Apr 17

Patrick Matthew: from natural selection to the germ theory

Until recently, few people had heard of Patrick Matthew. His name would occasionally appear in biographies of Charles Darwin, but for a long time it looked like he would remain a footnote in the history of biology. However, during last year’s bicentennial of Darwin’s birth a thorough examination was made of all things Darwin, and Patrick Matthew’s name began to be mentioned more frequently, simply because, as both Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace admitted, Matthew had beaten them to the idea of natural selection. The reputation of any natural philosopher would be enhanced by originating natural selection before these two great Victorian naturalists but, as we shall see, Matthew went even further and published ideas on the germ theory,which predates those of Louis Pasteur. In coming up with novel ideas about evolution and the germ theory before the accepted “giants” in these fields Patrick Matthew clearly deserves our attention.

Patrick Matthew
The only known photograph of Patrick Matthew


Who then was this revolutionary thinker, Patrick Matthew? Born into a rich family in 1790, Matthew attended Edinburgh University, but left without taking a degree to return to his birthplace and ancestral home near Errol, a small town lying in the fertile Scottish farmland between Dundee and Perth. Here he grew apples and pears and became renowned for producing new varieties by grafting. His reputation as an arboriculturalist, was sealed with the appearance, in 1831, of his major work, On Naval Timber and Arboriculture, the appendix of which contains his ideas on natural selection which clearly predate Darwin’s and Wallace’s published work on the subject. “Naval Timber” was an extremely important book in a time when the best wooden sailing ships were needed for Britain’s defence and to extend her Empire. The book also contains novel ideas about fungal diseases of plants and even makes an oblique reference to mycorrhizae. In the early 1860s, Matthew would go on to publish equally revolutionary ideas on the role of animalcules as causal agents of human disease, and in plants, notably in relation to the potato blight; a fungal disease which caused devastating famine in Ireland in the 1840s and 1850s and was still doing so in Scotland as late as the early 1860s.

Patrick Matthew and natural selection

Although Charles Darwin is almost universally credited with originating the idea of natural selection there is no doubt whatsoever that Patrick Matthew got to the idea before him. How can we be so certain of this? The answer is simple — as the following quote shows, Darwin himself admitted as much in the 4th edition of The Origin of Species:

In 1831, Mr Patrick Matthew published his work on Naval Timber and Arboriculture, in which he gives PRECISELY the same view on the origin of species as that propounded by Mr Wallace and myself in the Linnean Journal, and as that enlarged in the present volume.”

No ifs and buts here. According to Darwin, Patrick Matthew gave “precisely” the same view of natural selection as his own, but in early 1831, that is before Darwin even set foot on the Beagle.

A bolt from the blue

On April 10, 1860, Charles Darwin wrote a letter to Charles Lyell in which he mentions a depressing fact, one that he almost certainly hoped he would never have to admit — he had learned that someone had beaten him to the theory of natural selection and there was simply no way of avoiding the fact. The letter which Lyell received from Darwin was factual, rather than emotional (Darwin, 1860a):

Now for a curious thing. In Gardeners’ Chronicle, a Mr Patrick Matthews [Darwin here incorrectly spells Matthew’s name] publishes long extracts from his work on ‘Naval Timber & Arboriculture’ published in 1831, in which he briefly, but completely anticipates the theory of natural selection — I have ordered the book, as some few passages are rather obscure, but it is, certainly I think, a complete but not developed anticipation! Anyhow, one may be excused for not having discovered the fact in a work on ‘Naval Timber.”

Darwin wrote similar letters, admitting Matthew’s priority to J. D. Hooker and the American naturalist, Asa Gray. He then published a letter in the Gardeners’ Chronicle on April 21, 1860 stating that:

I freely acknowledge that Mr Matthew has anticipated by many years the explanation which I have offered of the origin of species, under the name of natural selection. That they appeared in the appendix to a work on Naval Timber and Arboriculture. I can do no more than offer my apologies to Mr Matthew for my entire ignorance of his publication. If another edition of my work is called for, I will insert to the forgoing effect.

Here then, we have Darwin admitting that he was beaten to the theory of natural selection by Patrick Matthew, a fact which he emphasized in later editions of the Origin of Species. What about Alfred Russel Wallace, the man generally viewed as the codiscoverer of natural selection; what did he think about Matthew’s contribution?

In a letter to Samuel Butler (published in Wallace’s autobiography, My Life), who had emphasized the fact that Matthew beat Darwin to natural selection, Wallace states:

To my mind your quotations from Mr Patrick Matthew are the most remarkable things in your book, because they appear to have completely anticipated the main ideas both of the Origin of Species and of Life and Habits.”

Why then did Matthew not do more to extend and make known his idea, which he referred to as the “naturalprocess of selection”? It seems that like Darwin, Matthew was loathed to publish his views because he was afraid of adverse public opinion and the ravages of the press. In an article published in the Farmer’s Magazine of 1862, and referring to himself in the third person, he explains his fears:

He (the author) was so far of this opinion that he did not speak of these original ideas till driven to do so in protecting them as his.”

Some years later, Darwin learned that Patrick Matthew had himself been beaten to the idea of natural selection by the American Empire Loyalist, William Charles Wells, and some recent research gives priority on the idea to James Hutton. Wherever priority on natural selection lies, it obviously does not lie with Darwin. Patrick Matthew was clearly well ahead of his time in his thinking on transmutation, or evolution, especially considering he believed in the importance of limited catastrophes, such as the supposed asteroid–induced extinction of the dinosaurs, as agents of evolutionary change.

Patrick Matthew and germ theory

In an attempt to marginalize Patrick Matthew, Darwinists have over the years, tried to claim that he failed to understand the significance of his idea on natural selection (a ludicrous idea recently again aired by Richard Dawkins in a book edited by Bill Bryson); a lowly fruit farmer, whose scientific mind could not possibly compare with that of great naturalists like Darwin and Wallace. But such attacks on Matthew are clearly misplaced since, not only did he beat Darwin and Wallace to natural selection, he also beat Pasteur to the germ theory! By 1860 it was widely believed that disease in humans and animals were caused by poisonous air, or miasma. This, despite the fact that the notable Scottish surgeon, Sir John Goodsir, had actually isolated a microbe from the stomach of a patient suffering from gastroenteritis and had gone on to show that, by eradicating the germ with sodium hypochlorite, he could affect a cure. The so-called “animalcular theory of disease” had in fact been simmering under the surface since the late 1700s; reference to the word animalcular meaning any microscopic organism, including bacteria, fungi and protozoa. By the early 1860s when Patrick Matthew published his ideas on animalcular disease this work had been neglected, with the result that Pasteur’s studies which began around the time, are usually, and wrongly taken as the point of origin of the germ theory. But in many ways Patrick Matthew was ahead of Pasteur as is shown by the following quote from 1861:

It is rational to suppose that the animalcule destroyers will be guided by instinct to attack and succeed better at it, when the attractions of life in the organism they attack are naturally weak, or weakened by something injurious. In the case of poison of instantaneous action, such as the bite of the serpent, we can hardly suppose the virus to be vital (animalcular). In that again of the mad dog, where the virus or infection has been known to lurk for a year before coming into perceptible action, we must rather suppose it vital, not chemical, and that the virus has remained this length of time dormant in the egg or germ. It is difficult to believe that it could remain so long inactive, being merely chemical. Hydrophobia however, seems, like small pox, measles etc. to require no previous weakness, as disposing cause. In the contagious diseases which affect only the skin, the vital nature is quite evident: the parasitic organism is generally of a size easily cognizable, and sequent to weakness. It is much more difficult to estimate the nature of the infectious diseases which pervade the body. To which of the above, chemical, or vital, the potato blight belongs is not easy to determine.”

The term virus was used at this time to mean poison, but it is clear that Matthew distinguished between living poison, that is animalcules, or germs, and the dead poison represented by snake venom. In this and other utterances on the germ, Matthew places great weight on the view that animalcule like to attack weakened bodies, but as can be seen from the next quotes, he recognises that healthy people can also be infected:

Although certain kinds of animalcule destroyers (termed infectious disease) which feed upon superior organism sometimes attack the healthy, yet this is rather the exception to the rule. In most cases there is a preparatory weakness or want of health; or when the healthy are attacked, their vital stamina is generally sufficient to overcome the invading foe”. Also: “I need not point out that starved lean cattle, etc, are very subject to animal diseases of the skin, and that in most cases disposing causes affecting health or state of fluids precedes infectious disease in man”.

Matthew then makes mention of his work done 30 years earlier, by combining his novel views on the role of animalcules in disease with his earlier utterances on natural selection:

Indeed, these destroyers form a portion of the scheme of nature, calculated to keep (at least that keeps) organic life in the highest possible health and strength and in accommodation to circumstances sweeping away all defections from the highest perfection. The operation of this law is especially marked as well in vegetable life as in animal.”

Matthew’s germ theory in relation to plants and trees

It is a largely unknown fact that Charles Darwin took a keen interest in microbes, particularly interested in the latest research of the cause of the potato blight. He would doubtless have been very interested in Patrick Matthew’s publications on this subject in which he extends his ideas on the animalcular germ theory to infections in animals and humans. Matthew wrote a small number of essays on the potato blight in which he states that, in contrast to animals, overfed potato plants give rise to seed potatoes which are susceptible to rot and blight, and that, by drying the seed potato, these problems can be reduced:

Both soil and atmosphere are thus calculated to give a surfeit of food to the plant, and in a weakened state of the vis vistae induced by the formation of seed tubers and the loosening electricity, putrid disease takes place, and it becomes a prey to animalcule destroyers waiting the opportunity.”

The reference here to “developed electricity” relates to static electricity which was in vogue at the time and was thought to play a role in the development of animal and plant disease; Matthew appropriates this idea and combines it with his animalcular theory of disease. He also recommends that by allowing the seed potato to green and dry before planting they become immune to rot, and later, blight:

This exposure and greening greatly increases the vital stamina, preserving the seed (i.e. potato) from the dry rot and the future plant from the potato blight and the rot in sheep are completely similar, excess moisture in the food, atmosphere. etc. disposing both to disease; the induced disease in both takes a vital character, is organic or animalcular and both we believe, are promoted by developed electricity.”

Since Patrick Matthew’s main interest was arboriculture it is not surprising that he applied his animalcular theory of disease to trees. Referring to the rot of larch trees in his book on Naval Timber he says:

The mature timbers of the larch, in some cases, remains a considerable time stained before the rot proceeds rapidly; in other cases the rot makes quick progress; in this rapid decomposition certain fungi assist greatly. When once seated, they seem to form a putrid atmosphere or tainted circle around them, enter by their living exhalations or corrupt emanation which is poisonous to the less vital parts of superior life, and also expedites the commencement of decay in sound dead organic matter, such as timber, thus furthering the decomposition so far as to render it suitably formed for their foul appetites and paving the way to their further progress.”

Finally, he seems to notice the formation of what appear to be ectomycorrhizae when he states:

In dry soils, there is sometimes an accumulation of whitish substance within the ground, around the roots of trees, which some refer to as excrementitious deposits, but which, we think, is rather the produce of some subterranean vegetable fungus or mould”.

Patrick Matthew, the man who came up with the idea of natural selection before Darwin and who commented on the germ theory before Pasteur was more than a naturalist. Like Alfred Russel Wallace, he championed the working man (notably farm labourers), and in his book Emigration Fields encouraged them to emigrate to America and what would become the Dominions.

Matthew was also a business man, who owned boats which traded from Dundee to the Baltic. He even opposed the building of the Tay Bridge, suggesting that the proposed site was unsafe (he was proven right when, after his death, the bridge was destroyed in a storm), suggesting that the money required to build it would be better spent building homes for the poor of Dundee. Matthew died in 1874, a considerable thinker who was never recognized as such in his lifetime and has been neglected ever since; hopefully his time in the limelight has now belatedly begun.


Prof. Milton Wainwright

From “Microbiologist- The magazine of the Society for Applied Microbiology | December 2010 | Vol 11 No 4”


  1. Mike Sutton

    A most informative blog post. I think it fair to say neither Wells nor Hutton got the complete theory – as Matthew did, Noor did they get Matthew’s Artificial versus Natural selection ‘analogy of differences’ that Darwin and Wallace each replicated without citing Matthew.

    I have added it to PatrickMatthew.com on the articles page of that site.

    Interestingly – according to Errol Jone’s oral history “Shadows on my Wall” it seems that her ancestor Patrick Matthew also worked out that cholera was water-borne before Dr Snow tested the hypothesis with the Broad Street Pump! https://kindle.amazon.com/post/qUl1GON1Rvyk58aPTxRSwQ

  2. Mike Sutton

    Hi Milton

    Latest peer reviewed article on Matthew, Darwin and Wallace – sites your discovery of Corbeaux”s natural selection: http://www.nauka-a-religia.uz.zgora.pl/images/FAG/2015.t.12/art.05.pdf

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