William Benjamin Carpenter

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William Benjamin Carpenter
William Carpenter.jpg
Born(1813-10-29)29 October 1813
Exeter, Devon, England
Died19 November 1885(1885-11-19) (aged 72)
London, England
Resting placeHighgate Cemetery
51°34′01″N 0°08′49″E / 51.567°N 0.147°E / 51.567; 0.147
Alma mater
OccupationPhysiologist, neurologist, naturalist
Years active1839–1879
SpouseLouisa Powell (1840–1885)
ChildrenFive sons
Parent(s)Dr Lant Carpenter,
Anna Carpenter née Penn
RelativesPhilip Pearsall Carpenter (brother))
Russell Lant Carpenter (brother)
Mary Carpenter (sister)
Geoffrey Douglas Hale Carpenter (grandson)
AwardsRoyal Medal (1861)
Lyell Medal (1883) Smith, Roger (September 2004). "Carpenter, William Benjamin (1813–1885)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/4742. Retrieved 24 June 2010. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
William Benjamin Carpenter Signature.png

William Benjamin Carpenter CB FRS (29 October 1813 – 19 November 1885)[1][2] was an English physician, invertebrate zoologist and physiologist. He was instrumental in the early stages of the unified University of London.


Carpenter was born on 29 October 1813 in Exeter, the eldest son of Dr Lant Carpenter and his wife, Anna Carpenter (née Penn). His father was an important Unitarian preacher who, according to Adrian Desmond, influenced a "rising generation of Unitarian intellectuals, including James Martineau and the Westminster Review's John Bowring." From his father, Carpenter learned to believe in the essential lawfulness of creation and that explanations of the world were to be found in physical causes. He embraced this "naturalistic cosmogony" as his starting point.[3]

Carpenter was apprenticed in 1828 to the eye surgeon John Bishop Estlin, who was also the son of a Unitarian minister. He attended lectures at Bristol Medical School, later studied at University College London (1834–35), and then went to the University of Edinburgh (1835–39), where he received his MD in 1839. He was elected as a member to the American Philosophical Society in 1845.[4] In 1871, he received an LL.D. from the University of Edinburgh.[2][3]

Family grave of William Benjamin Carpenter in Highgate Cemetery

On his resignation in 1879, Carpenter was appointed CB in recognition of his services to education. He died on 19 November 1885 in London, from burn injuries occasioned by the accidental upsetting of the fire heating a vapour bath he was taking.

He was buried in a family grave in the dissenters section on the western side of Highgate Cemetery (plot no.26844). [2][3]


His graduation thesis on the nervous system of invertebrates[5] won a gold medal, and led to his first books.[6][7] His work in comparative neurology was recognised in 1844 by his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society. His appointment as Fullerian Professor of Physiology at the Royal Institution in 1845 enabled him to exhibit his powers as a teacher and lecturer. His gift of ready speech and luminous interpretation placing him in the front rank of exponents, at a time when the popularisation of science was in its infancy.[8]

Carpenter in 1850

He worked hard as investigator, author, editor, demonstrator and lecturer throughout his life; but it was his researches in marine zoology, notably in the lower organisms, as Foraminifera and Crinoids, that were most valuable.[9] These researches gave an impetus to deep-sea exploration and led Carpenter alongside the naturalist C. W. Thomson to lead the exploration missions of HMS Lightning and HMS Porcupine in northern Scotland from 1868 to 1870.[10] The analysis of the physical observations made during these first cruises allowed Carpenter to sketch a new theory of the global ocean circulation, which differed in several points from the pioneering theory of the hydrographer M. Maury.[11] Based on the context of the time including the development of underwater telegraphy,[12] Carpenter was the main architect in convincing both the Admiralty and the British government to undertake a large-scale oceanographic expedition in order to extend observations on a global scale. These efforts led to the HMS Challenger circumnavigation from 1872 to 1876 which was the first major oceanographic expedition.[13] He took a keen and laborious interest in the evidence adduced by Canadian geologists as to the organic nature of the so-called Eozoon canadense, discovered in the Laurentian strata, also called the North American craton, and at the time of his death had nearly finished a monograph on the subject, defending the now discredited theory of its animal origin. He was adept in the use of the microscope, and his popular treatise on it stimulated many to explore this new aid.[14] He was president of the Quekett Microscopical Club from 1883 to 1885. He was awarded the Royal Medal in 1861.[8]

Carpenter's most famous work is The Use and Abuse of Alcoholic Liquors in Health and Disease. The first printing of the first edition was published in London by Charles Gilpin in March 1850.[15] It was one of the first temperance books (Washingtonian Movement) to promote the fact that alcoholism is a disease.[8]

In 1856 Carpenter became Registrar of the University of London, and held the office for twenty-three years. He gave qualified support to Darwin but he had reservations as to the application of evolution to man's intellectual and spiritual nature.[8][16] He also demonstrated his commitment to the education of women, by teaching at the newly founded Bedford College, London in 1849 and 1850.[17]

Adaptive unconscious[edit]

Carpenter is considered one of the founders of the modern theory of the adaptive unconscious. Together with William Hamilton and Thomas Laycock they provided the foundations on which adaptive unconscious is based today. They observed that the human perceptual system almost completely operates outside of conscious awareness. These same observations have been made by Hermann Helmholtz. Because these views were in conflict with the theories of Descartes, they were largely neglected, until the cognitive revolution of the 1950s. In 1874 Carpenter noticed that the more he studied the mechanism of thought, the more clear it became that it operates largely outside awareness. He noticed that the unconscious prejudices can be stronger than conscious thought and that they are more dangerous since they happen outside of conscious.[8]

He also noticed that emotional reactions can occur outside of conscious until attention is drawn to them:

"Our feelings towards persons and objects may undergo most important changes, without our being in the least degree aware, until we have our attention directed to our own mental state, of the alteration which has taken place in them."[18]

He also asserted both the freedom of the will and the existence of the ego.[8]

Psychical research[edit]

Carpenter was a critic of claims of paranormal phenomena, psychical research and spiritualism, which he wrote were "epidemic delusions".[19]

He was the author of the book Mesmerism, Spiritualism, Etc: Historically and Scientifically Considered (1877), which is seen as an early text on anomalistic psychology. According to Carpenter, Spiritualist practices could be explained by psychological factors such as hypnotism and suggestion.[19] He rejected any occult or supernatural interpretation of hypnotism or trance-like states and insisted they were explained entirely by the physiology of the human mind.[19] He argued that ideomotor effect could explain the phenomena of dowsing and table-turning. After experimental researches with tables, Michael Faraday credited to Carpenter the theoretical explanations for the results that he obtained.[20]

Carpenter identified as a rationalist and a Unitarian. Although critical of spiritualism, he was interested in the subject of "thought reading".[19] He defended the mentalist Washington Irving Bishop who he had experimented with and considered such feats to be of great interest to the study of physiology. This angered his colleagues, who felt that his public support for Bishop might damage the respectability of the scientific community. He was criticized by George Romanes and T. H. Huxley for his interest in thought reading.[19]

Carpenter was a believer in a divine first cause. Historian Shannon Delorme has noted that although he was considered a "great debunker of all humbug", his scientific thought was influenced by Unitarian culture that accommodated both materialist and teleological arguments.[19]

Family information[edit]

Carpenter married Louisa Powell in 1840 in Bristol. Louisa was born about 1815–1820 in England; she died in 1885.[citation needed] Among their children were:


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Smith, Roger (September 2004). "Carpenter, William Benjamin (1813–1885)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/4742. Retrieved 24 June 2010. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ a b c "Sketch of W. B. Carpenter". The Popular Science Monthly. 28: 538–544. February 1886. ISSN 0161-7370.
  3. ^ a b c Desmond, Adrian (1989). "Chapter 5: Accommodation and Domestication: Dealing with Geoffroy's Anatomy – W. B. Carpenter and Lawful Morphology". The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine, and Reform in Radical London. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 210. ISBN 0-226-14346-5.
  4. ^ "APS Member History". search.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved 12 April 2021.
  5. ^ Carpenter WB (1839). The Physiological Inferences to be deduced from the Structure of the Nervous System of Invertebrated Animals. Edinburgh: The University of Edinburgh.
  6. ^ Carpenter WB (1839). Principles of General and Comparative Physiology. London: Churchill.
  7. ^ Carpenter WB (1859) [First published 1843]. Animal Physiology. London: H. G. Bohn.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Thomas, KB (2008). Gillispie CC (ed.). Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Vol. 3. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 87–89, (005006490) R920.
  9. ^ Carpenter W.B. 1845. Zoology: being a systematic account of the general structure, habits, instincts and uses of the principal families of the animal kingdom. 2 vols: Orr, London.
  10. ^ Aitken, Frédéric; Foulc, Jean-Numa (2019). "2". From deep sea to laboratory. 1 : the first explorations of the deep sea by H.M.S. Challenger (1872-1876). London.: ISTE-Wiley. ISBN 9781786303745.
  11. ^ Aitken, Frédéric; Foulc, Jean-Numa (2019). "Chapter 1". From deep sea to laboratory. 2 : Discovering H.M.S. Challenger's physical measurements relating to ocean circulation. London, UK: ISTE-WILEY. ISBN 9781786303752.
  12. ^ Aitken, Frédéric; Foulc, Jean-Numa (2019). "Chapter 1". From deep sea to laboratory. 1 : the first explorations of the deep sea by H.M.S. Challenger (1872-1876). London.: ISTE-Wiley. ISBN 9781786303745.
  13. ^ Aitken, Frédéric; Foulc, Jean-Numa (2019). From deep sea to laboratory. 1 : the first explorations of the deep sea by H.M.S. Challenger (1872-1876). London.: ISTE-Wiley. ISBN 9781786303745.
  14. ^ Carpenter W.B. 1856. The microscope and its revelations.
  15. ^ Title page and preface from 1st edition 1st printing, private collection
  16. ^ Desmond, A. 1989. The politics of evolution p419. Chicago.
  17. ^ Brown, Megan Katherine (2011). "A College for Women, or Something Like It": Bedford College and the Women's Higher Education Movement, 1849–1900". Portland State University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing: 75.
  18. ^ Carpenter, W.B. 1875. Principles of mental physiology. 2nd ed. King, London. p24-8, 516–7, 519–20, 539–41.
  19. ^ a b c d e f Delorme, Shannon. (2014). Physiology or psychic powers? William Carpenter and the debate over spiritualism in Victorian Britain. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 48: 57-66.
  20. ^ Faraday, M. (1853). "Experimental investigation of table-moving". Journal of the Franklin Institute. 56 (5): 328–333. doi:10.1016/s0016-0032(38)92173-8. Finally, I beg to direct attention to the discourse delivered by Dr. Carpenter at the Royal Institution on the 12th of March, 1852, entitled 'On the influence of Suggestion in modifying and directing Muscular Movement, independently of Volition':-which, especially in the latter part, should be considered in reference to table moving by all who are interested in the subject.
  21. ^ Bonney TG; rev. Quirke VM (2004). "Carpenter, Philip Herbert (1852–1891)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/4735. Retrieved 24 June 2010. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  22. ^ Long AJ (September 2004). "Carpenter, (Joseph) Estlin (1844–1927)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/32303. Retrieved 24 June 2010. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  23. ^ International Plant Names Index.  W.B.Carp.

External links[edit]

Academic offices
Preceded by Fullerian Professor of Physiology
Succeeded by