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  Robert Edmond Grant (1793–1874), by Thomas Herbert Maguire, 1852 Robert Edmond Grant (1793–1874), by Thomas Herbert Maguire, 1852
Grant, Robert Edmond (1793–1874), comparative anatomist and transmutationist, was born in Edinburgh on 11 November 1793. He was the seventh son in the family of twelve sons and two daughters of Alexander Grant (d. 1808), a wealthy writer to the signet, and Jane Edmond. Robert was the only son to stay in Britain, the others mostly joining the navy or the East India Company. After Edinburgh high school (1803–8), he used his inheritance—his father died in 1808—to study and travel for two decades.

Edinburgh University

At Edinburgh University, Grant studied classics (1808), then medicine (1809–14). He was president of the Medico-Chirurgical Society in 1812. Inducted into the Royal Medical Society by Marshall Hall in 1811, he became its president in 1814. Of his four papers there, one, ‘On the comparative anatomy of the brain in the class Mammalia’ in 1814, twitted his mentor John Gordon for his anti-mechanist orthodoxy and attacks on Franz Gall. Grant was already diverging from his presbyterian teachers in a period of growing regency radicalism. Another paper, on the circulation of the blood in the foetus (which cited Erasmus Darwin), became his MD thesis in 1814.

In 1815 Grant left Edinburgh to attend Henri de Blainville's course in Paris, and then to study in Rome, Florence, and Germany. An inveterate walker, he had crossed the Alps seven times by foot before he arrived back in Scotland in 1820. A licentiate (1825) and fellow (1827) of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, he practised medicine for a while. He attended Robert Jameson's natural history course in 1823 and lectured on invertebrate anatomy in John Barclay's school in 1824, although he was unsympathetic to Barclay's anti-reductionism; in the same year he was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He witnessed James Hall's experiments on the artificial formation of rocks by heat, which stimulated Grant's cooling-earth explanation of fossil development.

Grant, who was a Francophile, specialized, like Lamarck, in the ‘lower’ invertebrates, and followed Jean Lamouroux's studies on the little-known colonial ‘zoophytes’ (Hydrozoa and Gorgonia), particularly the ‘moss animals’ (Bryozoa), corals, and sponges. He published twenty papers on invertebrates in 1825–7, most in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal and Edinburgh Journal of Science (which he conducted temporarily). He described six new Scottish sponges and introduced the word ‘Porifera’. He delineated the sponges' canal structure, establishing that they generated a water current and had separate entrance and raised exit pores. A serial progressionist like Lamarck and Blainville, he linked the sponges into a graduated sequence, which he believed reflected their ancestry. Demonstrating that the freshwater Spongilla friabilis (which he was first to section) had unraised faecal orifices, he considered it ‘more ancient than the marine sponges, and most probably their original parent’ (Grant, 270). Where Lamarck ranked sponges below the colonial polyp Alcyonium, Grant interposed his new Scottish intermediate, Cliona, which had canals and polyps. He sorted the sponges' spiculae into primitive and advanced designs, and suggested that Spongilla's want of protective spiculae reflected the lack of predators in the primeval oceans. Such palaeo-environmental and transformist conclusions characterized his biology.

Like Friedrich Tiedemann, Grant traced animals and plants to a common monadic starting point. He showed that bryozoans and colonial hydroids produced free-swimming ciliated ‘ova’ (larvae). These were analogous to unicellular ‘animalcules’ and to the ‘globules’ (cells) common to animals and plants. Since algae also reproduced by animalcule-like ova, these ova lay at the junction of the two kingdoms. He believed that these free ‘monads’ could be spontaneously generated and that they were the earth's original inhabitants. Plants and animals were therefore to be understood by the same physico-chemical laws, and simple zoophytes were essential to comprehending ‘higher’ life forms.

In 1826 Charles Darwin came under Grant's wing and was encouraged to study the Firth of Forth invertebrates. Grant helped Darwin think in terms of generation, both of individuals and species, and introduced him to continental thinking on the relevance of embryological anatomy to the laws of life. Darwin always remembered Grant's admiration of Lamarck and examined Grant's monadism in his own transmutation notebooks of 1836–7.

Grant was a councillor of the university's Wernerian Natural History Society in 1825–6. Of his fifteen papers here, on topics ranging from zoophytes to mummified cats, ‘The existence of a pancreas in certain species of cephalopods’ shows Grant's acceptance of Étienne Geoffroy St Hilaire's unity of composition, which presumed that homologous organs persisted throughout the animal series. In 1826 he was secretary of the Plinian Society, whose milieu, with its student debates on human–animal mental continuity, was congenial to his biological reductionism.

Grant was initially encouraged by John Fleming (who erected the sponge genus Grantia in 1828). Fleming's evangelical presbyterianism, which underlay his quasi-actualistic geology (he saw no geological evidence for a catastrophic flood), perhaps explains Grant's own predisposition towards extreme gradualism. David Brewster, another patron, commissioned Grant's ‘Zoophytology’ for the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia (1830), while Brewster's own belief in an elastic energy allowing organisms to slide between niches provided a further telling backdrop to Grant's Lamarckism. Grant, however, stretched and deconsecrated these enabling presbyterian ideas into a deterministic evolutionism.

London University

Grant was appointed professor of zoology (1827–74) at the new London University, and added the chair of comparative anatomy (the first in Britain) after J. F. Meckel proved too expensive to recruit. His announcement that he would investigate ‘the origin and duration of entire species, and the causes which operate towards their increase … and the changes they undergo by the influence of climate, domestication, and other external circumstances’ (An Essay on the Study of the Animal Kingdom, 1828, 6) indicated how far he was departing from the taxonomic norms of contemporary zoologists. He built a zoology museum from scratch and instituted a gold medal at his own expense. He began a fossil zoology summer course in 1831 or 1832.

Although he attended Georges Cuvier's soirées in Paris and wrote ‘On the life and writings of Baron Cuvier’ (Foreign Review, 1830), Grant never adopted Cuvier's functionalism and four embranchements, but promoted Geoffroy's rival philosophical anatomy. His nature was a continuum from monad to man. This series exhibited a unity of composition; it was recapitulated during ontogeny and reflected the course of the ‘metamorphoses’ (evolution) of fossil life. Since the earliest known fossils—crinoids and crustaceans—were not the simplest, Grant argued that heat had effaced the fossil infusoria in the ancient rocks. His statements on squid-fish homologies showed his alignment with Geoffroy in his Académie clash with Cuvier in 1830. Grant Anglicized Geoffroy's nomenclature for the homologous bones, and like Geoffroy identified the fish's opercular plates with the mammalian ear ossicles. By 1836 Geoffroy himself was hailing Grant as the leading British savant.

With Charles Bell's resignation from the university in 1830, Grant's philosophical anatomy predominated. It met the Benthamites' needs for an academic approach based on nature's laws to replace craft practices. Published by The Lancet in 1833–4, Grant's sixty-lecture course became widely accessible. He delivered ten Friday lectures on philosophical anatomy at the Royal Institution in 1833–41, and in 1837–40 served as Fullerian professor of physiology. His domination of comparative anatomy in the early 1830s boosted the shift away from ‘design’ arguments and influenced a stream of pupils, including William Benjamin Carpenter, William Farr, Thomas Laycock, William Henry Flower, and Henry Charlton Bastian.

Grant's classification—summarized in his ‘Animal kingdom’ (1836 in R. B. Todd's Cyclopaedia of Anatomy and Physiology, which Grant initially helped to edit)—began, Lamarckian fashion, with the simplest invertebrates, but uniquely rested on nervous criteria: radiates were ‘Cyclo-neura’, articulates ‘Diplo-neura’, molluscs ‘Cyclo-gangliata’, and vertebrates ‘Spini-cerebrata’. This nervous theme encouraged the hunt for links between groups. It also stimulated the search for nerves in lower animals, and in 1835 Grant announced his discovery of a nerve ring in the comb jelly Beroë.

Grant's finances teetered after the college's guaranteed £300 per annum expired in 1831. His courses were not compulsory for first-degree medical students, nor would he use theatrics to draw the crowds. Reliant on fees, he was forced to deliver 200 lectures a year (and in forty-six years apparently never missed one). Additional revenue came from lecturing at the Aldersgate Street school of medicine, Windmill Street School, and Marshall Hall's Sydenham College, but he remained unworldly about money and undercharged for his talks.

Grant was a radical who derided the ‘monastic ignorance’ (Grant to L. Horner, 5 Nov 1830, UCL, College Corres. P130) of Oxford and Cambridge. His speech on opening the medical session in 1833 (On the Study of Medicine, 1833) lambasted the Royal College of Physicians' Oxbridge Anglican fellowship restriction: he wanted its class privileges abolished and posts to be opened to merit. His naturalistic morphology, anti-vitalism, and Lamarckian self-development became a resource for London's dissenters and anti-Anglicans. They were seeking to replace Oxbridge's tinkering Paleyite deity (the mainstay of the undemocratic oligarchies running the Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Surgeons) with a dispassionate divine legislator. Grant was puffed by Thomas Wakley's radical Lancet and the dissenters' London Medical and Surgical Journal as the ‘English Cuvier’. The private anatomy schools proclaimed his science an essential tool for the new reforming general practitioner, enabling him to transcend the wealthy surgeon's lore. Nonconformists also realized that, by tracing the growth of homologous organs in the animal series, they could explain their human counterparts without recourse to vivisection. This all served to give Grant's science its partisan ring.

Grant was secretary of the faculty of medicine at London University from 1830 until 1831 or 1832, and its dean in 1847–9. He was also a councillor from 1837 and vice-president in 1839 of the militant GPs' union, the British Medical Association. His BMA address in 1841, on the state of the medical profession in England, demanded that the home secretary democratize the royal colleges and assume their licensing functions. Uncompromising, Grant, who was licensed in Edinburgh, refused to sit the Royal College of Physicians' own exam; thus he was prevented from practising medicine in London, which led The Lancet to proclaim him ‘the most self-sacrificing … man in the profession’ (The Lancet, 1, 1846, 418).

As the leading radical witness before Benjamin Hawes's select committee on the British Museum, Grant infuriated the church-and-king commissioners by indicting the pocket-borough control of the museum by aristocratic trustees. Championing the career zoologists, he advocated a Parisian type of salaried management and a display philosophy that would draw forth our own ‘Lamarcks, our Latreilles, our Cuviers, and our Geoffroys’ (Report from the Select Committee on British Museum, 1836, 127).

Nominated by the medical radicals and their allies, Grant became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1836. However, in his Animal and Vegetable Physiology (1834), Peter Mark Roget, the society's secretary, reproduced some of Grant's lectures, causing recriminations. When George Newport (a poor student for whom Grant had waived all fees) apparently plagiarized Grant's discovery of the motor function of the abdominal nerve in articulates and won the society's royal medal, Grant refused to take any part in Royal Society management. His radicalism also led to slipping footholds elsewhere. He started well, joining the councils of the Linnean Society (1829) and Zoological Society (1833). He gave forty Geoffroyan lectures at the Zoological in 1833 and his fossil course in 1834, and submitted eleven papers to the society's journals, including one on Beroë's nerves and another on new species of the cephalopods Loligopsis and Sepiola. But Grant's careerists in the zoological museum, demanding democracy to increase the professionals' power, were opposed by the aristocratic game managers in the society's Regent's Park Gardens. Grant was removed from the council amid turbulent proceedings in 1835 and distanced himself from the society. He lost its exotic resources, which passed to the aristocrats' favourite, the anti-Lamarckian Richard Owen.

This rejection was paralleled at the Geological Society. Grant joined the council in 1832 (just as Charles Lyell published the anti-Lamarckian volume of Principles of Geology). Grant, having made transformism a palaeontological issue, taught that the Jurassic Stonesfield ‘opossum’, too early to have been a mammal, was a reptile, a point repeated in ‘General view of the characters and the distribution of extinct animals’ (British Annual, 1839). He similarly rediagnosed the Cheirotherium footprints as belonging to Triassic teleosaurs, not mammals. Owen's rivalry was growing, exacerbated by the onslaughts on his College of Surgeons, and at the Geological Society he undermined Grant's ‘“progressive” theory’ (Athenaeum, 570, 1838, 731), by arguing that the fossil ‘opossum’ was a true mammal. In 1842 Grant's 200-page memoir on mastodons was rejected by the society, which published only an abstract. He could no longer publicize his science in the way that Owen now could.

Later decline

Grant's was a lonely life and poverty increased his frugality, but it honed his sarcasm, which was usually aimed at scripture or Platonic mysticism. In addition to these irreligious materialistic taints, Grant was probably seen to have breached contemporary mores (he never married and was rumoured to have been homosexual), which accelerated his decline in an increasingly puritanical society. Poverty, lecturing load, declining patronage and resources, and loss of ideological support with the collapse of the radical medical schools in the 1840s, explain why he ‘did nothing more in science’ (Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 49). Grant's Outlines of Comparative Anatomy (7 pts., 1835–41) was never completed, even if its 656 pages ‘constitutes an era in the history of anatomy’ (Medico-Chirurgical Review, 23, 1835, 376). Of his sixty articles, books, and letters, fifty were published in 1825–36.

Melancholic and living in a ‘slum’, he explained that the world was ‘chiefly composed of knaves and harlots, and I would as lief live among the one as the other’ (Beddoe, 32–3). He was laughed at for his eccentricities and frayed formal attire, and dismissed as a ‘shadow of a reputation’ (E. Forbes to T. H. Huxley, 16 Nov 1852, Huxley MSS, ICL). In 1850 University College finally granted him £100 per annum, while a public collection bought him a £50 annuity in 1853. He was refused a state pension in 1854. His inheritance of Indian government securities on the death in 1852 of his sole surviving brother, Francis, made life easier and allowed him to indulge his passion for opera. Fluent in many European languages—he was a founding member of the Philological Society in 1842—he increasingly spent his summers in Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany, and in 1852 was made a corresponding member of the Société Royale des Sciences of Liège.

In his sixtieth year Grant stood ‘in the midst of the Philistines’ (Grant to P. B. Ayres, 11 May 1852, Wellcome L.) as British Museum Swiney lecturer. His dry ‘Palaeozoology’ course (1853–7) combated Lyell's anti-progressionism and related the natural birth of higher forms—the replacement, say, of cold-blooded reptiles by warm-blooded mammals—to planetary cooling. He developed a unique classification, based on life's stages of self-development. ‘Protozoic’ covered the period until the air-breathing invertebrates; ‘Mesozoic’ to the emergence of fishes; ‘Cainozoic’ from fishes to the future extinction of life. It was a non-homocentric history of self-empowered ascent to challenge the don's stratigraphic terminology. Grant misanthropically labelled the lifeless ice-death era the ‘Metazoic’. And just as cynically he taxed students on the forces responsible for ‘originating and effacing the temporary organic film on our planet’ (Zoology Examination Papers, 1857–8, ‘Grant on zoological subjects’, UCL). His Tabular View of the Primary Divisions of the Animal Kingdom (1861), while praising Darwin's Origin of Species, proffered a distinct infrastructure, with multiple evolutionary trees, each from spontaneously generated stock. To the end he accepted the ‘potentialities’ of matter to produce life at the present day.

Grant's first achievement was the elucidation of sponges—in 1864 J. S. Bowerbank dedicated his Monograph of the British Spongiadae to him, and the family Grantiidae was named in his honour; his second was the introduction of academic comparative anatomy to Britain. However, by the 1860s his swallow-tail suit matched his archaic views. For thirty years he had delivered the same lectures in near-identical words. Rejected by the divines before Darwin, when a design-orientated zoology obeyed classificatory and creationist canons, he was no less relegated afterwards. Although as late as 1873 the 79-year-old was attending the ‘Sunday Lecture Society’ with T. H. Huxley and W. K. Clifford, an unsympathetic Huxley, doyen of respectable Darwinians, commented that Grant's advocacy of evolution ‘was not calculated to advance the cause’ (Huxley, 188). His denigration as a failed Darwinian precursor capped Grant's historiographic fate. Only from the 1980s did historians begin to re-evaluate his Lamarckian zoology, show its relations to Darwin's early views, and reveal Grant's Geoffroyan anatomy as the key moment for a radical generation.

In 1874 the deaf octogenarian was still delivering five lectures a week. Ill from dysentery in August 1874, and recognizing no close relatives, Grant adopted William Sharpey's suggestion and bequeathed his library, instruments, and money to University College. He died on 23 August 1874 at his home, 2 Euston Grove, Euston Square, London. E. A. Schäfer removed Grant's brain for weighing, and his body was buried in the unconsecrated north-east corner of Highgate cemetery.

Adrian Desmond


‘Biographical sketch of Robert Edmond Grant’, The Lancet (21 Dec 1850), 686–95 · [W. Sharpey], PRS, 23 (1874), vi–x · G. V. Poore, ‘Robert Edmond Grant’, University College Gazette, 2 (1901), 190–91 · E. A. Schäfer, ‘William Sharpey’, University College Gazette, 2 (1901), 215 · ‘Testimonial to Dr. Grant’, The Lancet (5 Feb 1853), 140–42 · A. Desmond, The politics of evolution: morphology, medicine and reform in radical London (1989) [incl. bibliography] · A. Desmond, ‘Robert E. Grant: the social predicament of a pre-Darwinian transmutationist’, Journal of the History of Biology, 17 (1984), 189–223 · A. Desmond, ‘Robert E. Grant's later views on organic development: the Swiney lectures on “Palaeozoology”, 1853–1857’, Archives of Natural History, 11 (1982–4), 395–413 · A. Desmond, ‘The making of institutional zoology in London, 1822–1836’, History of Science, 23 (1985), 153–85, 223–50 · P. R. Sloan, ‘Darwin's invertebrate program, 1826–1836: preconditions for transformism’, The Darwinian heritage, ed. D. Kohn (1985), 71–120 · J. A. Secord, ‘Edinburgh Lamarckians: Robert Jameson and Robert E. Grant’, Journal of the History of Biology, 24 (1991), 1–18 · London Medical Directory (1847), 63 · J. F. Clarke, Medical Times and Gazette (5 Sept 1874), 277–8 · J. Russell, letter, Medical Times and Gazette (14 Nov 1874), 563–4 · J. Beddoe, Memories of eighty years (1910) · The autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–1882, ed. N. Barlow, another edn (1969) · P. H. Jesperson, ‘Charles Darwin and Dr. Grant’, Lychnos (1848–9), 159–69 · T. H. Huxley, ‘On the reception of the Origin of species’, in The life and letters of Charles Darwin, ed. F. Darwin, 3rd edn, 2 (1887), 179–204 · R. E. Grant, ‘On the structure and nature of the Spongilla friabilis’, Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, 14 (1826), 270–84


BL, lecture notes, Add. MS 31197 · UCL, corresp. and papers · UCL, lecture notes


engraving, c.1837–1840, UCL · T. H. Maguire, lithograph, 1852, BM, NPG; repro. in T. H. Maguire, Portraits of honorary members of the Ipswich Museum (1852) [see illus.] · T. H. Maguire, lithograph, 1852 (after his earlier work), NPG · engraving, NHM · photograph (in old age), NHM

Wealth at death  

under £1500: administration with will, 24 Nov 1874, CGPLA Eng. & Wales