Today, a Victorian naturalist. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The fervent British
naturalist Philip Henry Gosse was born in 1810. He
taught himself biology as he traveled Canada, the
United States, and the Caribbean. Then he began
writing about flora and fauna. He didn't marry
until he was thirty-eight. His wife, Emily, was
four years older than he, and a fine scholar. The
marriage was almost painfully perfect. They shared
an intense belief in a completely literal form of
Christianity. They supported themselves by writing
books; and they were immersed in one another.
A son Edmund was born in 1849. But Emily contracted
breast cancer when he was only nine, and she died,
stoically, in great pain. Edmund Gosse grew up to
become a great British writer and, in 1907, he
published (anonymously) a book with the title,
Father and Son. Finally, in the preface to
the fourth printing, he said that his veil of
anonymity had been shredded, and hiding his
identity could henceforth be only an affectation.
He opens with the words, "This book is the record
of a struggle between two temperaments, two
consciences and almost two epochs." He truly does
record the struggle between two epochs. Edmund
describes how, in 1857, Philip Gosse grappled with
the growing implications of the geologic record. He
was an admirer of Darwin, who had yet to publish
Origin of Species. Philip knew that
intellectual devastation was coming and he wanted
to avert it.
So he wrote a book, Ompholos, which means navel
or belly button. Did Adam have one? Yes he did,
said Gosse, because God created everything in its
complete form, as though it had a history. Adam's
navel, like the geologic record, was placed here
intact. God gave us a history, even though
we didn't actually have one.
Gosse thought this would instantly resolve the
developing conflict -- that geologists and
religionists alike would embrace it and make peace.
Instead, both dismissed it as nonsense -- and that,
just as his beloved wife was dying horribly.
Finally, of course, came the last great wound --
the secularization of Edmund.
When twenty-year-old Edmund made a trip home and
was met with the usual spiritual interrogation, he
reacted in anger, rupturing what'd been a close
relationship. In the book Father and Son, a much
older Edmund remembers his much-loved father, but
sadly. He now knows they lived on opposite sides of
a vast divide.
I learned all
this after I'd run across an old Gosse book in the
library: Evenings at the Microscope,
written the year after Emily died. It led me
through the formation of animals and plants,
pouring out a profound love for the whole of
nature. I read about human and animal hair, flies
feet, protozoa, and paramúciums.
The sheer beauty of it drew me in until it sent me
looking for the story behind it. In the end, I was
drawn into a strange tale of science as both
cultural disruption and reconciliation. I'll be
trying to sort out Philip and Edmund Gosse for a
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
E. Gosse, Father and Son: A Study of Two
Temperaments. (Fourth Impression) London:
William Heinemann, 1908.
P. H. Gosse, Evenings at the Microscope; or,
Researches Among the Minuter Organs and Forms of
Animal Life. New York: D. Appleton and
Company, 1896. (Authorized edition, first published
A. Thwaite, E. Gosse: a Literary Landscape,
1849-1928. Chicago: The Uni-versity of Chicago
See also the Dictionary of National
Biography article on "Gosse, Philip Henry
(1810-1888)", and this web site.
Frontispiece of Fathers and Sons
photograph of Philip and Edmund Gosse (Edmund was
eight years old.)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.