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The X Club: Fraternity of Victorian Scientists

  • J. Vernon Jensen

In 1864 nine eminent scientists, who had long been intimate friends, formed a dining club in order to prevent their drifting apart due to their various duties, and in order to further the cause of science. The club, which acquired the title of “X Club”, held monthly meetings from October to June, and was extremely active for two decades, but then gradually lessened in vitality. It served as a highly significant fraternity of scientists, and the regular communication which it afforded helped the members to marshall their efforts on behalf of science against what they felt to be the obstructionist activities and ideas of conservative scientists, certain theologians, and non-scientific society figures.

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1 Royal Institution, Journals of Thomas Archer Hirst (hereafter cited as Hirst Journals), vol. iv, fol. 1702. I wish to express my thanks to the authorities of the Royal Institution for permission to consult and quote from materials in their possession, and to the Librarian, Mr. Stallybrass, for his helpful co-operation. See also Hirst's minutes of the meeting, as quoted in SirFrankland, Edward, Sketches from the Life of Edward Frankland (London, 1902), 150. Research for this study of the X Club was greatly facilitated by financial assistance from the Graduate School and the McMillan Fund of the University of Minnesota.

2 Royal Institution, Journals of John Tyndall, vol. iii, fol. 1260.

3 Spencer, Herbert, An Autobiography (New York. 1904), ii, 133. See also: Imperial College of Science and Technology, South Kensington, The Huxley Papers, vol. lxx, item 7. I am grateful to the Governors of the Imperial College of Science and Technology for permission to consult and quote materials in the Huxley collection, and to Mrs. Jeanne Pingree, Archivist of The Huxley Papers, for her very kind co-operation.

4 “Professor Tyndall”, The Nineteenth Century, xxxv (1894), 10.

6 For insight into the nature and activities of the Lazzaroni, consult the following biographies: Dupree, A. Hunter, Asa Gray (Cambridge, Mass., 1959), and Lurie, Edward, Louis Agassiz (Chicago, 1960). Understandably, the latter is more full in its discussion of the Lazzaroni, since Agassiz was one of its leading members, whereas Gray was excluded from the group. See also Dupree, A. Hunter, “The Founding of the National Academy of Sciences—a Reinterpretation”, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, ci (1957), 434440.

7 See the comprehensive work by Crosland, Maurice, The Society of Arcueil: A View of French Science at the Time of Napoleon I (London, 1967).

8 The eight were elected Fellows in the following years: Hooker, (1847), Busk, (1850), Huxley, (1851), Tyndall, (1852), Frankland, (1853), Spottiswoode, (1853), Lubbock, (1857), and Hirst, (1861).

9 Spencer to Hooker, , 28 03 1874, Duncan, David, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer (New York, 1908), i, 223.

10 Minutes, as quoted in Huxley, Leonard, Life and Letters of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (London, 1918), i, 543.

11 Minutes, as quoted in Frankland, op. cit. (1), 160.

12 Hirst Journals, vol. iv, fol. 1963.

13 Ibid., fol. 914.

14 Ibid., fol. 2130. See also Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, xxxvi, 74; Huxley to Tyndall, 9 Nov. 1883, Huxley, Leonard, Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley (New York, 1916), ii, 66.

15 Hooker was one of the original 47 members; Busk, Huxley and Tyndall were elected in 1855, Frankland, in 1859, Lubbock, in 1860, Spottiswoode, in 1861, and Hirst, in 1865 (Bonney, T. G., Annals of the Philosophical Club of the Royal Society (London, 1919), passim).

16 Laurie, , op. cit. (6), 183.

17 Tyndall to Hooker, undated 1867, Huxley Papers, vol. viii, fol. 344; Life and Letters of Hooker, i, 542; ii, 108; Frankland, , op. cit. (1), 155.

18 Life and Letters of Huxley, i, 432.

19 As quoted in Frankland, , op. cit. (1), 157.

20 Vol. iv, fol. 2116.

21 Life and Letters of Hooker, i, 541.Spencer, (op. cit. (3), ii, 139) more fully described The Reader as a “weekly paper (of The Spectator form) predominantly literary, and in a smaller degree scientific, which had been founded a year or two before by Mr. T. Hughes, Q.C., Mr. Ludlow, and others who, dissatisfied with existing papers of the class, were desirous of having one which should be candid and impartial in its criticisms, and liberal in its views of affairs—not political affairs so much as social affairs”.

22 Vol. iv, fol. 1702. See also Hirst's minutes, as quoted in Frankland, , op. cit. (1), 150.

23 Spencer, Autobiography, ii, 137.

24 Duncan, , op. cit. (9), i, 153.

25 Spencer, Autobiography, ii, 140.

27 Ibid., 138.

28 Minutes, as quoted in Life and Letters of Hooker, i, 543.

29 Crosland, op. cit. (7), passim.

30 As quoted in Life and Letters of Hooker, i, 542.

31 Ibid., 543.

33 Hirst Journals, vol. iv, fol. 1840.

34 Huxley Papers, vol. viii, fol. 176.

35 Supra, 1. For a discussion of the attitudes of the members of the Society of Arcueil to religion, see Crosland, op. cit. (7), 9194.

36 Frankland, op. cit. (1), 51.

37 As quoted in Life and Letters of Hooker, i, 542.

39 Ibid., 543.

40 For a discussion of this “Ayrton Affair”, see ibid., ii, 159–177; Turrill, William Bertram, J. D. Hooker, Botanist, Explorer, and Administrator (London, 1963), 123125; Eve, A. S. and Creasey, C. H., Life and Work of John Tyndall (London, 1945), 160166.

41 Some of Tyndall's vigorous writings on the subject were published in 1887 by William Blackwood and Sons in a one-penny pamphlet entitled, “Mr. Gladstone and Home Rule”. In Tyndall's urgent language, one can almost sense the memory of his martyred distant relative, William Tyndale, playing a contributory role. For some discussion of Tyndall's Unionist views, see Eve, and Creasey, , op. cit. (40), 17, 248, 264267, 277278.

42 Huxley Papers, vol. xvi, fol. 273. For a discussion of the Unionist views of men of science in general, see Hammond, J. L., Gladstone and the Irish Nation (London, 1938), 540553. For Huxley's opposition to Home Rule, see Life and Letters of Huxley, ii, 132134, 144145, 179, 187188.

43 1 January 1888, Huxley Papers, vol. viii, fol. 262.

44 4 January 1888, ibid., fol. 263.

45 Spencer, , Autobiography, ii, 134.

46 Life and Letters of Huxley, ii, 120.

47 Ibid., i, 281. Hirst (supra, 2) certainly suspected it!

48 Life and Letters of Huxley, i, 282.

49 “Tyndall”, The Nineteenth Century, xxxv (1894), 11.

51 Spencer, Autobiography, ii, 135.

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