[From Manx Note Book vol 3]


EDWARD FORBES, BORN AT DOUGLAS ON THE 12TH OF FEBRUARY, 1815, WAS THE SECOND AND ELDEST SURVIVING SON OF Edward Forbes, of Oakhill and Cronkbane, near Douglas, and Jane, eldest daughter and heiress of William Teare, of Corvalla and Ballabeg,Ballaugh. His great-grandfather, David, one of the Forbes's of Watertown, was born in 1707, and, being implicated in the Jacobite troubles of 1745, settled in the Isle of Mann for a time; his grandfather, Edward, acquired the property of Oakhill; and his father, also Edward, was a banker in Douglas. His mother belonged to an old Manx family, who had held the same estates in Ballaugh for several centuries. She was an amiable and pious, as well as an intellectual woman. One of her chief pleasures was in cultivating flowers and rare plants, so that it is possible that her son may have imbibed his early fondness for botany from the great interest he saw her take in such things. Till his twelfth year Edward Forbes was delicate and so was not sent to school. He lived, accordingly, in a small circle of relatives and friends, who greatly loved and admired him, and who left him, almost uncontrolled, to occupy himself intellectually as he pleased, At a very early age he was looked upon by his family as a child of no ordinary mind. Before he was ten years old he had become a confirmed naturalist. A small wing had been added to the house as a museum for him, which he stored with minerals, fossils, shells, dried sea-weeds, flowers,butterflies, &c., all duly classified. He had already begun his geological studies and exhibited a great taste for drawing. His school course at the Athole House Academy, in Douglas, was thus described by his old master, Garvin:-" Edward Forbes was, I think, under my care for about four and a half years, during which time he read the usual short course in classics, science., &c., but was not what would be called a good scholar. That this was not for want of abilities, I need not tell you, but because his time and attention were devoted to other pursuits. His pencil was seldom or never out of his hand ; his latin, as other exercises, were curiosities there never was a vacant space left on his paper, every corner filled up with a drawing of some creature or other . . . . . His conduct as a school boy was excellent. I have no recollection of having ever had to punish him for misconduct of any kind." He was a great favourite with his school-fellows, though he did not share in any of their games. One of them wrote of him as follows:-" Edward was always a remarkably quiet, studious boy. Such a thing as a fight never entered his head, and he was never known to have quarrelled with any other boys. His temper was always extremely gentle and sweet; and, at the same time, he was so looked up to by the rest of the boys that he was always made umpire in their disputes. . . . All felt that he was different from themselves, but no one exactly knew how. We all felt his superiority, but no on us thought of being jealous, he was so unlike the rest of us".

Edward ForbesAll his spare time was spent in natural history pursuits which, except by his mother', seem to have been generally regarded with good natured tolerance not unmixed with contempt. As an instance of this it is said that his old grandmother, Teare, remarked of him:-" Ta mee credjal naugh vod slane Ellan Vannin sauall yn guilley shoh veih cheet dy ve ommidan," (" I believe the whole Isle of Mann cannot save this boy from being a fool.") When he was sixteen his parents considered that his calling in life should be decided upon * They entertained exaggerated ideas of his skill as an artist, and could much better appreciate his drawings than his geological or botanical speculations. He therefore, hoping for sufficient leisure to follow science and literature also, consented to make art his profession. He was placed under the tuition of Sass, a well-known London artist, who, however, held out so little encouragement to him to make painting his profession, that he soon abandoned all thought of formally prosecuting it. By his father's request he went to Edinburgh in October 1831 to study medicine there, that he might have a profession to fall back upon in case of necessity. Though ostensibly engaged in studying medicine he practically devoted his whole time and energies to his favourite subjects. He cultivated his taste for natural history under the able teaching of such men as Professors Jameson and Graham. In his vacations he went on botanizing and dredging excursions, and he made himself well acquainted with the fauna of the Irish sea on the shores of his native Isle. In 1833 at the age of eighteen, in company with a fellow student: he made an excursion to Norway, where he spent some weeks exploring the wild and romantic districts of the country, adding to his geological and botanical observations. Already, at this time, Edward Forbes began to direct his attention to botanical geography, the forerunner of those deep and philosophical views respecting the geographical distribution of the flora and fauna of the world, which he subsequently developed, and which constitute one of the most interesting and leading features of all his writings. The summer of 1834 appears to have been mainly spent in dredging the Irish sea, and continuing the exploration of the botany, zoology, and geology of the Isle of Mann. During the same period of 1835 Forbes made a tour through France, Switzerland, and Germany, and gained thereby more natural history information, and achieved more original results than any of his previous excursions had yielded. The spring of 1836 saw Forbes finally renounce medicine, and devote himself formally to the study of nature. During the summer he visited the Hebrides and Skye, attended the meeting of the British Association at Bristol, and finally went to the Isle of Mann. About the close of November he set out for Paris, with the view of spending the winter there among the classes and collections of the Sorbonne and of the jardin des Plantes. In the spring he went to Algiers where he investigated the land and fresh-water Mollusca. An account of this expedition was published in the "Annals of Natural History" for May 1839 With the same view of prosecuting his researches in natural history, he visited Styria and Carniola in 1838, his remarks on which were published in the "Proceedings of the Botanical Society." On his return, he read a paper before the British Association at Newcastle, entitled "On the Distribution of Terrestrial Pulmonifera in Europe."* In the following spring, 1839, he read a paper before the Wernerian Society on the Manx Starfishes. In the summer of this year he delivered at Edinburgh, whilst still a student, a course of scientific lectures on zoology, as well as one of a more popular bearings of zoology nature in which he pointed out the be on geology, thus indicating the commencement of those views which, by their subsequent development and their growing importance in his hands, have exercised such a beneficial and practical influence on the study of geology. The summer of 1840, was spent in dredging in Ireland and the Isle of Mann and in working at his "History of British Star-fishes and other Echinodermes," a delightful volume, charmingly illustrated by his own pencil, which was published in 1841. The time was now fast approaching when Edward Forbes was to find a wider sphere for the exercise of his brilliant genius. In February, 1841, he obtained the appointment of Naturalist to H.M.S. surveying ship Beacon, Captain Graves, then employed in completing the survey of the coast of Asia Minor and the adjacent islands: an appointment more suited to his tastes and to his talents could not have been devised. He had here full play for the prosecution of his favourite pursuits of botany, zoology, and geology. Already well acquainted with the flora and fauna of the European Continent and their geographical distribution, he had now an opportunity of tracing their future extension to the East, and of examining the first appearance of that Oriental facies which they put on in the Eastern portions of the Mediterranean. Nor was Edward Forbes the man to neglect such an opportunity. During this and the following year he pursued his botanical and zoological researches with unwearied energy. It was during his various excursions in the Beacon and her boats that he followed out those researches with the dredge, amongst the Islands of the Aegean Sea and on the adjacent coast of Asia Minor, which alone would have immortalized his name. At the same time he neglected no occasion of studying the geology and botany of the regions in which he visited, but the dredge and its results will ever remain the chief glory of this expedition. The results of these researches were made known to the public in the "Report on the Mollusca and Radiata of the Aegean Sea and on their Distribution, considered as bearing on Geology," made to the British Association at their meeting at Cork in 1843. The calculations were based on more than one hundred fully-recorded dredging operations in various depths from 1 to 130 fathoms, and In many localities from the shores of the Morea to those of Asia Minor. And with that modesty which ever characterized Edward Forbes in all his works, he adds that the merit of the results is mainly due to Captain Graves. The most important fact which has resulted from this valuable report respecting the development and distribution of animal and vegetable life in the depths of the sea is that of the almost uniform occurrence of particular species in particular zones of depth. During his stay in the Mediterranean he made several excursions into Lycla, where he and his companions explored and determined the sites of twenty ancient cities hitherto unknown to geographers, and the names of fifteen were identified by inscriptions found among the ruins. His life was at one time in danger from the malignant malaria of the country, when there can be little doubt were sown the seeds of that disease which eventually put an end to his life so prematurely. He, however, gradually recovered, and was at the point of proceeding to Egypt and the Red Sea on a dredging expedition in the autumn of 1842, when he heard that he had been elected to fill the chair of Botany in King's College, London. At the end of the year he was also appointed Assistant- Secretary of the Geological Society of London, the duties of which important office he performed to the satisfaction of all concerned. Early in 1843 he joined the Linnaean Society. In February he delivered an able lecture before the Royal Institution on "The light thrown on Geology by submarine researches," one of the results of which was that he was offered the Fullerian Professorship of natural history. He was, however, obliged to decline it, not having time to fulfil its duties. On the first of May he began his botanical lectures at King's College. At the end of 1844, on the establishment of the Museum of Practical Geology in connection with the Ordnance Geological Survey, Professor Forbes was appointed paleontologist to that institution, and, consequently, resigned his post at the Geological Society. When the museum was removed to Jermyn Street he became its Professor of Natural History. Here then his talents had full space for their development, and Edward Forbes was not slow in bringing to bear on his numerous avocations the knowledge he had so industriously collected. Combining as he did a lively and vivid imagination with a mature and well-disciplined judgment he was enabled to employ with effect that power of generalization and abstraction which he so eminently possessed. His enlightened and comprehensive views on the numerous branches of natural history which he cultivated, and which were founded mainly on his own experience, caused him from henceforth to be looked up to as one of the first of British naturalists, and the works which he now published bear ample testimony to his well-founded reputation. Nor was it in England alone that his merits were recognized. In France, in Germany, in Italy, wherever men of science were to be found, the name of Edward Forbes was equally acknowledged as deserving a place in the first rank of scientific merit.



The memoire of Edward Forbes by George Wilson, M.D., F.R.S.E., and Archibald Geikie, F.R.S.E., F.G.S., has been largely made use of in the compilation of this article.

*In this year his 'Malacologia Monensis, a Catalogue of the Manx Mollusca,



Back index next

see Manx Worthies

Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 1999