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Carpenter, William Benjamin


(b. Exeter, England, 29 October 1813;

d. London, England, 9 November 1885), medicine, natural history, physiology, moral and physiological psychology. For the original article on Carpenter see DSB, vol. 3.

Since the 1970s, many historians have sought to elucidate the various contexts that gave shape to the science of the Victorian period. Whereas an older historiography was contented to tell “presentist” stories focusing on “contributions” to current knowledge, this new history puts science “in its place.” As George Levine (1997) puts it, this approach seeks “to understand Victorian science not only as sets of procedures for finding out what the natural world is really like but as human interventions in continuing political, social and religious struggles” (p. 15). Still, there are some historians who retain the legitimate concern of elucidating contributions to current science. Scholarship of both sorts has shed considerable light on William Benjamin Carpenter.

Scientific Contributions . The picture that emerges from traditional “presentist” scholarship is that Carpenter did make several important contributions to science. Although Thomas Laycock was first to argue that reflexes are mediated not only in the spinal cord, but also in the cerebrum (“the reflex function of the brain”), Carpenter has been credited with coining the term most often associated with this notion (ideo-motor action). William James incorporated the work of these British scientists, alongside related but independent insights from Germany (of Johann Herbart and Hermann Lotze), into his seminal Principles of Psychology. Further, the concept of ideo-motor action has recently captured the attention of cognitive psychologists. Carpenter also coined the term unconscious cerebration, which was meant to convey that much ideo-motor action happens outside awareness (Laycock

challenged Carpenter’s priority on this by saying that he himself intended his original concept of the reflex function of the brain to include unconscious states). Carpenter’s and Laycock’s work in the area of unconscious cerebration contributed to the emergence of dynamic psychiatry and Carpenter has been cited in the recent cognitive science literature on the “new unconscious.” It has also been argued that Carpenter’s evolving speculations regarding the “correlation of forces” constituted an important contribution to the emergence of the doctrine of the conservation of energy. Further, some of Carpenter’s contemporaries claimed that his textbooks gave to nineteenth-century British physiology a distinctive “broad and far-seeing scope” (Carpenter, 1888, p. 68) and contributed substantially to establishing physiology as a respected discipline in England. His obituary in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London called his Principles of General and Comparative Physiology “the first attempt to recognise and lay down the lines of a science of ‘Biology’ in an educational form” (1886, p. iv). Finally, Leslie Spencer Hearnshaw (1964) credited Carpenter for helping to establish the discipline of physiological psychology and calls his Principles of Mental Physiology “one of the classics of British psychology” (p. 20).

“Orthodox” Science . Arguably the most important recent historical work done on Carpenter (and the most promising work to be done) is of the contextualist variety. Alison Winter’s work (1998, 1997), centering on issues related to authority, boundaries, and orthodoxy in science, provides a fascinating picture of Carpenter’s early-career maneuvers to establish the orthodoxy of his own views, and his later-career attempts to establish the heterodoxy of others.

Winter argues that Carpenter was part of a cohort of scientists that spanned the period between early Victorian science (which was a relative “free-for-all” in which all educated Victorians could participate) and later Victorian science (a closed and professionalized version of science in which the public would be trained to respect the boundary between amateur and true scientist). In his early career, Carpenter successfully negotiated the uncertainty of the early Victorian scientific landscape—a landscape in which established scientific communities did not yet exist for most disciplines—by soliciting, creatively synthesizing, and publishing letters of recommendation from respected scientific and religious leaders who as individuals did not comprise an established scientific community and yet whose combined opinions would (and did) have the force of granting “orthodox” status to Carpenter’s scientific output (that is, his first textbook, Principles of General and Comparative Physiology). Gaining orthodox standing was no small accomplishment. In his attempt to reduce all physiological data to single law, Carpenter was articulating an opinion that had previously been interpreted as materialistic and had doomed the careers of other scientists who were not so careful in managing the reception of their work. It was not so much “by being right about nature,” Levine summarizes, that Carpenter was able to establish the orthodoxy of his beliefs, but “by careful marshalling of experts who ultimately determined what being right could mean” (1997, p. 22).

Winter also shows how, at the end of his career, Carpenter was still involved in defining orthodox science, but this time as an insider. Carpenter was at the center of debates concerning various alternative sciences (whose status was very much at this time contested) such as mesmerism, phrenology, and electrobiology. Additionally, he took interest in debunking popular occult phenomena like table-turning. It was in this context that Carpenter devised the highly influential argument that mesmerized, electrobiologized, or table-turning individuals were not actually being influenced by some yet-unknown outside force but rather were in a highly suggestible psychological state. Creatively extending Laycock’s notion of the reflex function of the brain, Carpenter argued that ideas represented in the cerebrum spontaneously and reflexively create the correlative behavior if the will of the individual is not actively engaged to control the process. In Carpenter’s newly coined terminology, mesmerized patients and the like were simply manifesting “ideo-motor action,” a kind of cognitive automatism. This argument became standard in debunking these now “pseudoscientific” enterprises.

Carpenter’s next maneuver in his battle against heterodoxy, Winter argues, was to argue that scientific education at British universities needed to be improved and expanded so that the educated middle class would no longer be susceptible to the fallacious reasoning of the pseudosciences and would respect and trust the judgments of true scientists. Thus, Carpenter, who needed to creatively open the doors of mainstream scientific approbation through the assembling of scientific authorities early in his career, was, once established, instrumental in closing the doors of the scientific laboratory to the Victorian public.

Science and Religion . Perhaps the most promising new area for contextualist investigation would be that of religion and morality. As Frank M. Turner, an eminent historian of the Victorian period, reports, a major revision in the historiography of the Victorian era has taken place visà-vis the “secularization thesis.” This older interpretive framework looked for progressive secularization, emphasizing those elements of culture seeking to eschew religious emphases and ignoring those elements in which religion was still central. The problem with this framework, Turner reports, is that there are major segments of Victorian culture (including elements of Victorian science) that do not fit this interpretation. There is perhaps no better illustration of Turner’s point than William Benjamin Carpenter. As Robert Young (1985) says, “the constant theme of [Carpenter's] writings was the reconciliation of science with a theistic view of nature” (p. 106).

Given the distorting effects of the secularization thesis, it is perhaps not surprising that no sustained treatment of the religious and moral elements of Carpenter’s thought has been written for over a century. The Carpenter scholar must still turn to J. Estlin Carpenter’s “Introductory Memoir” published in the anthology Nature and Man(1888). The purpose of this memoir was not “to estimate the precise value of his numerous contributions to knowledge, but rather to show what were the hidden purposes and guiding aims of his life” (W. Carpenter, 1888, p. 3). The “Introductory Memoir” has been a leading source of information for most of the recent historical work on William Benjamin Carpenter and also contains hints that contextualist explorations in gender and race could bear some fruit. Most significant, however, is J. Estlin’s claim that “religious concerns crowned his life” (p. 45).

The evidence for the centrality of religion and morality in William Benjamin Carpenter’s science is scattered in nearly everything that is written about him. Carpenter was a lifelong, committed, and relatively conservative Unitarian, a devoted church member and organist for decades (he owned an organ and would play it at home regularly), and an admirer and imitator of his father’s Unitarian religion. Early in his career he was persecuted for his faith (being twice denied a position at the University of Edinburgh for his Unitarianism) and he expressed the strong belief that the Bible and science would never conflict, as both reveal God’s purposes. Throughout his career he used his scientific skills to contribute to the temperance movement (he was himself a teetotaler). After retirement, he went on speaking tours and continued to write, fulfilling his desire to serve, as he put it, as a “mediator” in the emerging struggles between science and religion.

Indeed, even his most significant scientific contributions must be understood in the context of this deep religiosity. His speculations concerning the correlation of forces and his systematic and expansive style of textbook writing were shaped by his belief in the unity of a purposeful universe. While he was radical in his time for insisting that organic (“vital”) and inorganic processes operate according to the same laws (a position traditionally opposed by natural theologians), he saw this approach to physiology not only as the most scientifically promising but also as only increasing awe and respect for the deity.

Carpenter’s evolutionary views must also be understood in this context. Although a strong advocate of “the doctrine of progressive development” (evolution), he still was not convinced that Charles Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection could explain all biodiversity. “The last mouthful chokes him,” Darwin wrote to Charles Lyell in 1859, referring to Carpenter’s difficulty believing that all vertebrates have a common parent. While Carpenter’s hesitations were based on a mastery of the available scientific evidence, they were clearly consonant with his religious vision. Further, while Carpenter’s notion of ideo-motor action emerged as part of his debunking efforts, it also fit within a broader and highly influential moral psychology. As the literature of the period attests (for example, the novel Dracula—see Stiles, 2006), deterministic and mechanistic doctrines such as ideo-motor action and unconscious cerebration were enormously disturbing to many Victorians, seeming to imply that human beings might be mere automata. In this context, Carpenter argued passionately and at length that human nature is different from the beasts in that we possess a self-determined will that enables us to transcend spinal and cerebral automaticity by directing attention toward moral motives. This moral psychology influenced psychologists James Sully and William James. In James’s seminal and still-influential The Principles of Psychology, Carpenter’s moral psychology is clearly reflected in several places, particularly in the chapters on habit and on will. “His book [Mental Physiology],” James wrote, “almost deserves to be called a work of edification” (1890, vol. 1, p. 120).


According to the National Archives of the United Kingdom (available from, relevant archival material (mostly correspondence) appears to be scattered across the United Kingdom.


Principles of General and Comparative Physiology Intended as an Introduction to the Study of Human Physiology: And as a Guide to the Philosophical Pursuit of Natural History. London: Churchill, 1839. Widely used textbook that appeared in many editions.

Principles of Human Physiology: With Their Chief Applications to Pathology, Hygiene, and Forensic Medicine; Especially Designed for the Use of Students. London: Churchill, 1842. Widely used textbook that appeared in many editions.

Manual of Physiology, Including Physiological Anatomy for the Use of the Medical Student. London: Churchill, 1846. Widely used textbook that appeared in many editions.

On the Mutual Relations of the Vital and Physical Forces. London: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1850.

On the Influence of Suggestion in Modifying and Directing Muscular Movement, Independently of Volition. London, 1852.

The Physiology of Temperance and Total Abstinence; Being an Examination of the Effects of the Excessive, Moderate, and Occasional Use of Alcoholic Liquors on the Healthy Human System. London: Bohn, 1853.

“The Physiology of the Will.” Contemporary Review 17 (1871): 192–217.

Principles of Mental Physiology: With Their Applications to the Training and Discipline of the Mind, and the Study of Its Morbid Conditions. New York: Appleton, 1874.

Science and Religion: [A Speech] Delivered before the National Conference of Unitarian and Other Christian Churches at Saratoga, U.S.A., September 19th, 1882. N.p.

The Argument from Design in the Organic World, Reconsidered in Its Relation to the Doctrines of Evolution and Natural Selection. London: Speaight, 1884.

Nature and Man: Essays Scientific and Philosophical, with an introductory memoir by J. Estlin Carpenter. London: K. Paul, Trench, 1888. See “List of Dr. Carpenter’s Writings.”


Crabtree, Adam. “‘Automatism’ and the Emergence of Dynamic Psychiatry.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences39, no. 1 (2003): 51–70.

Daston, Lorraine J. “The Theory of Will versus the Science of Mind.” In The Problematic Science: Psychology in Nineteenth Century Thought, edited by W. R. Woodward and M. G. Ash. New York: Praeger, 1982.

Gooday, Graeme J. N. “Instrumentation and Interpretation: Managing and Representing the Working Environments of Victorian Experimental Science.” In Victorian Science in Context, edited by B. Lightman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Hall, Vance M. D. “The Contribution of the Physiologist, William Benjamin Carpenter (1813–1885), to the Development of the Principles of the Correlation of Forces and the Conservation of Energy.” Medical History 23 (1979): 129–155.

Hassin, Ran R., James S. Uleman, and John A. Bargh, eds. The New Unconscious. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Hearnshaw, L. S. A Short History of British Psychology 1840–1940. London: Methuen, 1964.

Jacyna, L. S. “The Physiology of Mind, the Unity of Nature, and the Moral Order in Victorian Thought.” British Journal for the History of Science 14 (1981): 109–132.

———. “Principles of General Physiology: The Comparative Dimension to British Neuroscience in the 1830s and 1840s.” Studies in History of Biology 7 (1984): 47–92.

James, William. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Holt, 1890.

Levine, George. “Defining Knowledge: An Introduction.” In Victorian Science in Context, edited by Bernard Lightman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Lightman, Bernard. Victorian Science in Context. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

“Obituary Notices of Fellows Deceased.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 41 (1886): i–xv. An excellent brief summary of Carpenter’s original scientific work.

Reed, John Robert. Victorian Will. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989.

Stiles, Anne. “Cerebral Automatism, the Brain, and the Soul in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 15, no. 2 (2006): 131–152.

Stock, Armin, and Claudia Stock. “A Short History of Ideomotor Action.” Psychological Research 68 (2004): 176–188. Turner, Frank M. Contesting Cultural Authority: Essays in Victorian Intellectual Life. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993. See chapter 1 in particular.

———. “Practicing Science: An Introduction.” In Victorian Science in Context, edited by Bernard Lightman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Winter, Alison. “The Construction of Orthodoxies and Heterodoxies in the Early Victorian Life Sciences.” In Victorian Science in Context, edited by Bernard Lightman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

———. Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Young, Robert M. Darwin’s Metaphor: Nature’s Place in Victorian Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Russell D. Kosits

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Carpenter, William Benjamin

Carpenter, William Benjamin

(b. Exeter, England, 29 October 1813; d. London, England, 19 November 1885),

medicine, natural history.

Carpenter was the son of Dr. Lant Carpenter, a Unitarian minister of strong principles. His sister Mary was founder of the ragged school movement, and his younger brother, Philip Pearsall, was noted as a conchologist. His son Philip Herbert, a master at Eton, was a zoologist who assisted his father and wrote extensively on fossils.

Carpenter attended his father’s school at Bristol and was apprenticed to John Bishop Estlin, a medical practitioner of that city. After traveling to the West Indies as companion to a patient, he enrolled at University College, London, and became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1835 and M. D. at Edinburgh in 1839. From 1840 to 1844 Carpenter worked in Bristol as a medical practitioner; in the latter year he moved to London, gave up medicine, and devoted the remainder of his life to research. He married Louisa Powell in 1840 and had five sons.

In 1845 Carpenter became Fullerian professor of physiology at the Royal Institution, professor of forensic medicine at University College, and lecturer in physiology at the London Hospital. He was made fellow of the Royal Society in 1844 and was Royal Medalist in 1861. From 1856 to 1879 he was registrar of London University: upon retirement from this post he became a member of the Senate of that university and was created Companion of the Order of the Bath. He staunchly maintained his Unitarian views and wrote many articles on topics in which science to uches religion, including one on Charles Darwin, and on teetotalism.

From 1839, when he qualified in medicine, Carpenter’s output of writing on physiology, and later on zoology, was prodigious. Among early works was his graduation thesis, The Physiological Inferences to Be Deduced From the Structure of the Nervous System in the Invertebrate Classes of Animals (1839), note worthy for its new ideas on the function of the ventral cord ganglia of the Arthropoda and for its translation by the physiologist Johannes Müller in 1840.

Also in 1839 Carpenter published his Principles of General and Comparative Physiology, which went to four editions by 1854. From this work he developed further penetrating works on the physiology of man and animals. In particular, his Principles of Mental Physiology (1874) introduced new ideas on the working of nervous mechanisms and launched its author into the controversy that arose over his concept of “unconscious cerebration,” by which he meant that “thought and feeling could be regarded as an expression of Brain-change,” a physiological phenomenon: “[I]… have especially applied myself to the elucidation of the share which the Mind has not only in the interpretation of sense-impressions, but in the production of sensorial states not less real to the Ego who experiences them than are those called forth by external objects…” (Principles of Mental Physiology [1874], pp. viii-ix).

Priority in this matter was, however, claimed by Thomas Laycock, whose concept of reflex function of the brain (1844) is similar to that of Carpenter although their principles appear different, the latter believing in a physiological stimulus arising outside the brain, while Laycock postulated a reflex action of the brain itself. Their dispute was responsible for further advances in the field.

It is evident that Carpenter had his own reservations about a purely physiological expression of mental activity, for he stated: “I cannot regard myself either Intellectually or Morally, as a mere puppet… any more than I can disregard that vast body of Physiological evidence, which proves the direct and immediate relation between Mental and Corporeal agency” (ibid., p. x). He claimed that his theories on “Brain-change” were acceptable to men of such diverse views as John Stuart Mill, who saw them in a physiological sense, and Sir William Hamilton, the metaphysician.

Carpenter’s compromise in the face of the main scientific dilemma of his day is found in his ambivalent acceptance of natural selection, which he saw as modifying an ordained creative process. His acceptance and criticism of Darwinism are well shown in an essay review on the Origin of Species in the British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review, of which he was editor. His realization of the brilliance of Darwin’s work was unequivocal; but although it extended to agreement with the detail of selection, he displayed an inability to reconcile the full implications of descent with his basic religious beliefs. He wrote in his review of Origin of Species: “supposing that we concede to Mr. Darwin that all Birds have descended from one common stock—and we cannot see that there is any essential improbability in such an idea, so small are the divergencies from a common type presented by any members of that group—yet it by no means thence follows that Birds and Reptiles or Birds and Mammals should have had a common ancestry….” and “there seems to us so much in the psychical capacity of Man, to separate him from the nearest of the Mammalian class, that we can far more easily believe him to have originated by a distinct creation, than suppose him to have had a common ancestry with the Chimpanzee, and to have been separated from it by a series of progressive modifications” (p. 404).

That Charles Darwin knew of this view and appreciated Carpenter’s support—incomplete though it was—is shown in a letter to Carpenter. With typical modesty he wrote, “It is a great thing to have got a great physiologist on our side, I look at it as immaterial whether we go to quite the same length” (Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, F. Darwin, ed., II [1888], 223). Thus Carpenter’s weight and influence were on the side of Darwin’s theory.

Again, as registrar of the University of London, Carpenter was in a unique position to propound and execute important developments in the teaching of science; and his ideas were welcomed and expanded by educationalists such as Herbert Spencer. In addition, Carpenter fostered the idea of popular scientific education by his support of the Gilchrist lectures, which took science to the working people. His ideas on the “training” of animals and young children by bearing upon them with strong enough “motives” have a distinctly Pavlovian feeling. Although not acceptable to his contemporaries, such arguments have today largely been crystallized in the work of Pavlov himself and that of the behaviorist school.

In the 1850’s Carpenter moved into microscopy and zoology; his book The Microscope and Its Revelations reached its eighth edition in 1901. His chief work, however, lay in his encouragement of and scientific contributions to marine zoology. Of particular note are his descriptions and classification of the Foraminifera, both fossil and recent, as exemplified by four papers in the Philosophical Transactions and the splendidly illustrated monograph produced by the Ray Society in 1862. Later investigators have modified his classification of these interesting organisms, but his original work on their morphology is still quoted. Although the study of the Foraminifera has become more specialized and regionalized, owing largely to their importance to the petroleum industry, it is to the pioneering efforts of scientists like Carpenter that much of such modern industrial application is due.

The interest in marine study led to a most productive association with Charles Wyville Thomson, professor of natural history at the University of Edinburgh. Between 1868 and 1871 they took part in dredging cruises off Scotland and Ireland, which led to publications on the Crinoidea; but it was the voyage of H. M. S. Challenger (1873–1876), suggested by the Royal Society and organized by the British government, that threw much new light on so many aspects of oceanography. Advancing years probably prevented Carpenter from active participation, although he was greatly concerned in the preparations for the three-year circumnavigation. Thomson was appointed to organize the report on the voyage, which appeared in fifty volumes (1880–1895). Carpenter did not himself contribute. The article on the Foraminifera (1884) came from Henry Bowman Brady, an earlier collaborator of Carpenter’s, while the latter’s son, Philip Herbert, wrote (1888) the paper on the Comatulae (feather stars), a subject upon which the father had previously published a paper.

Carpenter was a founder member of the Marine Biological Association and was closely associated with the establishment of its important marine research laboratory on Plymouth Sound. His deep-sea investigations led also to an interest in marine physics, and he developed a pioneer doctrine of general oceanic circulation in a paper to the Royal Society. Among other papers read to the society was an important series on the animal nature of Eozoon canadense, although his conclusions have since been shown to be incorrect.

Carpenter thus represents the “complete naturalist,” perhaps almost the last of the type. His original work in fields as far apart as mental physiology and marine biology, coupled with an enormous output, renders him an important figure in nineteenth-century science; and his knowledge of literature served to make him a lucid writer and lecturer. The detail of his work may now be largely forgotten, but it was of a substance sufficient to provide firm bases for much later development.


I. Original Works. Carpenter’s papers are listed in theRoyal Society’s Catalogue of Scientific Papers, I (1867), VII (1877), IX (1891), XII (1902), and XIV (1915). Among his works are On the Physiological Inferences to Be Deduced From the Structure of the Nervous System in the Invertebrate Classes of Animals (Edinburgh, 1839); Principles of General and Comparative Physiology (London, 1839); “Asphyxia,” in Library of Medicine, A. Tweedie, ed., Ill (London 1840),212–249; The Microscope and lts Revelations (London,1856); Zoology. A Systematic Account of the General Structure, Habits, Instincts and Uses of the Principal Families of the Animal Kingdom…, 2 vols., in Bohn’s Scientific Library (London, 1857); his review of Darwin, Wallace, and Baden-Powell, in British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review, 25 (1860), 367–404; and Introduction to the Study of the Foraminifera (London, 1862), written with W. K. Parker and T. R. Jones.

II. Secondary Literature. For more on Carpenter or his work, see E. R. Lancaster, “William Benjamin Carpenter,” in Nature, 33 (1885–1886), 83–85; Thomas Laycock Mind and Brain, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1860); and C. W. Thomson, The Depths of the Sea, an Account of the Dredging Cruises… Under the Scientific Direction of Dr. Carpenter (London, 1873). Obituaries are in British Medical Journal (1885), 2 , 139; and Lancet (1885), 2 , 928.

K. Bryn Thomas

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Carpenter, William Benjamin

Carpenter, William Benjamin (1813–85) A surgeon and comparative anatomist, who used microscopy to investigate the structure of fossil shells, especially foraminifera and crinoids. He took part in several scientific voyages, including the Challenger expedition, as a result of which he became interested in marine physics and developed a theory about oceanic circulation.

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