[From Manx Quarterly #6, 1909]
Paper read at a Meeting of the Port Erin Debating Society, December 9th, 1905, by Dr. J. Harold Bailey, President of the Society.
The two most eminent men which the of Man has produced were born within fifteen years of each other Edward Forbes, the subject of my paper this evening, being born in 1815, and T. E. Brown, the poet, in 1830. Both were born in Douglas, and, curiously enough, niether of them have distinctively Manx surnames. It is held by some authorities who have studied the relation existing between heredity and genius that a mixed family stock is advantageous. The cases of both these two noted Manxmen might be cited in favour of this view; Brown's grandmother being of an Irish family, while Forbes' forbears were Manx, English and Scottish. The first connection of Forbes' parental ancestors with the Isle of Man was in 1745, when his great-grandfather, David Forbes, of Thornton, being implicated in the Jacobite rising of that date, retired for refuge to the Isle of Man. He married a Miss Quirk, and died in Edinburgh in 1771. His only son, Edward, settled in the Isle of Man, where he acquired the property of Oakhill, near Douglas, and married a Miss Holland, of Manchester. His eldest son, also an Edward, became a banker in Douglas, and married Miss Teare, heiress of two estates in Ballaugh, by whom he had nine children, the subject of my paper being the second child.
His early boyhood, owing to his delicate health, was spent chiefly at home, and he was not sent to school till about twelve years of age. At a very early period his delight in natural history which was later on to become his life-work made its appearance. When about eight years old he began to collect and arrange shells, and stones, and plants, and insects. This task seems to have been quite innate, and not to have been suggested or fostered by any outside influence. When he reached the age of twelve there being no King William's College at that period he attended at Mr Garvin's school in Douglas for four years. He was an eager student and made rapid progress, caring but little for school games, but devoting all his spare time to sketching or to natural history pursuits. These met with but little encouragement; his teachers looked upon them as so much wasted time. His grandmother on one occasion, when seeing him searching for insects in a hedge bank at Ballaugh, remarked in Manx: " I do not believe the whole Isle of Man can save this boy from being a fool." One of his fathe'r's servants once said: "Edward will never be nothing; bringing his weeds and beasties into the house." His father looked upon them as useless pastimes, but built him a study and museum for his specimens.
A few years previously to this, much the same thing had been said of Charles Darwin. Dr. Butler, of Shrewsbury School, once publicly rebuked him for wasting his time on such useless studies, while his father told him that he would become a disgrace to himself and his family.
When Forbes reached the age of 18, the question of his future profession arose. His mother wished him to be a clergyman, his father a physician, but neither of these careers appealed to him. On the ground of his aptitude for sketching and drawing, it was then decided that he should become an artist, and accordingly he was sent to London, in June, 1831. His sketches were not good enough for him to be admitted as a student at the Royal Academy School, so he entered the studio of Mr Sass, an eminent art-teacher of that time. Here he showed insufficient promise, so in the month of October of the same year he returned to the Isle of Man. While in London, his first published article appeared one on " Manx Superstitions" in the " Mirror " newspaper. It was then arranged that Forbes should study for the medical profession at Edinburgh, and he entered at this famous University in November, the journey at that date occupying three days.
The University was fortunate in possessing professors of world-wide renown, and Forbes entered with avidity on the study of chemistry under Professor Hope; anatomy under Professor Knox, who afterwards sank into obscurity and poveirty owing to the odium which was attached to his name in connection with the Burke and Hare murders. In the summer session he studied botany under Professor Graham, and zoology and geology under Professor Jameson, to whose post Forbes himself was to succeed twenty-two years later. The next four years were spent in medical and natural history studies, the latter predominating, for as time went on Forbes became more and more disinclined to make medicine his profession. College vacations were spent in the Isle of Man or in tours on the continent, Norway, France, Switzerland, and Germany being visited. He studied and collected the shells and plants of these various countries, and wrote papers on his researches in Norway. During this period Forbes was one of the pioneers of the use of the dredge for investigating marine zoology, some of the first observations being made in the seas immediately surrounding the Isle of Man. During these student days Forbes showed his many-sided nature. He was no mere student recluse, but entered heartily into the social life of the University, his geniality and high spirits making him hosts of friends. He founded a students' club or brotherhood, and started the University Magazine, contributing to it many articles of a light and humorous character, and verses caricaturing many of the professors.
He did not confine his attention only to methods of observation, but also cultivated the imaginative side of his mind. A notebook which he kept during his student days had its pages divided into two columns, for notes on books which he read : the one column for works of imagination and poetry inspiring books; the other for more purely scientific or observational works informing books. A vast number of volumes of poetry and philosophy are mentioned, indicating a wide range of reading. By these means his mind was in the process of receiving an all-round culture, and was saved from being too narrowly specialised.
When the time came for Forbes to sit for his medical degree, he at the last moment withdrew, and did not sit for the examination. His mother had recently died, and it was chiefly by her wish that he was to become a physician. His intention was to concentrate his attention on botany and geology, but chiefly zoology, with a view of ultimately becoming a lecturer or professor of one or other of these subjects.
He was enabled to carry out his ideas by his father allowing him an independent income, so he had no immediate need of earning a livelihood. With some men this, of course, might have stifled effort and not been beneficial, but in the case of Forbes, with so great a love and zeal for natural history pursuits, it was providential in enabling him to continue his researches and studies. There are several other well-known instances where independent means have forwarded rather than hindered the production of important and useful work, literary or scientific. I may cite the instances of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Darwin, and suggest this topic as a point for discussion to-night.
In Germany, for a long period, it has been the practice for many young men, after completing their university or apprentice training, to travel for a certain period Wanderjahre, it is called in order to gain experience of new places, people, and methods, before settling down to their life-work. Forbes' Wanderjahre was able to be prolonged for six years of travel and study.
At first he studied at the then chief natural history centre of Europe the Jardin des Planter it. Paris, where the famous Geoffroy Saint Hilaire lectured. His thoughts were here specially directed to the question of the geographical distribution of animals a problem which, later on, he was to do so much to elucidate. After the winter session, he went on a botanical tour to the South of France and North Africa.
The next four years were busy ones of travel, study, writing, lecturing, and dredging. Of interest to the Isle of Man its his first published volume, a small work on the shells published in 1838, entitled "Malacologia Monensis." Forbes intended to bring out a work dealing with the whole of the natural history of the Isle of Man, but this volume, and a chapter as the plants contributed to Cumming's " Isle of Man," were the only portions he completed. At the annual meetings of the British Association, Forbes usually contributed one or more important scientific papers, and his love of social intercourse led him to organise a dinner, attended by his fellow-zoologists who were present at the British Association in Birmingham in 1839, and this function has been continued ever since at each annual meeting, under the title of the "Red Lions." The next year he wan largely occupied with preparing a work the British starfishes, which was published in 1841.
In April of this year he was appointed Honorary Naturalist to H.M.S. Beacon, which had been commissioned for a survey expedition to the Levant. He was now placed in most favourable circumstances for pursuing his researches. Dredging in the Agean Sea yielded important results, and led him to formulate his conclusions as to varying zones of marine life according to the depth of the seas. Numerous islands were visited, stays of several weeks' duration in some eases, and the geology, botany, and zoology studied, and collections made.
In after years, Forbes wrote as follows of the charm of the Mediterranean Sea, and I will quote an extract to illustrate his literary style : " Who that has ever visited the borders of this classic sea has not felt, at the first sight of its waters, a glow of reverent rapture akin to devotion, and an instinctive sensation of thanksgiving at being permitted to stand before these hallowed waves ? All that concerns the Mediterranean is of the deepest interest to civilised man, for the history of its progress is the history, of the development of the world; the memory of the great men who have lived and died around its banks; the recollection of the undying works that have come thence to delight us for ever; the story of patient research and brilliant discoveries connected with every physical phenomenon presented by its waves and currents, and with every order of creatures dwelling in and around its waters. The science of the Mediterranean is the epitome of the science of the world. The very name of that inland sea is the text from which the sermon on all other seas must be preached."
At the beginning of 1842, Forbes, together with a companion, left the Beacon for a three months' exploration of Lycia, in Asia Minor his results being afterwards published in 1847 in two volumes, entiled "Travels in Lycia."
When returning to the Beacon in a small native boat, Forbes unfortunately developed a dangerous attack of intermittent fever, which left effects on his health for the rest of his life. About this time his father suffered pecuniary losses, and his resources were necessarily out off. He was arranging for a further tour to the Red Sea, having been offered a grant from the British Association for the investigation of its marine life; but Forbes returned to London, where he had been appointed as Professor of Botany at King's College, London, at a salary of £100 a year. He also was appointed as Secretary to the Geological Society and Curator of its Museum, at a salary of £150 a year. This latter post tied him to London, and gave him no opportunity for travel and original research, and two years later he was glad to exchange it for the position of Palaeontologist to the Geological Survey, at a larger salary. His duties were to examine and report on the fossils obtained during the surveys, and also to pay visits to districts where the surveys were in progress. This gave Forbes an opportunity of researches in his favourite subject that of the relation of zoology to geology and gave him much material for important papers on the subject.
In 1845, at the early age of 30, Forbes was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, the highest scientific honour to be obtained. He had previously been elected a Fellow of the Linnaean and Geological Societies. In 1848. Forbes married Miss Ashworth, daughter of the late General Sir C. Ashworth. The next six years were fully occupied with lecturing in London, and with field work for the Geological Survey in various parts of England, Wales, and Ireland, Forbes making important discoveries, more especially in Dorset and the Isle of Wight. He was also responsible for the arrangement of the collections in the Geological Museum of the Royal School of Mines, at which institution he was appointed Professor of Natural History as applied to Geology. He also brought out, in conjunction with Mr Hanley, four volumes on the "History of British Mollusoa." Finally, in May, 1854, at the age of 39, he reached the goal of his ambitions: on Professor Jameson's death he was appointed to the Chair of Natural History in the University of Edinburgh, and immediately took up his duties for the summer session, lecturing five days a week, and conducting field excursions for his students on Saturdays.
The summer vacation was partly spent in London, arranging specimens in the Geological Museum, and he attended the British Association meeting in Liverpool, being President of the Geological Section. In November, he commenced the work of the winter session at Edinburgh, but after the first week he was seized with illness, which proved fatal on November 18th, and he was buried in Edinburgh.
Such are the chief facts in the life of this eminent Manxman, who, when we consider the early age of 39 at which he died, accomplished an enormous amount of useful work. Although engaged in teaching at one time or another the three subjects of botany, zoology, and geology, he brought out systematic works on Starfishes and on Molluscs, wrote "Travels in Lycia," and contributed upwards of 200 papers to various journals or proceedings of learned societies. His observational faculties were enhanced by his reflective faculties, and he had great powers of generalising from observed facts, though some of his bolder hypotheses have, in the light of later knowledge, proved untenable.
His greatest service was, perhaps, rendered by emphasising the co-ordination between zoology and botany on the one hand, and geology on the other, pointing out how past geological changes can be interpreted by a knowledge of existing plants and animals, and showing that past geological changes must be studied in order to solve many questions of geographical distribution of plants and animals.
His most illuminating paper was one he wrote in 1846, "On the Connexion between the Existing Fauna and Flora of the British Isles, and the Geological Changes which have affected their Area." In this he deals with the various distributional groups of plants and animals in the British Isles, and endeavours to trace their derivation. Although written over sixty years ago, it is still quoted in all modern works on the subject. We must remember that Forbes died four years before Darwin and Wallace published their theories on the " Origin of Species," which have so profoundly modified all biological thought. Darwin's name reminds me that I must not omit to make mention of the high opinion he held as to Forbes' merits. In 1844, Darwin left directions, in case of his death, for his materials which he was collecting for his species theory, to be put into the hands of Lyell, and goes on to say: " As the editor must be a geologist as well as a naturalist, the next best editor would be Professor Forbes, of London."
Were it possible for Forbes to re-visit his native Island, he would find a Biological Station equipped at Port Erin for _ investigation of the marine life of the seas; he would find a Natural History Society now established in the Isle of Man., whose members are investigating its natural history. His idea of a work dealing with the natural history of the Isle of Man he would find in process of being more fully carried out. The geology has been fully described in the Memoir published by the Geological Survey. The birds of the Island have been monographed by Mr Ralfe; lists of the plants and butterflies and moths have been published by the Natural History Society, and other groups are being worked out at the present time.
Forbes' memory has not been entirely neglected in the Island: there is a marble bust in the Government Buildings, Douglas, of which there is a cast in the Port Erin Biological Station.