Biography of Edward Tyson
Edward Tyson was born into a Church of England family of some means. After attending private schools in Bristol, he entered Magdalen Hall, Oxford in 1667. There he was strongly influenced by the naturalist Robert Plot (1640-1696), the first professor of chemistry at Oxford and the first keeper of the Ashmolean Museum. Tyson received his B.A. from Oxford in 1667, and his M.A. in 1673. During this six-year period he performed many dissections on diverse animals and worked in botany, being influenced by Nehemiah Grew’s (1641-1712) The Anatomy of Vegetables Begun (1673).
In 1673 Tyson began medical studies, receiving a bachelor of medicine degree from Oxford in 1677. In the same year his first publication appeared in Robert Plot’s Natural History of Oxfordshire.
In 1677 Tyson moved to London and took up residence with his brother-in-law Richard Morton (1637-1698), in whose house he carried out various experiments, particularly in anatomy. He became affiliated with several members of the Royal Sociiety and soon developed a close relationship to Robert Hooke (1635-1703). During hist first several years in London, starting in February 1678, Tyson published a handful of papers on morbid anatomy and pathological subjects in the Philosophical Transactions and Thomas Bartholin’s (1616-1680) Acta medica et philosophica hafniensa.
A comparable man
Tyson’s first major contribution in comparative anatomy, published in 1680 under the title Phocaena, or the anatomy of a Porpess . . . was a description of a dolphin. In the part “A Preliminary Discourse Concerning Anatomy and a Natural History of Animals,” he gives an outline for a proposed natural history of animals.” Tyson criticizes the earlier encyclopaedic style of natural history, which placed more emphasis on other authors than on the natural objects.
Here and in other anatomical works Tyson repeats his belief in the Great Chain of Being as seen in a gradation between all animals and the existence of intermediate types between each of the major groups. Tyson thinks his “Porpess” is the transitional link between the fishes and the land quadrupeds.
Through arrangements made by Hooke – who attended the dissection and did the drawings that were later engraved and published in Tyson’s Phocaena – Tyson was able to dissect the dolphin in November 1679. Tyson hoped the description he presented of his “Porpess” would serve as a model and provide inspiration for others.
The following year, in the preface to the English edition of Jan Swammedam’s Empheri vita (London, 1681), Tyson repeated the idea that studies of individual species would be the basis of any general natural history.
A man of the establishment
By 1681 Tyson was well established in London as a comparative anatomist and as a physician. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1679, received a doctorate of physics from Cambridge and was admitted a candidate of the Royal College of Physicians in 1680, and was elected to the first of many terms in the council of the Royal Society in 1681. In 1683 Tyson was appointed one of the two curators of the Royal Society who were responsible for providing demonstrations at each meeting.
Tyson was also elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and later he served as a censor of the college. The following year Tyson was appointed to two positions which had just become vacant – the Ventera readership in anatomy at the Surgeons Hall, from which he retired in 1699, and physician to Bethlehem and Bridewell Hospitals, the world’s oldest psychiatric hospital, now the Royal Bethlehem Hospital. He he later served as governor. In 1686 Tyson was elected a member of the Philosophical Society of Oxford.
On rattlenakes, glands and opossums
After 1680 about half of Tyson’s publications, mostly in the Philosophical Transactions, dealt with with natural history. A major part of this described pathological cases like monstrous development and abnormal births. In 1683 Tyson described the anatomy of a rattlesnake, which had been brought to England from Virginia. This was probably the most complete study of any reptile until then. Later in the same year he described both the broad tapeworm and the roundworm of man as well as a specimen of the Mexican warthog. Because decomposition had begun on the latter, Tyson concentrated on the animal’s dorsal scent gland. Glands, and particularly scent glands, were a subject of recurrent interest to Tyson.
Tyson had learned from Veslius’ book that anatomical studies require good illustrations as well as verbal descriptions. His study of roundworms, Ascaris lumbricoides which he called Lumbricus teres, contained the first illustration of dissected internal parasites, showing male, female, and eggs – no fewer than 1000 of the latter being his estimate. He believed they reproduced sexually within the intestine, but he had no idea how they got there.
Tyson had more trouble understanding tapeworms. He did identify, describe, and illustrate the head of a tapeworm from a dog (now called Taenia pisiformis), which was about 5 feet long. This helped him to reject the common belief that it was not a single worm but many linked together. He also described and illustrated a tapeworm from a young man about 20 years old that was 24 feet long and had 507 segments. However, Tyson thought the genital pores were mouths and he failed to study the internal anatomy of the proglottids. Since he knew of no free-living worms resembling them, and since he failed to find reproductive organs, he could not understand how they arose. Tyson was the first to recognize that the tapered end of the worm was the head.
Sharks and glands
In 1685 Tyson contributed two descriptions of a shark embryo and of the lumpfish, to John Ray’s (1628-1705) edition of Francis Willughby’s (1635-1672) History of Fishes (De historia piscium, 1686). Also in 1685 Tyson supplied a considerable amount of comparative-anatomical material to Samuel Collins (1619-1670) for the latter’s A Systeme of Anatomy. In his own Myotomia Reformata (1694) William Cowper (1666-1709) published Tyson’s discovery of the preputial and coronal glands in the glans penis of man. This discovery is perhaps the only thing for which Tyson may be remembered in medicine.
A live opossum was taken to London from Virginia in 1697. Its death in April 1698 provided Tyson with the material for one of his best anatomical descriptions. Fortunately for Tyson the specimen was female, and he focused on the peculiarities of the reproductive system. He described the marsupium and the marsupial bones. In 1704 Tyson published an anatomy of a male oppssum, on which Cowper collaborated with him.
In 1699 Tyson published his best-known work, Orang-Outang, Sive Homo Sylvestris: or, the Anatomy of a Pygmie Compared With That of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man. “Orang-Outang” is a native Malaysian term for “man of woods” and was long used as a generic term for the larger nonhuman primates.
The animal described was actually a young – two to three years old – chimpanzee from Angola. The chimpanzee had died a few months after its arrival in London in 1698. Its death was the result of an infection to a wound contracted after an accident aboard a ship on its voyage to England. Tyson was ably assisted on the Orang-Outang by Cowper, who did the sections on myology, did the drawings for all of the magnificent plates that illustrate the text, and mounted the skeleton, which is now at the British Museum (Natural History).
His investigations led Tyson to the conclusion that what he was examining was neither a variety of human or a monkey but that ”Our Pygmie” is no man, nor yet the Common Ape; but a sort of animal that belonged between man and the apes. He was surprised that the orangutan’s brain was so similar to that of man, because there is so much differeence between a man’s soul and the soul of the brutes that one would expect a greater difference in their respective organs of the soul.
By good fortune the skeleton of the unfortunate chimpanzee has survived. It passed through the generations of the Tyson family until it was depositied, on loan, to the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London in 1820. It was reclaimed in 1821 and sometimes before 1863 the husband of one of Tyson’s great-great-grandnieceas, Dr. James Allardyce, gave it to the Cheltenham Hospital, which in 1894 gave it to the British Museum. It is still to be seen on display in the Natural History Museum, London to this day.
The last section of Tyson’s Orang-Outang is devoted to “A Philological Essay Concerning the Pygmies of the Ancient.” In this major, early contribution to the study of the folklore of the primates Tyson tried to demonstrate that the many references to assorted, but similar, creatures in ancient literature really referred to a nonhuman primate such as his orangutan.
In Tyson’s time, stories of man and apes triggered the fantasy of many writers. Of particular interest was the question of whether humans and apes could have offspring. In 1783, Foucher d’Obsonville (1734-1802) suggested the experimental crossing of orang-utan and human. Tyson maintained that orang-utans had a taste for white blondes, while later learned men repeatedly reported sexual raids on young black girls and women, as well as sexual violence against white women.
An interesting fact about the man who first drew the attention of the learned world to the fact that in the Great Chain of Being the anthropoid ape was the nearest link to man, was an ascendant relation to Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Edward Tyson and Charles Darwin had a common ancestor in Richard Foley (1580-1657). Foley was Tyson’s maternal grandfather and Darwin’s great-great-great grandfather. Tyson’s mother was Margaret Foley, Darwin’s great-grandmother was Penelope Foley who was born in the year of Tyson’s death, 1708, and died in 1749.
Tyson was a quiet man of orderly habits who occurs seldom in contemporary references and correspondence. Apparently his chief delight came from his studies. He died suddenly in 1708 at the age of 57. His funeral was not only attended by luminaries of the scientific and medical worlds, but also by many of the patients he had cared for.
Tyson was an able, progressive and humane hospital administrator who introduced female nurses to the Bethlehem Hospital, established an outpatients clinic so that former patients could return for free treatment and medicines and instituted a system of post-institutional care where former patients were followed up to help them avoid relapse.
He was not only the father of comparative anatomy in England and the founder of primateology but his work influenced many other significant men of science, such as John Ray, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) and Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707-1788).
His tombstone bears the inscription “in arte anatomica plane singularis.”