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Forbes, William Alexanderfree

  • G. T. Bettany
  • , revised by Yolanda Foote

Forbes, William Alexander (1855–1883), zoologist, was born at 16 Pittville Villas, Cheltenham, on 25 June 1855, the second son of James Staats Forbes (1823–1904), chairman of the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway Company, and Ann (d. 1901), daughter of John Bennett. He was educated at Kensington School and Winchester College (1866–72). He went on to study German at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1872, and after a year became a student of medicine at Edinburgh University (1873–5) and then at University College, London (1875–6). Early in his studies he showed great interest in (and a talent for) biology, to which he finally devoted himself.

Through the influence of his friend Alfred Henry Garrod, the zoologist, Forbes entered St John's College, Cambridge, in 1876. Here he gained a first class in the natural sciences tripos of 1879, and was subsequently elected a fellow of his college. In the same year he was appointed prosector to the Zoological Society of London on the death in October of the previous incumbent, Professor Garrod, whose literary executor he became. (A collection of Garrod's scientific papers was published in 1881, edited by Forbes with a biographical notice.) In addition to his zoological work he lectured on comparative anatomy at Charing Cross Hospital medical school.

Between 1879 and 1882 Forbes's work at the Zoological Society's gardens yielded some original and valuable papers. Those on the muscular structure and voice organs of birds were most notable, including 'On the anatomy of the passerine birds' (Proceedings of the Zoological Society, 1880–82), 'On the contributions to the anatomy and classification of birds made by Professor Garrod' (The Ibis, 1881), and 'On the anatomy of the petrels collected during the voyage of H.M.S. Challenger' (Zoology of the Challenger, 4, pt 11, 1882).

In the summer of 1880 Forbes made a short excursion to the forests of Pernambuco, in Brazil, and published an account of the trip in The Ibis in 1881. He also travelled in the United States and, on 19 July 1882, sailed from Liverpool to investigate the fauna of tropical Africa, starting from the mouth of the Niger delta. However, owing to the non-arrival of a steamer, he was prevented from continuing upriver from Shonga. He decided to return home to England immediately, but shortly after Christmas he was seized with a fever and dysentery, and died on 14 January 1883 in Shonga. His remains were brought to England and buried, on 1 April 1884, in the churchyard of Wickham in Kent.

Forbes was an excellent worker, popular with his contemporaries, and had the potential to be one of the leading zoologists of his time. His collected papers and last journals (published in The Ibis in 1883) were issued as a memorial volume edited by Frank Evers Beddard, Forbes's successor as the Zoological Society's prosector, in 1885.


  • The collected papers of the late William Alexander Forbes, ed. F. E. Beddard (1885)
  • The Ibis, 5th ser., 1 (1883)
  • J. B. Wainewright, ed., Winchester College, 1836–1906: a register (1907)
  • b. cert.
F. Boase, , 6 vols. (privately printed, Truro, 1892–1921); repr. (1965)
J. Venn & J. A. Venn, , 2 pts in 10 vols. (1922–54); repr. in 2 vols. (1974–8)