TRR Stebbing (1835-1926) was a cleric and gentleman-naturalist chiefly remembered for two major works on the classification of amphipod crustacea, and for his contribution to the reports of the HMS Challenger expedition. His life spanned a fascinating period of social and scientific change, and Stebbing managed to remain a Christian in his own fashion whilst mounting a continuous and passionate defence of Darwinian evolutionary theory.
TRR Stebbing: his life
Thomas Roscoe Rede Stebbing was born in Euston Square, London on 6 February 1835, the seventh child of fourteen born to the poet, historian, clergyman and sometime Athenaeum editor, Henry Stebbing (1799-1883).
He experienced a childhood rich in literature and education, but poor in material resources. Thomas began his education at King's College School and King's College London, where he received his BA in 1855. He went up to Oxford in 1853, matriculating at Lincoln College before moving to Worcester College in pursuit of a well-paid scholarship. Here he took a First in Law and Modern History, to compensate for the Second in Classics he achieved whilst studying concurrently for his degree at King's.
Like his father before him he moved to the Church, and was ordained into the priesthood in 1859 by the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, who ironically was later a fierce opponent of the theory of natural selection. Stebbing held the positions of tutor, lecturer in Divinity, Vice-Provost and Dean at Worcester until he resigned his fellowship in 1868, supplementing his meagre academic's income with masterships at Radley and Wellington schools.
However, the critical period of his life began when he moved to Reigate in 1863 to work as a private tutor. At Reigate Stebbing came into contact with the botanist and entomologist William Wilson Saunders, whose daughter Mary Anne he married in 1867. Leaving Oxford behind and working solely as a teacher, Stebbing and his new wife moved to Torquay where they joined an active group of naturalists. This group included the geologist William Pangelly, the man credited with turning Stebbing's attentions away from literary scholarship and towards natural science.
Stebbing and Darwin
It was around this time in his early scientific career that Stebbing fell under the influence of Darwin. He admitted that after his training in strict evangelical theology he fully expected to oppose the new doctrine, "but on reading The Origin of Species, as a preliminary, it has to be confessed that, instead of confuting, I became his ardent disciple" (Stebbing, 1923). What is perhaps strange is that despite his Darwinist beliefs, evolutionary ideas were never really apparent in Stebbing's systematic work on amphipods, although it was central to his thought in large numbers of his essays and addresses.
Beginning with his Essays on Darwinism in 1871, Stebbing published many essays addressed to the unconvinced, defending evolution by natural selection, dissecting opposing arguments and questioning the authority of the Bible as an authentic record of the beginning of life. For Stebbing, Darwin had changed the world, created the biology of the modern era, and on a personal level had caused his conversion, from an evangelical with a literal belief in scripture, to a religious rationalist. However, he managed to remain a committed Christian, believing in God's love and the imitation of Christ rather than in dogma. He was so outspoken on the topic that he was banned from preaching and was never offered a parish.
In 1877 Thomas and Mary Anne moved to Tunbridge Wells in order to increase Thomas's potential for earnings occasioned by the greater number of students in London, as well as allowing them closer access to scientific circles and to the great libraries and museums. It was after this move that his career as a published natural scientist really began. He kept to a strict and regular timetable of study, which at first had to be combined with his teaching work, but the subsequent easing of his financial problems meant he could devote all his time to studying amphipoda. His productivity is shown by his bibliography which contains more than 180 titles, despite the fact that his scientific endeavours did not begin until he entered his thirties.
Stebbing and the HMS Challenger
However, it was the monograph he produced on the amphipoda collected on the Challenger expedition under the famous oceanographer Sir Charles Wyville Thomson that really made Stebbing's reputation. Stebbing received this work through his connection with fellow clerical gentleman-naturalist A.M. Norman, who was a member of the Challenger Committee responsible for selecting specialists to examine the collections made on the scientific expedition between 1873 and 1876.
Initially it was intended the two men would collaborate on the study but Norman was too busy and in the end the whole collection was offered to Stebbing, who gave up teaching in 1882 to produce arguably his finest achievement. T.R.R. Stebbing's huge work on the Challenger amphipoda was published in 1888. His classical education and his talent for languages were brought to bear on the 600-page work of taxonomy and systematics. His intention was to quote the original definition of each known genus of amphipoda and accompany it by a literature reference and date for each species, and in the process he created a document which is still an important work for modern day scholars in the field.
In subsequent years Stebbing enjoyed respect and prominence amongst the scientific community, publishing many works on decapods, isopods, amphipods, zoological nomenclature, religious philosophy and Darwinism, amongst other topics.
He wrote essays for popular and semi-popular audiences as well as drier and more technical works. He was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1895 and of the Royal Society in 1896. He was both Vice-President and Zoological Secretary of the former and was awarded the Gold Medal of the society in 1908. Being an active participant in the Tunbridge Wells Natural History and Philosophical Society, he helped to found the Southeastern Union of Scientific Societies, which became an arena where he could expound his views on religion and science.
In 1906 he contributed a volume on gammaridean amphipoda to the German series Das Tierreich, creating in effect a systematic catalogue to accompany the history of amphipod classification contained within his Challenger report. No similar volume to this 1906 work appeared until J. L Barnard's catalogue was published in 1969, and this complemented Stebbing's work rather than superseding it. Stebbing's genius did not lie in new investigative research, and in any case he lacked the scientific training to facilitate this, but instead in his neatness, accuracy and thoroughness. "He was the best editor that the literature of the Amphipoda has had and his work lives because it still provides a basic systematic core and bibliography when it is needed" (Mills, p.245 1972).
The Stebbing Collection consists of Stebbing's personal library, which was donated to King's College London by his wife Mary Anne, following his death in 1926. It contains material reflecting both the output and the interests of the man himself.
As can be seen below, all of Stebbing's works mentioned on this page are present, alongside other examples of his scientific writings. There is a selection of material dealing with the Challenger expedition by those scientists and observers present, and a range of other natural history works, reflecting Stebbing's interest in crustacea, but also in the general study of zoological classification and Darwinism.
The age of the material ranges from the eighteenth century to the 1920s, with most of the books dating from the mid to late nineteenth century, reflecting Stebbing's main period of intellectual activity. Famous scientists such as Darwin, Lamarck and Cuvier are represented. One of the items, Duméril's Zoologie analytique, was previously owned by Jeremy Bentham. Many of the books contain beautiful hand coloured plates and diagrams.
All the standard size works in the collection, numbering around 100 items, have been catalogued and can be searched for on the online library catalogue. The folio works are at present uncatalogued but are available for consultation.
Some items of interest from the collection
C. Duméril. Zoologie analytique, ou Méthode naturelle de classification des animaux. Paris, 1806. [T.Stebbing Collection QL352. DUM]
T.R.R Stebbing. The Challenger amphipoda, London, 1883. [Stebbing Collection QL435 STE]
T.R.R Stebbing. Essays on Darwinism. London: Longmans,1871. [Stebbing Collection QH369. St31]
T.R.R Stebbing. A history of crustacea. London: Kegan Paul, Trench. Trübner & Co.,1893. [Stebbing Collection QL435 STE]
Philipp Jakob Sachse de Lewenheimb. Gammarologia, sive, Gammarorum, vulgo cancrorum consideratio physico-philologico-historico-medico-chymica. Francofurti & Lipsiae: Esaiae Fellgibelii, 1665. [Stebbing Collection QL444. M3 SAC]
C. Wyville Thomson. The voyage of the Challenger. 2 v. London: Macmillan, 1877. [Stebbing Collection Q115 THO]
A list of the catalogued books in the Stebbing Collection can be obtained from the Library catalogue. The Foyle Special Collections Library has a good deal of complementary material in other collections, such as the Early Science Collection and the De Beer Collection, the latter being the personal library of books by and about Darwin kept by the Oxford zoologist Sir Gavin De Beer.
E. L. Mills. "Amphipods and equipoise: a study of T.R.R. Stebbing", in Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1972. 44, 239-256.
"Rev. Thomas Roscoe Rede Stebbing", in Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, session 139 (1926-1927), 101-103.
T.R.R. Stebbing. "An autobiographical sketch", in Proceedings and Transactions of the Torquay Natural History Society,1923, 4, 1-5.