Stebbing, Thomas Roscoe Rede

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(b. London, England, 6 February 1835; d. Tunbridge Wells, England, 8 July 1926)


Stebbing called himself “a serf to Natural History, principally employed about Crustacea.” He was the fourth son of Henry Stebbing, poet, historian, clergyman, and editor of the Athenaeum, and Mary Griffin. Several of the thirteen Stebbing children became writers, and Thomas’ brother William, a barrister, was a leader-writer and assistant editor of The Times (London).

Beginning his education at King’s College School and King’s College, London (B.A. 1855), Stebbing matriculated at Lincoln College, Oxford, in 1853 and became a scholar of Worcester College the same year. He received the B.A. in 1857 and the M.A. in 1859, remaining as fellow (1860–1868), tutor (1865–1867), vice-provost (1865), and dean (1866) of Worcester College until resigning his fellowship in 1868. Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford, ordained him priest in 1859.

When Stebbing took a house for tuition at Reigate, Surrey, in 1863 and met the entomologist William Wilson Saunders, his interest in science began. Upon marrying Saunders’ daughter Mary Anne (d. 1927), also a naturalist, in 1867, he moved to Torquay, Devon, as a tutor. There, under the influence of the naturalist William Pengelly, he began a long series of writings on natural history, Darwinian evolution, and theology.

In 1877 the Stebbings moved to Tunbridge Wells, Kent, where they lived until their deaths. Although a teacher part of this time, Stebbing devoted most of these years to the study of amphipod Crustacea and to writing. Because of his work on the taxonomy of Crustacea, he became a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1895, fellow of the Royal Society in 1896, and was awarded the Gold Medal of the Linnean Society in 1908.

Stebbing’s scientific writings date from 1873; most of them are devoted to the taxonomy of amphipod Crustacea, on which he published about 110 papers and two major monographs. He received the Amphipoda collected by H.M.S. Challenger on the recommendation of a marine biologist, the Canon A.M. Norman, and published a large monograph on these creatures in 1888. The 600-page annotated bibliography beginning this work is the definitive history of the classification of Amphipoda and quotes the original definition of each known genus. In a short introduction he discussed the ancestry of the Amphipoda, pointing out how small variations could account for its evolutionary radiation. An ancestor of the group had “simplicity” and “completeness” of characters, that is, structures common in many families and also structures that had disappeared in the more specialized ones. According to his discussion of the known families, the classification of Amphipoda was centered on the ancestral family Gammaridae. Also, among Stebbing’s writings are many popular works on Crustacea and other arthropods. He wrote with simplicity, grace, wit, and erudition. His knowledge of Crustacea was widely respected and resulted in a worldwide correspondence with specialist.

Stebbing was an early convert to Darwinism, and many of his essays were written in support of it. He was years ahead of other carcinologists in realizing the importance of Darwinian evolution in the Amphipoda, although this is seldom evident in his routine taxonomic papers. He also subscribed to Herbert Spencer’s view that natural selection shaped behavior and accounted for human moral progress. The logic of science was applied by Stebbing to theological dogmas of the Church of England. He doubted the literal truth of Genesis, the accuracy of prophecy, miracles, the doctrine of the Trinity, and many of the Thirty-nine Articles. Shorn of dogma and superstition by science, his religion was based on an omniscient and loving God and on the power of unselfishness. He held this view to be perfectly compatible with the evolutionary science given form by James Hutton, William Smith, Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin, and Herbert Spencer, which was the main philosophy of his life.


I. Original Works. Stebbing’s works include Essays on Darwinism (London, 1871); “Report on the Amphipoda Collected by H.M.S. Challenger During the Years 1873–1876,” in Report on the Scientific Results of the Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger During the Years 1873–1876, Zoology, XXIX (London, 1888), i–xxiv, i–1737; A History of Crustacea. Recent Malacostraca (London, 1893); “Amphipoda I. Gammaridae,” in Tierreich, 21 (1906), i–xxix, 1–806: “An Autobiographic Sketch,” in Transactions and Proceedings. Torquay Natural History Society, 4 (1923), 1–5, with portrait; and Plain Speaking (London, 1926).

II. Secondary Literature. See W. T. Calman, “T. R. R. Stebbing–1835–1926,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 101B (1926), xxx–xxxii, with portrait; “Rev. Thomas Roscoe Rede Stebbing,” in Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, session 139 (1926–1927), 101–103; and E.L. Mills, “Amphipods and Equipoise. A Study of T. R. R. Stebbing,” in Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 44 , 239–256, with portrait.

Eric L. Mills