Paradigm, No. 1. (November, 1989)

19th-Century Biological Textbooks for Schools

Jean Russell-Gebbett

6 The Cloisters,
Nottingham NG9 2FR

The investigation was based on the thesis that certain 19th-century social factors are reflected in the content of school biological textbooks of the period. These factors are, health concerns related to urbanisation, Utilitarianism, Faculty Psychology, Victorian 'morality', Communication Developments. Physiology, Botany, Zoology and Biology textbooks of the period were examined and their contents recorded by a pagecount. Attitudes towards these subjects were collected from individual and official educational writings of the period. What were the findings for each subject? The inclusion of Physiology (the most popular of biological subjects in the schools over the period) was justified on utilitarian grounds as a health education vehicle. Content was predominantly the form and function of body systems with diagrams. The reproductive system was omitted from elementary textbooks, presumably due to Victorian prurience. Botany was justified by its 'powerful influence on moral and devotional character' and the fact that it 'trains the faculty of observation' (Patterson, Robert at the British Association Meeting 1841). Content was mainly the systematic presentation of the structure of flowering plants, together with notes of geographical distribution and economic importance of the plants concerned. There was no attempt to include a discussion of evolution until the close of the century. Vocational arguments led to the inclusion of Zoology at an advanced level for pupils going forward to medical training. Biology did not enter schools until the turn of the century but it was important in that the textbook content emphasised the common nature of life processes in all living things. (Man no longer stood apart from the living world.) Biology textbooks frequently derived their format from T. H. Huxley's example, with consciously selected 'types' of animals for study in order to illustrate evolutionary development.

The earliest school biology textbook in this country seems to be Huxley and Marshall's Science Primer (1875). This contained no reference to any mammal whatsoever. Evidently, Victorian society could not accept this crucial step in the newly propounded theory of the evolution of Man.

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