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Ernest William MacBride (1866-1940): embryologist; member of Governing Council of JIHI, 1913-1940

MacBride was born in Belfast, and educated at Queen’s College, Belfast and St. John’s College, Cambridge (B.A. 1891 with first-class honours in Zoology and Botany). He also took the London University B.Sc. as an external student, obtaining a London University scholarship in Zoology in 1889. He went on to study marine zoology at the Zoological Station in Naples under Anton Dohrn (1891-92); returned to Cambridge University as Demonstrator in Animal Morphology, 1892. In 1893 he was elected Fellow of St. John’s, and was the first recipient of the Walsingham Medal for Biological Research.

As a product of the Cambridge school of zoology, MacBride was mainly interested in the study of embryology and its interpretation as a record of evolutionary history. He made the study of the embryology and morphology of Echinoderms his particular speciality. Between 1897 and 1909 he was Professor of Zoology at McGill University, Montreal, Canada, spending the long vacations every year on research work at Cambridge and the Marine Biological Association’s laboratory at Plymouth. He was awarded D. Sc. London, 1899, and was elected FRS in 1905 for his work on Echinoderm morphology; ironically Bateson was one of the proposers of his candidacy for FRS. In 1909 MacBride resigned his post at Montreal to serve as assistant professor to Adam Sedgwick, his teacher and lifelong friend, who had left Cambridge to become Professor of Zoology at Imperial College, London. MacBride was Fellow of the Zoological Society in 1909, and a member of their Council, 1915-17. He also served on the Councils of the Linnean Society and the Marine Biological Association.

From 1919 he became active in developing fishery research under the Development Commission. MacBride succeeded Sedgwick in the professorship at Imperial College on Sedgwick’s death in 1913, and remained in this post until his retirement in 1934. During his term MacBride established a very successful school of postgraduate research. The Professorship brought with it the duty of serving on the Governing Council of JIHI.

MacBride was an outspoken critic of Bateson’s genetics. His research area was invertebrate embryology, but later in his career he also wrote on cytology, eugenics, heredity and evolution. As early as 1895 MacBride declared his adhesion to Lamarck’s views on the causation of evolution, and in later years this became one of the dominant interests of his life. In the 1920s and 30s MacBride became notorious as a proselytiser for Lamarckian inheritance (the idea that features acquired by parents during their lifetime can be passed on to their offspring) and was a leading supporter of the Austrian biologist Paul Kammerer (1880-1926) who claimed to have demonstrated Lamarckian inheritance in the Midwife Toad.


See also:

W. T. Calman, ‘Ernest William MacBride, 1966-1940’, Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, 3 (1939-41): 747-759.

Peter Bowler, ‘MacBride, Ernest William (1866-1940)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: OUP, 2004).

Arthur Koestler, The Case of the Midwife Toad (New York: Random house, 1971).


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