Had he been born a century later, Philip Henry Gosse might have ended up on TV. As it was, he found other ways to use his many talents – as a painter, writer, scientist, entrepreneur and preacher – to bring natural history to the masses.

As a young man who was fascinated by wildlife, Gosse travelled to Canada, where he set about cataloguing the insects of Newfoundland and became known as “that crazy Englishman who goes about collecting bugs”.

Following stints as a farmer in America and a bird collector in the West Indies (he is still revered as the father of Jamaican ornithology), Gosse returned to England, where he earned his crust writing and illustrating books.

He wasn’t entirely successful, though. In Omphalos (‘navel’ in Greek), he attempted to reconcile the biblical account of creation with the latest geological discoveries, arguing that fossils had been placed in the rocks to mislead us by the same God who had provided Adam, the first human, with a superfluous belly button. It was slated by both Christians and scientists.

However, other books on beachcombing and birds proved more popular, while academic texts – on the genitalia of butterflies for instance – gave him scientific authority. Gosse was also known for his theory about sea serpents, reports of which provoked much interest in the 1800s: he believed that they were surviving plesiosaurs.

But it was perhaps his building of the world’s first marine aquarium, in London’s Regent’s Park in 1853, that made the greatest impact on the world. This revealed a whole unseen realm to the Victorian public and, together with his book The Aquarium, started a trend for domestic fishtanks
that persists today.

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