Biography

Professor Edward Forbes was elected as RSA Professor of Ancient Literature in 1854, succeeding John Wilson. Sadly Forbes died in the same year he was elected. The following passage is taken from the RSA Annual Report of 1854.

 

The Academy, at the Annual General Meeting at which this Report was read, proceeded to fill up the vacancies in their Honorary Professorships, and elected as the successor of Professor Wilson, in the Chair of Ancient Literature, Professor Edward Forbes, a gentleman who combined with his eminence in science, great knowledge and skill in Art, and the warm regard and friendship of the leading Artists of his time. Having previously obtained the consent of Professor Pyper, formerly their Professor of Antiquities, they had the satisfaction of electing that gentleman to the Chair of Ancient History. And the Professorship of Antiquities being made vacant by this transference, the Academy were glad to have an opportunity of conferring it on David Laing, Eq, of the Signet Library, a gentleman not less distinguished for his exact and extensive knowledge of these subjects, than for the readiness with which he has always been found willing to place his acquirements at the service of those Artists who have sought his aid. The lamented death of Professor Edward Forbes has again made the Chair of Ancient Literature vacant.

 

"[Forbes] was a talented naturalist, zoologist, palaeontologist, and a pioneer of biogeography. However, this esteemed scientist was also a poet and draughtsman with such discernible artistic abilities that very early in his career he moved to London to study drawing,but turned his back on art as a profession when refused admittance to the Royal Academy."

 

These words form the introduction of a significant paper on Forbes and his relationship with Professor John Goodsir (1814-1867) by Michael T. Tracy. Goodsir was a pioneer in the formulation of cell theory and Professor of Anatomy at Edinburgh University. His brother was Dr Harry Goodsir who perished on the doomed Franklin Expedition. Dr Goodsir was recently played by Paul Ready on the small screen in The Terror.

 

Given their close friendship, it is almost certain that John Goodsir carried out Forbes’ autopsy at his expressed wish, with John Hughes Bennett in attendance to record the findings. Goodsir had also taken a cast after the death of his dear friend which would later be used as a model for Sir John Steell RSA who sculpted a marble bust of Edward Forbes in 1856 for the University of Edinburgh.

 

Forbes’ death had a profound impact on Goodsir, and without hesitation, he assumed Forbes’ lectures on Natural History, and in 1856, he was able to address the Royal Medical Society on how physiological subjects tend to converge. In his personal diary after Forbes was buried he wrote of his profound grief, “Edward Forbes is dead and buried before me; - died this day, week – was buried on Thursday.  He behaved at the close with his old composure and considerateness, and sweetness of nature.”

 

Michael Tracy is one of the last surviving members of the Goodsir family, and third cousin of Professor John Goodsir.  For over 50 years, Tracy has been researching his family's history and the paper shared here presents that research and makes fascinating links between the historic work carried out by Professor Goodsir with contemporary work created by Christine Borland as part of her RSA Morton Award for Lens-Based Media.

 

We are delighted to be given the opportunity to provide first access to Michael Tracy's amazing and comprehensive research on Professors Forbes and Goodsir on our website.

 

Edward Forbes and John Goodsir by Michael T. Tracy

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