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The X Club: Power and authority in Victorian science, by Ruth Barton

08 February 2019

Michael Wheeler on an aspect of Victorians’ intellectual endeavour

Disraeli as an angel, a Tenniel cartoon in Punch, 1864; from the book

Disraeli as an angel, a Tenniel cartoon in Punch, 1864; from the book

HAVING taught history, social-science methodology, and mathematics at universities in New Zealand and Australia, Ruth Barton is better equipped than most to tackle a group biography of the nine men with whom she has “lived for decades”.

In 1864, these fascinating individuals formed a private dining club that was to have a decisive influence upon the leading scientific institutions of their day, while also promoting science more widely and championing scientific education.

The first half of The X Club, “Origins and Ambitions”, charts their early careers. Barton gives detailed accounts of two “friendship trios” established in the 1850s: Joseph Dalton Hooker, George Busk, and Thomas Henry Huxley were all naturalists with experience as naval surgeons; John Tyndall, Edward Frankland, and Thomas Archer Hirst came from more humble backgrounds, and developed their scientific interests through mechanics’ institutes and mutual-improvement societies. (In Victorian society, we are reminded, “a man could become a gentleman.”) Herbert Spencer, William Spottiswoode, and John Lubbock were more recent members of the social circle.

Barton is less interested in professionalisation than in the “intertwining themes of hierarchy, class, and social status” and the “interaction between scientific expertise and social status”, which, she argues, was “at the heart of achieving standing within science”.

She also takes a fresh approach to the hoary old question of “science versus religion” in the 19th century, demonstrating that most of the members of the group were “deeply devout in early life”, Spencer being the only certain exception, and that, “although often in transmuted forms, religious sensibility remained important for many member of the Club.” She also challenges the stereotypical view of Oxford as an intransigently dogmatic body in its opposition to science.

While narrating the Club’s restless manoeuvring for positions of power at the Royal Institution, the Athenæum, and the Royal Society (the Presidency of which was held by members for 12 consecutive years), Barton also offers wider commentary on the whole scientific movement in Victorian Britain, and the new ways of thinking and modes of communication which were associated with that movement.

As the 137 pages of end matter attest, detail is “crucial to the argument of this book”. Serious students of Victorian Christian thought should attend to the detail, while the general reader can enjoy the view, which is panoramic.

Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and chairman of Gladstone’s Library.


The X Club: Power and authority in Victorian science
Ruth Barton
The University of Chicago Press £55
Church Times Bookshop £49.50

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