Philip Henry Gosse was born in Gloucester on April 6th, 1810 the son of an itinerant painter of miniature portraits and a lady's maid.
His childhood years were spent in Poole, Dorset, and much of his early interest in zoology and drawing was encouraged and taught by his aunt, Susan Bell.
At fifteen he began work as a clerk in the counting house of George Garland & Sons in Poole. Two years later, in 1827, he sailed to Newfoundland to serve as a clerk in the Carbonear premises of Slade, Elson & Co., where he became a dedicated, self-taught student of Newfoundland entomology.
In 1832 Gosse experienced a religious conversion—as he said, "solemnly, deliberately and uprightly, took God for my God." This was to influence him in a profound way as her tried to reconcile his religious and scientific values and their conflicts with each other.
In 1835 he left Newfoundland for Compton, Lower Canada and there farmed unsuccessfully for three years. Despite this failure it deepened his love for the natural world. Locals referred to him as "that crazy Englishman who goes about picking up bugs."
In 1838 Gosse was in Alabama for eight months teaching. There he studied and drew the local flora and fauna, and assembled it into an unpublished volume, Entomologia Alabamensis, on insect life in the state. He was also able to view at first hand the horrific injustice of slavery. These episodes too he wrote down and later published as Letters from Alabama (1859).
On his return to England in 1839, he was hard pressed to make a living. It was only when John Van Voorst, the leading publisher of naturalist writing, agreed to publish his Canadian Naturalist (1840) that his fortunes began to improve. The book was widely praised and demonstrated that Gosse "had a practical grasp of the importance of conservation, far ahead of his time."
Gosse then opened a "Classical and Commercial School for Young Gentlemen" as a sideline to recording detailed records of his microscopic investigations of pond life, especially cyclopidae and rotifera.
At this time he also began to preach to the Wesleyan Methodists. But by 1842, he had become so captivated by the doctrine of the Second Coming of Christ that he severed his connection and joined the Plymouth Brethren. These dissenters emphasized the Second Coming while rejecting liturgy and an ordained ministry but otherwise continued with the traditional doctrines of Christianity as explained by the Methodist and the Anglican Church.
In 1843, Gosse gave up the school to write An Introduction to Zoology for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and to draw some of the book’s illustrations. Writing the work inspired him to further his interest in the flora and fauna of the seashore. Religiously he was a firm creationist, although this position was typical of pre-Darwinian naturalists. Religion and science were beginning to challenge each other as his knowledge of each grew.
Gosse sailed to Jamaica in October 1844 and for eighteen months worked hard, a time he would later call his "holiday in Jamaica." Gosse's study specialized in birds, and he has been called "the father of Jamaican ornithology."
On his return to London in 1846, he wrote a trilogy including A Naturalist's Sojourn in Jamaica (1851), which firmly established his reputation both as a naturalist and a writer." In the field of herpetology he described several new species of reptiles endemic to Jamaica.
As his financial situation further improved Gosse courted Emily Bowes, at the time a forty-one-year-old member of the Brethren, strong in personality and a gifted writer of evangelical tracts. They married in November 1848, and their marriage was happy.
Gosse's only child, Edmund, was born on September 21st, 1849, an event Gosse noted in his diary as, "E. delivered of a son. Received green swallow from Jamaica".
Much of Gosse's success was his skill at letting his readers feel the excitement of studying animals at first hand. In addition, he was a skilled scientific draughtsman who was able to beautifully illustrate his books.
Suffering from headaches, Gosse and his family, began to spend more time on the Devon coast. Here he began to experiment with ways to sustain sea creatures so that they could be examined "without diving to gaze on them." Although there had been earlier attempts to construct what had been called an "aquatic vivarium", Gosse published The Aquarium in 1854 and set off a mid-Victorian craze for household aquariums. The book was profitable, and "the reviews were full of praise" even though Gosse used natural science to point to the necessity of salvation through the blood of Christ. In 1856 Gosse was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, which, gave him a position within the Establishment.
That same year Emily discovered that she had breast cancer. Surgery was risky in those days and so armed with faith and the ointments of an American doctor, Jesse Weldon Fell, who, if not a fraudster, was certainly on the edge of established medical practice, they attempted a cure. After much suffering, Emily Gosse died on February 9th, 1857.
In the months following Emily's death, Gosse worked with remarkable diligence on a book that he probably viewed as the most important of his career although it failed both financially and intellectually. Gosse believed that he had resolved the contradiction between the evidence of God's Word and that of His creation as expounded by such contemporary geologists as Charles Lyell. In 1857, two years before the publication of Charles Darwin's, Origin of Species, Gosse published Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot and thereby created what has been called the Omphalos hypothesis.
Gosse’s ‘breakthrough’ was that the fossil record might also be evidence of life that had never actually existed but which may have been instantly formed by God at the moment of creation.
The general response was disbelief that such a studied and learned man could postulate this. It damaged all the reputation he had worked so hard to attain.
Omphalos sold poorly. According to Edmund Gosse, his father's career was destroyed by his "strange act of willfulness." Remarkably though during the next three years Gosse published more than thirty scientific papers and four books.
By this time Gosse and his son had moved permanently to St Marychurch, Devon. He became the pastor and overseer of the Brethren meeting. Edmund later said of this time "he soon lost confidence in the Plymouth Brethren and for the last thirty years of his life was unconnected with any Christian body”.
During this period, Gosse made a special study of sea anemone (Actiniae) and in 1860 published Actinologia Britannica. Reviewers especially praised the color lithographs made from Gosse's watercolors. The Literary Gazette concluded that Gosse now stood "alone and unrivalled in the extremely difficult art of drawing objects of zoology so as to satisfy the requirements of science" and provided "vivid aesthetic impressions."
In 1860 he met and married his second wife, Eliza Brightwen, a kindly, tolerant Quaker who shared Gosse's interest in both natural history and the raising of his son. The marriage was as happy as his first.
By now Gosse was living comfortably from the earnings from his books and dividends from his investments. In 1864 Eliza received a substantial legacy allowing Gosse to retire as a professional writer and live in "congenial obscurity."
To Gosse's great grief, his son rejected Christianity. Nevertheless, Henry sponsored the printing of Edmund's early poetry, which gave the young man entrance to friends of literary importance, and the two men "came out of the years of conflict with their relationship wary but intact."
In his waning years he was as industrious and curious as ever, taking up the study of orchids and corresponding with Darwin on the subject. His penultimate work was on the genitalia of butterflies on which he published a paper in the Transactions of the Linnean Society. Before his death he returned to rotifera, much of his research appearing in a two-volume study with the zoologist, C.T. Hudson.
His wife recalled that Gosse's final illness was triggered by his enthusiasm to adjust his telescope at an open window on a winter night. Gosse had prayed regularly that he might not taste death but meet Christ in the air at his Second Coming, and he was bitterly disappointed when he understood that he would succumb to death like everyone else.
Philip Henry Gosse died on August 23rd, 1888.