Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Joseph Taylor Goodsir

Largo Kirk (photo by James Denham CC-by-SA)
On the occasion of Harry Goodsir's two hundred and first birthday, it seems fitting to recall some of the other members of his illustrious family. His brother John was certainly the best known; an eminent anatomist and pioneer in cellular theory, he was for many years a Professor at the University of Edinburgh. Those who know Harry will almost certainly know Robert, who participated in two searches for the Franklin Expedition, and wrote a book about one of them; he later emigrated to Australia. The least well-known may be his sister, Jane Ross Goodsir, who kept Harry's memory alive, even saving some of his old laundry receipts!

The Pulpit at Largo Kirk
But perhaps the most enigmatic and tragic figure among the Goodsirs was Joseph Taylor Goodsir (1815-1893). Unlike his more scientifically-minded siblings, Joseph found himself drawn to theology; after attending United College at St. Andrews, he studied divinity at the University of Edinburgh from 1833 to 1837. Although his grandfather John Goodsir (1746-1816), had long preached at the Baptist meeting house in Largo, Joseph aimed for a post in the established Church of Scotland. His father sought out the aid of Admiral Sir Philip Durham -- a man whose influence he would call upon again in 1845 to help Harry get his post with Franklin -- and through him secured an appointment for Joseph as the minster of Largo Kirk in 1843. Given the nature of the post -- it was more or less a lifetime sinecure -- Joseph's future would seem to have been assured. And yet, in 1850, he abruptly resigned his position, offering by way of explanation only his conviction that “the standards of the Church were not consistent with the teaching of the scripture."

Surely one factor may have been the emotional toll of the preceding years, years which saw the deaths of  John Goodsir (1782-1848) as well as the energetic Archie, youngest of the brothers. Harry's fate was yet unknown, though what news had reached home -- such as the discovery of the graves on Beechey Island (by a party that included Robert Goodsir) -- was not encouraging. But there also seems to have been a certain bent of mind among all the Goodsirs: a laser-sharp intellect paired with an almost-obsessive energy, so much so that nervous exhaustion was often the result. For Harry, this became a fascination with natural history, an enthusiasm which - by the account of his shipmates -- was both congenial and contagious. For John, it meant long hours in the laboratory and dissecting-rooms, combined with teaching duties. For Joseph, it seems to have meant an extensive study of scripture, and a series of theological tracts critical of the established church, which eventually led him out of the pulpit entirely. It seems significant that none of the Goodsir brothers ever married -- they all seem to have been too busy for such engagements.

Joseph ended up a man without a real profession; his sister Jane looked after him. Increasingly troubled by fits of melancholy, he was twice admitted to the Royal Edinburgh Asylum (in 1856 and 1858). His closest relationship in these years was with his brother John; the two travelled together to Berlin and later to Rome. John's death in 1867 was a heavy blow, but Joseph managed to fight off the shadows by throwing himself into organizing his brother's scientific papers for publication. For a time, it seemed as though this work had re-invigorated him; in 1868 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Yet it was not to be a lasting thing. As he had with theology, so now with science he threw himself into disputes. When, later that same year, the Royal Society proposed making Rudolph Virchow an honorary Fellow, he fixed upon some passages in Virchow's work that he felt insufficiently acknowledged John Goodsir's research. Indeed, though the passages were only roughly similar, he accused Virchow of plagiarism, and wrote an angry pamphlet as part of a one-man-campaign against Virchow. Needless to say, it did not endear him to his fellow Fellows, who elected Virchow anyway.

The remainder of his life was largely a story of a very gradual decline, punctuated with additional bouts of melancholia; though he purchased a small cottage, attended some lectures, and took up projects such as making scrap-books, none of these activities seemed to lift his spirits. Finally, on 29 April 1881, he was again admitted to the Asylum for melancholia and suicidal thoughts; he would never leave again. He died there on 27 April, 1893.


With my deepest thanks to Mike Tracy, whose research on his Goodsir relations provided the basis for this post.


  1. The National Records of Scotland which can be located at www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk do indicate in the Wills section that Goodsir died at The Royal Asylum, Morningside , Edinburgh. Did Mike Tracy get a copy of the Will ? I bet the details would be interesting!

    1. Yes, we have the will. We're just having it looked at by a legal historian.