Robert Edmund Grant

From Academic Kids

Robert Edmond Grant (1793-1874), born in Edinburgh and educated at Edinburgh University as a doctor, became one of the foremost biologists of the early 19th century at Edinburgh and subsequently a professor at London University, particularly noted for his influence on Charles Darwin.


Marine biology and Lamarckian evolution

Having obtained his MD at Edinburgh in 1814 and become a doctor, he gave up medical practice to become a specialist in marine biology and invertebrate zoology, living on a legacy from his father. As a materialist freethinker, probably a deist, and politically radical, he was open to ideas in biology that were considered subversive in the repressive conservative climate of Britain in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, and it is notable that he cited in his doctoral thesis Erasmus Darwin's Zo÷nomia, a work notorious for evolution theory foreshadowing Lamarck. Grant travelled widely visiting universities in France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland and came into contact with the French zoologist ╔tienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire who espoused the Lamarckian theory of Evolution through acquired characteristics.

Grant studied marine life around the Firth of Forth, collecting specimens around the shores near a house he took at Prestonpans as well as from fishing boats, and becoming an expert on the taxonomy and functioning of sponges and sea-slugs. He considered that the same laws of life affected all organisms, from monad to man (in this context monad means a hypothetical primitive living organism or unit of organic life). Following Lamarck, Grant arranged life into a chain, or an escalator, which was kept moving upwards by the appearance of spontaneously emerging monads at its base. He followed Saint-Hilaire by suggesting that all life shared a 'unity of plan'.

International reputation and influence on Darwin

Grant was a stalwart of the Plinian society for student naturalists which Darwin joined in the autumn of 1826 while starting his second year of medical studies at Edinburgh University. Darwin became Grant's keenest student and assisted him with collecting specimens as well as learning from Grant's knowledge and theories. During that winter and spring Grant published twenty papers in the Edinburgh journals, mostly on sponges, eggs and larvae, which won him an international reputation, with the papers getting translated into French. Grant took Darwin as a guest to the Wernerian society which was held in professor Robert Jameson's room with membership restricted to MDs, where Darwin saw a demonstration by John James Audubon. On March 24 1827 Grant announced to the society that Darwin had established that black spores often found in oyster shells were the eggs of a skate leech, and published a paper on this discovery, while Darwin himself made a presentation on March 27 announcing this and his observations on sea-slug larvae to the Plinian society. Darwin contributed to Grant's investigations into the 'unity of plan' of animals which culminated with Grant's announcement to the Wernerian society that he had identified the pancreas in molluscs, demonstrated with a pinned-out sea-slug. This showed a homology between these simple creatures and mammals, tying them into his controversial chain of life.

London University

Grant then became a lecturer at London University where he taught from 1828 to 1874 and introduced academic comparative anatomy into England. Darwin had failed to progress his medical studies at Edinburgh and moved in 1827 to a theological course at Christ's College, Cambridge where he studied the doctrines of Paley which were diametrically opposed to Grant's. They met again in 1831 when Darwin visited him to get advice on storing specimens immediately before setting out on the Voyage of the Beagle.

Professor Grant became very involved in radical and democratic causes, campaigning for a new Zoological Society museum run professionally rather than by aristocratic grandees and trying to turn the British Museum into a research institution run along French lines. He was opposed by Tories who attacked him for supporting "the reptile press" and its "blasphemous derision of the truths of Christianity" and succeeded in getting him voted out of a post at the Zoological Society. When Darwin returned from his voyage with a large collection of specimens looking for assistance with their cataloguing and classification, Grant was one of the few to offer to examine the specimens but was turned down. It appears that Darwin did not want his work associated with controversy, though this resulted in the corals not being monographed, and they do not seem to had further contact. The ambitious Tory Richard Owen was vehemently opposed to Grant's evolution theory and succeeded in supplanting him at the Zoological Society as he moved to topple the "great Grant" as the city's leading comparative anatomist.


  • Darwin, Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Michael Joseph, the Penguin Group, London 1991 ISBN 0-7181-3430-3

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