MacBride, Ernest William

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MacBride, Ernest William

(b. Belfast, Ireland, 12 December 1866; d, Alton, Hampshire, England, 17 November 1940)


The eldest son of Samuel MacBride and Mary Jane Browne, MacBride was educated at Belfast and Cambridge and in Germany. He graduated from Cambridge in 1891 and worked for a year under Anton Dohrn at the Marine Biological Station in Naples before returning to Cambridge. In 1897 he became the first professor of zoology at McGill University, Montreal, where he built up a strong school before returning in 1909 to the Imperial College of Science and Technology, remaining there until his retirement in 1934. In 1902 he married Constance Harvey; they had two sons. He was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1905, vice-president of the Zoological Society of London in 1913, and was active on several committees concerned with marine biology and fisheries.

MacBride’s Textbook of Embryology, Volume I, Invertebrata (1914) was the standard work for many years and reflects his wide knowledge and interest in comparative embryology. His particular interest, the development of echinoids, began in Naples and continued throughout his professional life. He studied the problem of metamorphosis from the bilateral larva to the radial adult and used it to elucidate phylogenetic affinities. He found that metamorphosis occurs in Asterina during a previously unnoticed fixed stage, which discovery enabled him to postulate a fixed stage in the phylogeny of this group. There had already been some suggestion by Bateson of affinities between the echinoderms and chordates, for which hypothesis MacBride provided support from embryological evidence, mainly in the origin of the nervous system and coelom, in echinoderms and in amphioxus. His Textbook includes the Protochordata and analyzes relationships.

From his earliest years MacBride was increasingly a supporter of some form of Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characters. As he expressed it, “… habit is response to environment and inherited structure is nothing but the crystallisation of the habits of past generations.”


I. Original Works. The Royal Society obituary lists a selected bibliography of thirty items, among them the series of papers on the embryology of echinoderms and his books. Worth noting in supplement to that list are MacBride’s contribution of “Zoology” to Evolution in the Light of Modern Knowledge: A Collective Work (London, 1924), 211-261; and his intro, to his own trans, of E. Rignano, Biological Memory (London, 1926), 1-16. He also wrote the section on larvae of echinoderms for Natural History Reports, British Antarctic Terra Nova Expedition, 1910. Zoology, 4 , pt. 3 (1920), 83-94; and contributed numerous letters to Nature and The Times.

II. Secondary Literature. The only comprehensive analysis of MacBride’s life and work is by W. T. Caiman, in Obituary Notices of Pel lows of the Royal Society of London,3 (1940), 747-759, with portrait. An anonymous obituary appeared in Nature, 146 (1940), 831-832; and a printed pamphlet was prepared by MacBride, Application for the Chair of Zoology in University College London, with Testimonials (1906).

Diana M. Simpkins