the voyage little need be said here; they are recorded with inimitable freshness and vigour in the following pages. But Moseley’s share in the scientific work, and his life among his comrades, scientific and naval, deserve mention as showing the catholicity of interest in nature which characterised him, as well as his good humour, good fellowship, and savoir faire.

Ostensibly the “Challenger” expedition was fitted out for the exploration of the greatest depths of the ocean, and in fact the programme was closely adhered to; but to Moseley, who never missed anything, the chief interest lay, not in the contents of the deep sea dredge, which, he tells us, soon grew wearisome in their monotonous sameness, but in the countries visited, where there were innumerable objects on land or on the littoral, neglected because supposed to be accessible or familiar. Nothing came amiss to him; if an object had been described before, he wished to verify the description, and often he added something to it. Then there were numbers of forms requiring closer study—these must be hunted up; there were islands rarely visited by man of which the fauna and flora were practically unknown; there were savage and barbarous races of man, whose primitive customs and implements, fast vanishing before the approach of western civilisation, must be recorded and collected. One of his shipmates * tells me that whenever they arrived at a new place Moseley would ask his colleagues what they intended to work at, so that he might undertake what they did not care for. His anxiety was that the whole ground should be covered, and he was willing to leave all the more apparently interesting work to others, reserving for himself what they rejected. It came about that he did more work than anybody else on the expedition, though his friend, von Willemoes Suhm, might have run him close had he survived. [9] No one doubts now that Moseley’s view of [p. x] the expedition was correct, that the greatest opportunities were those of studying fauna, flora, and races of men, which, to use his own words, “are perishing rapidly day by day, and will soon be like the Dodo—things of the past. The history of these things once gone can never be recovered, but must remain for ever a gap in the knowledge of mankind.”

Throughout the voyage Moseley’s keen eyesight, his powers of enduring fatigue, and the joviality with which he put up with every kind of discomfort or hardship in the pursuit of science, won the admiration of officers and men. When the ship was among the southern ice he remained for hours in the foretop sketching the icebergs; a position peculiarly trying to a landsman, especially in such low temperatures. Always the first to land, he was very reluctant to leave any interesting spot, and he had the utmost confidence that if accidentally left behind, the ship would return for him. He was actually left behind at Kerguelen’s land, having, as usual, stuck to his collecting to the very last. The ship was under sail and standing out of harbour before he was missed, and on searching the shore with glasses Moseley was seen resting quietly under a rock, his handkerchief tied to a stick to show his whereabouts, but not in the least discomposed by the thought of being left behind in so desolate a spot. The following extract of a letter from Lieut. Swire, R.N. shows the estimation in which he was held by his shipmates.

“He brought to his investigations ability and perseverance of no ordinary kind, backed by an originality of mind and an imperturbable good humour, which made him absolutely proof against all the shafts with which naval wit was never tired of trying the mettle of those whom we called our philosophers, and which enabled him at last to completely turn the tables on his funny friends ... Personally I always looked on Moseley as one of my greatest friends, and generally—I think I may say unanimously—he was regarded by us all as a thorough good fellow, and moreover one who was devoted to his work, and always ready to explain to us naval men the drift of what was being worked at by himself and his colleagues. ... I may mention that Moseley’s generous devotion to his friends was strikingly exemplified when von Suhm was suffering from [p. xi] erysipelas, which eventually reached the brain, and killed him. Although the disease was understood to be extremely contagious, so much so that von Suhm was very carefully isolated under a screen on the main deck, Moseley could not be prevailed upon to keep away from his laboratory companion, whom he tended and comforted to the last.”

On the “Challenger’s” return to England Moseley was promptly elected to a fellowship at his old College, Exeter. Never, as Professor Ray Lankester has said, “was a College Fellowship better bestowed—that was in the good old days before Lord Selbourne’s Commission.” [10] He spent several years at Oxford, working out the results of the expedition, publishing during this time his highly important memoirs on the Milleporidae, Stylasteridae and Helioporidae, as well as his report on the true corals dredged during the expedition, the “Notes of a Naturalist on Board the “Challenger,’” and other papers.

His memoir on Peripatus capensis had been written during the voyage, and had been published in the Philosophical Transactions for 1874. To show the importance of these works, I cannot do better than quote the words of the late Professor F.M. Balfour: “By his discovery of a system of tracheal vessels in the Peripatus Mr. Moseley gave a new clue to the origin of tracheae, and showed that the current views on this subject were untenable. His memoir on Peripatus constituted, at the same time, an important addition to our knowledge of the phylogeny of Arthropods. By his investigation on living corals he succeeded in assigning the true zoological position to a special group of these forms, whose systematic position had previously been extremely doubtful; and he discovered a new and hitherto unsuspecting method of formation of the skeleton of a large group of Hydrozoa.” It was in recognition of these solid contributions to zoological science that the Royal Society in the early days of his illness in 1887 awarded him their Royal Medal.

In the summer of 1877 Moseley was commissioned by an English company to report on certain lands in California and Oregon, and took the opportunity of visiting Washington Territory, Puget Sound, and Vancouver Island, and of studying [p. xii] some of the native races of America. On his return he published a book on “Oregon, its Climate, Resources and People,” for which he received a formal vote of thanks from the Legislative Assembly of the State of Oregon. In 1879 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and in the same year was appointed Assistant Registrar to the University of London, which post he held till 1881, when he succeeded his friend and teacher, Professor Rolleston, in the Linacre Professorship of Human and Comparative Anatomy at Oxford. He had in the same year married the youngest daughter of Mr. J. Gwyn Jeffreys, F.R.S., the distinguished conchologist, a lady who shared his tastes, accompanied him on his travels and assisted him in his work, and attended him with unremitting devotion during the four years of illness which preceded his death.

On his arrival at Oxford Professor Moseley had not a few difficulties to contend with. Under Professor Rolleston the subjects of Human Anatomy, Physiology, and Comparative Anatomy were combined in the Linacre Professor; but on his death the subjects were divided, the Linacre chair going to Human and Comparative Anatomy, whilst a separate chair was created for Physiology. This involved an entire remodelling of the previous course, of the collections in the Museum and of the examinations; tasks which Moseley set about with great energy. He engaged the services of Mr. Sydney Hickson, one of Balfour’s pupils, as assistant and demonstrator, introduced all the latest improvements in microscopical technique, organised a complete course of elementary lectures and practical instruction, and himself spared no pains to make the lectures for the advanced students as thorough and comprehensive as possible.

Oxford, for some reason, has not of late years been happy in her attempts to rearrange the course for students of Natural Science, and the separation of the Physiological from the Morphological school had the effect of drawing away many students, who were preparing for a purely medical career, to the former subject. But the excellence and fore of Moseley’s lectures, and the thoroughly practical arrangement of his course, attracted a fair number of students from the first; a number which continued to increase until his illness and consequent [p. xiii] absence from Oxford had the natural effect of disorganising the school which he had been at so much pains to build up.

His lectures cost him great pains to prepare. Every available source of information was drawn upon, nothing that seemed of importance was omitted, and as it was characteristic of Moseley that every well ascertained fact assumed great importance in his mind, the lectures were copious in detail. His pupils thoroughly enjoyed them, though they were a fearful tax on the attention, since he rarely lectured less than an hour and three-quarters.

In the laboratory he diffused a spirit of earnest geniality; abhorring stiffness and ceremony, he made his pupils thoroughly at home, assisting each in his work, was enchanted if he could get them to perform small offices for him, such as drawing a diagram or cutting a series of sections, and was never wearied of giving advice. The students soon came to look on the laboratory as theirchief centre in the University; I, for one, look back on the days spent there as amongst the happiest of my life.

Moseley was essentially sceptical; he would not give his assent to anything that he had not verified himself, and he insisted on his pupils working in the same spirit. He spent an enormous amount of labour in drawing up lengthy practical instructions for the dissection of the types required in the Morphological course—there were eighty-four of them. Every point was first personally verified by him, and he was exceedingly annoyed if any one failed, through negligence, to verify any of the details to which he had drawn attention. To do so was often difficult, as he was extremely skilful in dissection, and could see more in a thick and ill-mounted section than any of us could see in the finest preparation.

These efforts, combined with constant reading—he never allowed any publication to escape his notice—and continuous original research, would have been enough for any man of less robust intellectual and physical constitution; but unfortunately he did not stop there.

If there was one subject that he cared for more than Zoology that subject was Anthropology, and as Linacre Professor he had exceptional opportunities for throwing himself into it. His [p. xiv] predecessor had been famous for his studies in Craniology; Moseley carried on and extended his work. He was largely instrumental in securing the Pitt-Rivers Collection of anthropological objects for the University; he exerted himself to have a suitable building erected in which to house it, and once the Collection was at Oxford, he threw a wonderful surplus of energy into its arrangement. He trained one of his pupils, Henry Balfour, to the work, and spared no pains to fill up gaps, some from his own private collection, others by begging or purchasing from various sources. He could be most persuasive when some rare object was to be got from a reluctant owner, and rarely failed to obtain possession of it and carry it off in triumph to the museum.

Added to all this was much committee work in Oxford and in London. He served twice on the Council of the Royal Society, and was on the Council of the Zoological and Anthropological Societies; he was President of Section D at the meeting of the British Association at Montreal, and was a founder and member of Council of the Marine Biological Association, in which he took a deep interest, taking a large share in drawing up the plans and specifications for a laboratory at Plymouth.

This amount and variety of work was clearly more than he could wisely undertake. For several years he had warnings in the shape of headaches, accompanied by depression, which he would cure by taking long walks in the country, and by knocking off work after dinner for one or two nights; but he could not be persuaded to limit his energies, and the headache was no sooner over than he was harder at work than ever, making up for lost time. Finally his health broke down in June 1887, and although he rallied sufficiently to be able to get out in the August following, he had another serious relapse directly afterwards, and never again recovered his powers. For more than four years he was devotedly nursed by his wife, but in spite of all care and medical attention there was, from the first, but little hope of a complete recovery. His condition had shown considerable improvement for twelve months previous to his death; he was without physical suffering, and was able to take considerable enjoyment in his surroundings, but he succumbed [p. xv] somewhat suddenly to an attack of bronchitis on Nov. 10th, 1891. He leaves, besides his wife, a son and two daughters. [12]

Moseley was of rather more than medium height, and of square powerful build. His endurance and keen sight have already been alluded to. I think that he prided himself most on his powers of throwing: he used to exhibit the method of throwing the boomerang and using the Australian throwing stick in the parks at Oxford, and even when Linacre Professor he has been known to find the temptation to throw at cocoa-nuts in St. Giles’ Fair irresistible. This, of course, was in vacation time. He had much sympathy with the fun and riot of fairs, which he looked upon as a survival of good old days, interesting as a relic of mediaeval times, and commendable for the amusement they give to the people. I remember his coming to me in high dudgeon, and showing me a petition, numerously signed by leading members of the University, against the continuance of St. Giles’ Fair, which is held in the long vacation. “Of course I won’t sign it!” he said; and yet he was one of the principal sufferers, the fair being held opposite his house, and he was one of the few likely to be in residence whilst it was going on. [11]

He was one of the truest men I ever knew, and his truthfulness and scepticism were curiously blended together. He was perfectly incredulous. Anxious to obtain information from every possible source, he would draw out strangers, and listen patiently to their stories; but he was very slow to believe them. Before he would give his belief to any statement, he must verify it for himself, or have the strongest testimony in support of it from independent sources. But once he was satisfied of its accuracy it became part of his personal experience, and his belief, once established, was not to be shaken.

Similarly in social relations, though always courteous and genial, he did not readily give his confidence and friendship to strangers. He was as incredulous of men as of the tales they told, but when once, after sufficient acquaintance, he felt certain of a man’s genuineness, and admitted him to his confidence, he did so without reserve, and was as staunch and steadfast as could be. A friend was a man of whom he was [p. xvi] assured; nothing could shake his belief in him, never would he go back on him in thought or word. It is only fitting, in this connection, to mention his lifelong friendship for Professor Ray Lankester; a friendship begun in early undergraduate days at Oxford, and lasting for life, with as much loyalty on the one side as on the other. Nobody could be more appreciative of a colleague than was Moseley, and the absence of all jealousy is remarkable, as the two were rivals from the first—rivals in the Schools, rivals for Scholarships and Fellowships, and rivals for place and honour in the height of their careers.

Space does not allow me to dwell on pleasant recollection of hospitality at Moseley’s house in St Giles’, Oxford. On such occasions his good humour and geniality were delightful. He was a capital talker, and thoroughly enjoyed a good-humoured passage of arms, in which he rarely failed to come out victorious with some happy and caustic remark, which represented his opponent’s arguments in a most ridiculous light.

He had also a wonderful power of interesting and extracting information out of people whose tastes and opinions differed widely from his own. He was an admirable cicerone in the Oxford museum, and excited the enthusiasm of the most unpromising parties of visitors as he explained the zoological and anthropological treasures under his care. By the same faculty he was a most successful popular lecturer, having an admirable power of giving a vivid description of his subject in unconventional popular language. You could not help feeling that he thoroughly knew and thoroughly believed in everything that he described, and he gave an importance and definition to details which left a lasting impression in the memory.

The loss of one so highly and variously gifted leaves a gap not easily filled up.

It is the destiny of leaders that are they expose themselves the most, they are the first to suffer. But the work of leaders of thought is not altogether vanity. Moseley’s brilliant and always original contributions to Science live after him, as also his influence on his pupils and on scientific progress during his life at Oxford,--the pity of it that it was so short.


*Captain Tizard, R.N., to whom I am indebted for much information relative to Moseley’s life on the “Challenger,” and for assistance during the passage of this book through the press. [Thomas Henry Tizard (1839-1924), he wrote the account of the expedition with Sir John Murray].

Notes added by transcriber

[1] Gilbert Charles Bourne (161-1933) Zoologist. He studied natural sciences at Oxford under Moseley. In 1906 he was elected the Linacre chair of zoology and comparative anatomy, thus becoming one of Moseley’s successors.

[2] Reverend Frederic Rendall, after whom Rendall’s House at Harrow School was named. He was housemaster from 1851-1881). Arthur Evans was in the same house.

[3] Francis Maitland Balfour (1851-1882) British biologist who lost his life while attempting to climb Mont Blanc. He was very highly regarded by his contemporaries. He was invited to succeed Rolleston at Oxford. In 1882 he was appointed to a special chair in Animal Morphology at the University of Cambridge. He was seven years younger than Moseley, who of course actually succeeded Rolleston.

[4] Edwin Ray Lankester (1847-1929) Linacre Professor of Comparative Anatomy from 1891-1898.

[5] Carl von Rokitansky, Bohemian physician, pathologist with a laboratory at the University of Vienna. Jaeger is probably Eduard Jäger von Jaxtthal (1818-1884) Professor of Opthalmology at Vienna. Adam Politzer (1835-1920) Professor of Otology at the University of Vienna. Ferdinand Ritter von Hebra (1816-1880) Dermatologist at the University of Vienna. Braun I cannot identify.

[6] Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig (1816-1895) Professor of Physiology and Comparative Anatomy at the University of Leipzig.

[7] Joseph Norman Lockyer (1836-1920) Scientist and astronomer, he led eight expeditions to observe solar eclipses, in 1871 the expedition went to India (with Moseley).

[8] Non-parasitic freshwater flatworms of Turbellaria class

[9] Rudolf von Willemoes-Suhm (1847-1875) he specialized in crustaceans, he died during the journey from Hawaii to Tahiti and was buried at sea.

[10] Roundell [Palmer], 1st Baron Selborne later 1st Earl of Selborne, chair Universities Commission 1876-80

[11] Moseley lived at 14 St Giles, see, next door to the Lamb and Flag pub and a very short walk from the University Museum. He lived there from 1882 to 1887.

 [12] None of the biographical sources seem very clear about what exactly was wrong with Moseley, or what his cause of death was. Most attribute it, as Bourne does, to too much hard work. It is possible he had a nervous breakdown, or there may have been a more sinister explanation for the 'headaches' that Bourne reports.

Transcribed by AP October 2012

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