Under The Sea Further Information

Portrait of William Abbott Herdman by Robert Duddingstone Herdman
Portrait of William Abbott Herdman by Robert Duddingstone Herdman
Sir William Abbott Herdman (1858–1924), marine zoologist.
William Abbott Herdman was born on September 8 1858. He was educated at Edinburgh Academy and from 1875 at the University of Edinburgh, where he obtained the gold medal for comparative anatomy in 1878. After graduating in 1879 he assisted his professor, Charles Wyville Thomson, in work on the deep-sea zoological collections made during the voyage of HMS Challenger.
 HMS Challenger
Although he was too young to take part in the expedition himself, Herdman became postgraduate assistant to Professor Wyville Thompson at Edinburgh, and worked on the research and publication of the collections resulting from the voyage. Herdman took as his special study the Tunicates, a group of marine organisms that includes salps and sea squirts, on which he became the leading authority.
Drawing by William Herdman 
Drawing by William Herdman
He was first Derby professor of natural history in University College Liverpool (later to become The University of Liverpool). In Edinburgh he had been active in local field work, carrying out dredging in the Firth of Forth and publishing several papers on its fauna. In Liverpool he undertook similar studies, but sought to implement more ambitious and wide-ranging objectives, the long-term aim being to bring scientific studies of the Irish Sea to bear on the practical problems of the fishing industry. This became his life's work.
In 1885, with support from the local scientific community, he founded the Liverpool Marine Biology Committee, which two years later opened a research laboratory at Puffin Island, off Anglesey.
Herdman's enthusiasm inspired many amateur naturalists besides his own students, and led to a series of publications on the fauna of Liverpool Bay and the Irish Sea. In 1892 the station was moved from Puffin Island to a more advantageous position at Port Erin, Isle of Man, where it was later rebuilt to meet the growing demands of research workers. Herdman was largely instrumental in the foundation of the Manx Museum at Douglas and became one of the trustees.
From 1880 to 1881 Herdman was demonstrator in zoology in the University of Edinburgh, before being appointed as the first Derby Professor of Natural History at Liverpool in 1881. In 1893 William Abbott Herdman married Jane Brandreth Holt, Daughter of ship owner Alfred Holt. She was awarded first class honours in Chemistry from University College, Liverpool in 1891 and was the first President of the Women Students’ Representative Council in Liverpool and was later a member of the Liverpool Education Committee.
In 1901 He travelled to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), at the request of the Colonial Office, to research the pearl oyster fisheries. His work resulted in various recommendations being made to their government regarding the future of the fisheries, and led to the establishment of a marine research station there.
He was the general secretary of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1903 to 1919, and as president at the Cardiff meeting of 1920. He received honorary degrees from several universities, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1892, served on its council from 1898 to 1910, and was foreign secretary from 1916 to 1920.
In 1916, with his wife Jane (also a scientist), Herdman founded the George Herdman chair of geology at the University of Liverpool, in memory of their son, who had been killed at the battle of the Somme. His name appears on the University war memorial in the Victoria Gallery & Museum.
Herdman wrote of his son George:
[He] “died like so many others on the opening day of that great
battle of the Somme – in which he led his men, they say, with a smiling face,
performing at the end a gallant action which his superior officer says saved many
lives in the battalion.”
George Herdman and the War Memorial in the VG&M
(Left -George Herdman and Right - the war memorial at the VG&M)

In 1919 William and Jane also endowed a chair of oceanography at Liverpool. Herdman was also president of the Linnean Society from 1904 to 1908, he made a CBE in 1920 and was knighted in 1922. When his wife Jane died in 1922 he donated money to build a geological laboratory for The University of Liverpool in her memory.


 Jane Herdman Building, Liverpool
Jane Herdman Building, Liverpool.


Herdman himself suffered from heart disease and died on the eve of his daughter’s wedding after attending a family dinner in London. His obituary in Nature (2857, 114, 02 August 1924) stated that ‘Sir William Herdman’s life, if it is ever written, will be an inspiration to every man, whether he is interested in science or not.’