Review of Reviews,  9 (1894), 21–26.

Character Sketch. Professor Tyndall. By Grant Allen

Grant Allen


Regular Feature, Biography

Relevant illustrations:

photo; eng. [3]


Evolution, Scientific Naturalism, Lecturing, Darwinism, Physics, Biology, Philosophy, Specialization, Genius, Nationalism, Chemistry, Education, Schools, Socialism, Laboratories, Methodology, Imagination, Electromagnetism, Patronage, Popularization, Cultural Geography, Heat, Materialism, Language, Religion, Controversy, Sound, Bacteriology, Politics, Liberalism, Conservatism, Radicalism

    Announces that with the death of John Tyndall 'the world has lost one of the prime leaders in the great revolution of the nineteenth century'. The 'still militant movement' that led this revolution twenty years ago was commonly identified with 'the united names of "Spencer, Huxley, Tyndall"', and 'the succession of names in that once familiar trio was right and significant. The men were mentioned in the order of their relative importance'. Tyndall's subordinate role in this group was as 'the orator and the physicist. He had the gift of the gab. He could speak with tongues, where the other two could only think and write and permeate'. The 'name of Darwin' is 'not included' in this 'trinity of evolutionary leaders' because, lacking the 'philosophic roundness and completeness' of the others, he was a 'biological specialist' who 'stuck to his spécialité with that infinite patience and that infinite capacity for taking pains about detail which constitute genius [....] He knew his métier'. (21) Points out that Tyndall 'retained to the last no small physical traces of his Hibernian ancestry' and 'was a thoroughgoing Celt in physique and temperament'; the English lineage of his Ulster family only making them become '"more Irish than the Irish",—ipsis Hibernis Hiberniores' (21–22). Describes Tyndall's early career teaching at the 'middle class college' of Queenswood, although noting that 'some flavour of socialism still clung about' the old Owenite institution and that the college was 'progressive' enough to allow Edward Frankland to 'set up in it the first practical laboratory ever introduced into a school in England' (22–23). Records that Tyndall's 'German training [at the University of Marburg] did marvels for him: that Teutonic schooling in method helped largely to counterbalance the natural weak points of the Celtic temperament', although he nevertheless 'retained to the last his Celtic vividness of insight'. Comments that when Tyndall returned to England in the early 1850s it 'was not so hard then as it is now for a rising man to attract attention', and soon 'London, that great heterogeneous London, accepted him frankly as the representative physicist', for while the 'orthodox physicists of the Universities and of the North' were geographically distant, 'Tyndall was there, on the spot, audible and visible. He was the Royal Institution. He was also Physics'. (23) Insists that Tyndall was 'Liberal in fibre and progressive in most directions' and was only led into conservative positions, especially on the question of Irish home rule, by the 'misfortune' of being 'born an Irish Protestant' and the deleterious 'influence of Carlyle, the evil fairy of the last half century'. Also suggests that 'it is noteworthy that all the men of that first generation who spread the evolutionary doctrine among us are now reactionary in politics', while the 'younger brood whom they trained have gone on to be Radicals, Fabians, Socialists'. (25) Although 'it must be admitted that Tyndall's language gave a greater handle for the foolish accusation' of materialism 'than that of his more philosophic colleagues' (24), he should nevertheless be remembered as one who 'was not a materialist', but who saw the 'universe' as being 'full of terrible, and often as yet inexplicable, factors' (26).

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