I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about George Busk. He was a surgeon and paleontologist who lived in London in the nineteenth century (at the same time as Darwin) and he studied everything from sea moss to cave bears–even human skulls. Over the past few years, I’ve sifted through dozens of Busk’s old notebooks, tracked down many of his surviving letters, and read his scientific publications. Despite all this research, I’ve found Busk to be a difficult man to understand. He was quiet, humble, and frankly, the history of Victorian Science seems to have bulldozed right over him.
Although he’s not well remembered, Busk accomplished many interesting things in his day. Despite being a silent figure who refused to make waves and failed to end up in textbooks, there’s one thing that becomes clear when examining the science of his time (particularly biology): he was everywhere. Don’t believe me? Here are three scenes from history that Busk played an important role in–each a moment that was monumental in the history of science:
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Scene 1: Introducing Darwin’s Theory. July 1, 1858.
Where: A meeting of the Linnean Society, London.
What: The first public reading of Darwin and Wallace’s papers on natural selection.
Why is Busk important here? Busk was the zoological secretary of the Linnean Society at the time, so he was instrumental in getting Darwin and Wallace’s papers pushed through to the meeting in a short timeframe. He was also quite possibly the person that read the paper aloud to the Society. Let’s meditate on that for a minute: the first time Darwin’s theory was being read in public, and this guy did the reading? Crazy!
Scene 2: The Neanderthal comes to Britain. April 1861, London
What: The English-speaking world first reads about the strange cranium discovered in the Neander Valley in 1856.
Why is Busk important here? Busk was the one who translated the paper from the original German. Following his translation, he added his own remarks on the skull and illustrated it from various views. His paper–along with his illustrations–allowed many other scientists to get involved with the debate over what the Neanderthal truly was. The first scientifically recognized Neanderthal and Busk was central to its dispersal!
Scene 3: “An event, probably of some importance…” Thursday, November 3, 1864.
Where: St George’s Hotel, Albemarle Street, London.
What: The first ever meeting of the X Club, a small group of Victorian scientists including famous figures such as Huxley, Tyndall, and others. The influential group pledged a “devotion to science, pure and free, untrammeled by religious dogmas” (Hirst journals 6 Nov 1864). They went on to meet every month for decades and were incredibly influential throughout the nineteenth century.
Why is Busk important here? Busk chaired the first X Club meeting. The oldest member by almost 2 decades, Busk was the thoughtful, careful elder member of the group. Additionally, his wife came up with the club’s name, suggesting that they call themselves the X because X could stand for anything, and therefore they weren’t tied to any particular “dogma.”
These scenes illustrate Busk’s presence–if not central role–in important moments of Victorian science. There are plenty of others, as well; for example Busk’s edits on Darwin’s Origin of Species as well as Descent of Man, or the time Busk realized that Neanderthals were, in fact, a distinct group of humans–rather than just a weird, diseased individual. All these moments lead me to believe Busk deserves just a little credit in the textbooks…or at least deserves to be the focus of a blog post!