Lankester, Edwin Ray

views updated

Lankester, Edwin Ray

(b. London, England, 15 May 1847; d. London, 15 August 1929),

zoology, natural history.

The son of Edwin Lankester, M.D., Lankester was educated at St. Paul’s School, London; Downing College, Cambridge; and Christ Church, Oxford. After graduating in zoology and geology, he studied at Vienna, Leipzig, and the Zoological Station at Naples. Elected a fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, in 1872, he was two years later appointed professor of zoology at University College, London, a post which he held until 1891, when he was appointed Linacre professor of comparative anatomy at Oxford. While in London he made the acquaintance of an art student at the Slade School, Edwin Stephen Goodrich, whom he inspired with zeal for comparative anatomy. He took him to Oxford; and, through Goodrich, his most distinguished pupil, he spread his teaching in zoology. In 1884 Lankester was foremost in promoting the foundation of the Marine Biological Association, whose laboratory at Plymouth has played a leading part in the training of British biologists. In 1898 Lankester was appointed director of the British Museum (Natural History), but not being suited to administrative work, he retired when he was knighted in 1907. He was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1875 and corresponding member of the Paris Academy of Science in 1899.

Lankester’s original researches extended over all major groups of living and fossil animals, from protozoa to mammals. His first paper, on Pterasips, was published when he was sixteen. He demonstrated the fundamental similarities in structure, and therefore the affinites, between spiders, scorpions, and horseshoe crabs. He systematized the field of embryology and introduced the indispensable terms, “stomodaeum,” “blastopore,” and “invagination.” A firm supporter and friend of Charles Darwin and of the latter’s theories on evolution and natural selection, he distinguished clearly between homology, homoplasy, and analogy of compared organs. Furthermore, he exposed the illogicality of Lamarck’s speculations by showing that every character developed by every organism is a response by it to the conditions of its environment. No character is solely inherited or solely acquired; all are, to varying extents, both. Thus the phrase “inheritance of acquired characters” is meaningless.

The strength of Lankester’s character and the forcefulness of his personality may be illustrated by his visit to the laboratory of the French neurologist Jean–Martin Charcot, who was experimenting on the power of electric currents (in wire conductors wound round the arms of the subjects) to reinforce suggestion and annul pain. On the order to make electric contact with a battery of storage cells, darning needles were pushed through the arms of young women, who felt nothing. Lankester arrived just before lunchtime and was allowed to wait for Charcot and his team in the laboratory. He employed his time in emptying the acid from all the storage cells, which he then filled with tap water, so that they gave no current. After lunch the experiments were renewed, contacts made, and needles pushed through the arms of the women, who still felt nothing. Lankester then confessed what he had done and, horrified, the team verified that no current flowed. After an awkward silence, Charcot embraced him.


Lankester’s scientific was published in the journals of the Royal Society and the Palaecontographical Society, and in the Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science (which he edited and brought to a standard of international repute). He contributed numerous articles to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which were reprinted as Zoological Articles. He also edited Treatise on Zoology (1900-1909), of which 9 vols, appeared; it did much to help the teaching of zoology in English–speaking countries.

After his retirement, Lankester devoted himself to writing books on science for the lay reader; Science From an Easy Chair (1908); Extinct Animals (1909); Diversions of a Naturalist (1915); Great and Small Things (1923), which were a great success in introducing the public to scientific progress.

E. S. Goodrich,“Edwin Ray Lankester,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society (1930), contains a portrait and a bibliography of his scientific papers.

Gavin De Beer