Philip Henry Gosse was born in Worcester, England, and grew up in the town of Poole. His father was a painter, and Gosse taught himself to draw by watching his father work. Gosse had little formal education but read widely, borrowing books from friends and neighbors. In 1827, he took a job as a clerk in Newfoundland, Canada. Gosse studied the natural history of Newfoundland and joined the local book and debating societies. He also converted to Methodism there and preached locally on occasion. In 1835, he and a couple of friends bought a farm in Lower Canada. Gosse worked on the farm, taught school in the winter months, and continued his studies of natural history. He wasn’t suited to farming, however, and sold out in 1838. Gosse left Canada and traveled to Alabama, where he was engaged to teach school in Pleasant Hill. He enjoyed his studies of the natural history there, but he was bothered by the heat and humidity, and slavery disturbed him spiritually. Gosse left Alabama after eight months and returned to England where he settled in London. There, Gosse taught school and wrote and published articles in scientific journals. He also began writing natural history books. The Canadian Naturalist, a compilation of his observations in Newfoundland and Lower Canada, was published in 1840. Gosse continued his religious journey in London as well, converting from Methodism to a stricter sect, the Plymouth Brethren.
In 1844, Gosse sailed to Jamaica where he spent eighteen months studying the local natural history. On his return to London, Gosse used his notes and illustrations in two books on Jamaican natural history. His books began to bring in enough income that he could focus on his writing and his scientific studies. In 1852, Gosse and his family moved to the Devon coast for the sake of his health. He expanded his work to include marine natural history and began teaching field classes in the subject. His book, The Aquarium, popularized these installations for both private homes and institutions such as zoos and museums. In 1855, Gosse’s Letters from Alabama was published in serial form in The Home Friend magazine. (It was published in book form in 1859.) Gosse’s strong religious beliefs prompted him to attempt to reconcile the Biblical creation story with the fossil record which was being discovered at the time. Omphalos, published in 1857, asserted that God had created the fossils along with the rest of the world and had embedded them in the earth’s crust as a puzzle for scientists. The book sold poorly and was widely criticized. Despite the damage to his scientific reputation, Gosse continued publishing and teaching. His last books appeared in 1865, but he continued to publish articles in scientific journals. He also wrote and published religious materials. In late 1887, Gosse developed bronchitis, and he died the following August.
Philip Henry Gosse wrote books on the natural world, many illustrated with his own paintings and drawings. Letters from Alabama describes the local plants and animals and discusses Alabama frontier society and culture.
Please check your local library for these materials. If items are not available locally, your librarian can help you borrow them through the InterLibrary Loan program. Your librarian can also help you find other information about this author.
There may be more information available through the databases in the Alabama Virtual Library. If you are an Alabama citizen, AVL can be used at your public library or school library media center. You can also get a username and password from your librarian to use AVL at home.
Photo from The Life of Philip Henry Gosse, 1890.
Last updated on Dec 18, 2007.