Professor Edward Forbes FRS, FGS (12 February 1815 – 18 November 1854) was a Manx naturalist. In 1846, he proposed that the distributions of montane plants and animals had been compressed downslope, and some oceanic islands connected to the mainland, during the recent ice age. This mechanism, which was the first natural explanation to explain the distributions of the same species on now-isolated islands and mountain tops, was discovered independently by Charles Darwin, who credited Forbes with the idea. He also incorrectly deduced the so-called azoic hypothesis, that life under the sea would decline to the point that no life forms could exist below a certain depth.
Forbes was born at Douglas on the Isle of Man. His father was a well-to-do banker. As a child, Forbes was very interested in collecting insects, shells, minerals, fossils, and plants. Due to poor health, he was unable to attend school from his 5th through his 11th years. In 1828, he started attending the Athole House Academy in Douglas.
In June 1831, Forbes moved to London to study drawing but was not admitted by the Royal Academy. However, having given up on art as a profession, he trained privately and moved back to Douglas. In later years, Forbes used his artistic abilities to create humorous drawings for his publications.
In November 1832, Forbes matriculated as a medical student in the University of Edinburgh attending the lectures of Robert Jameson and Robert Knox while also being active in student societies. In 1832, he studied the natural history of the Isle of Man. Forbes's brother David was a notable mineralogist.
In 1833, Forbes travelled to Norway to study its botanical resources. His findings were published in Loudon's Magazine of Natural History for 1835–1836. The British Association funded his studies based on dredging in the Irish Sea for biological specimens. In 1835, he travelled in France, Switzerland and Germany to study their natural histories.
In 1836, Forbes abandoned his medical studies and moved to Paris, where he attended the lectures at the Jardin des Plantes on natural history, comparative anatomy, geology and mineralogy. In April 1837, Forbes traveled to Algiers to gather material for a paper on land and freshwater Mollusca. The paper was published in the Annals of Natural History, vol. ii. p. 250. He remained in Edinburgh, paid for by his father.
In 1838, Forbes published his first volume, Malacologia Monensis, a synopsis of the mollusk species native to the Isle of Man. During the summer of 1838 he visited the Duchy of Styria (now part of Austria and Slovenia) and Carniola in Slovenia to gather botanical speciments.
In 1838, Forbes presented a paper to the British Association at Newcastle on the distribution of terrestrial Pulmonata in Europe. He was then commissioned to prepare a survey on pulmonata in the British Isles. In 1841, Forbes published his History of British star-fishes, embodying extensive observations and containing 120 illustrations, all designed by Forbes.
On 17 April 1841, Forbes and naturalist William Thompson, joined at Malta HM surveying ship Beacon, to which he had been appointed naturalist by her commander Captain Thomas Graves (1802–1856). From April 1841 until October 1842, Forbes investigated the botany, zoology and geology of the Mediterranean region.
In 1843, Forbes presented a Report on the Mollusca and Radiata of the Aegean Sea, to the British Association. In the report, he discussed the influence of climate and of the nature and depth of the sea bottom upon marine life. He divided the Aegean region into eight biological zones. In his azoic hypothesis, Forbes stated that the sea regions below 300 fathom were entirely devoid of life. This hypothesis was disproved 25 years later.
In 1852, Forbes published the fourth and concluding volume of Forbes and S. Hanley's History of British Mollusca He also published his Monograph of the Echinodermata of the British Tertiaries (Palaeontographical Soc.).
In November 1844, Forbes resigned the curatorship and became palaeontologist to the Geological Survey of Great Britain. Trilobite leading authority John William Salter was appointed on the staff of the Geological Survey and worked under Edward Forbes until 1854. Salter replaced Forbes as palaeontologist to the survey and gave his chief attention to the Palaeozoic fossils, spending much time in Wales and the border counties.
In 1846, Forbes published in the Memoirs of the Geological Survey his important essay .On the Connection between the distribution of the existing Fauna and Flora of the British Isles, and the Geological Changes which have affected their Area, especially during the epoch of the Northern Drift
In this essay, Forbes divided the plants of Great Britain into five geographic groups and compared them to other regions in Europe:
Forbes theorized that the majority of British terrestrial animals and flowering plants migrated there over land bridges before, during and after the ice age. His theory was later discredited. (see C Reid's Origin of the British Flora, 1899).
In 1851 Forbes was professor of natural history to the Royal School of Mines.
Forbes served as an important mentor to the young biologist Thomas Henry Huxley. During Huxley's 1846 to 1850 voyage on HMS Rattlesnake to Northern Australia, Huxley relayed news of his discoveries back to Forbes in the United Kingdom, who then published them.
Forbes's scientific illustrations have been said to be anthropomorphic, often just hiding a human form even when depicting an invertebrate.
In 1853 Forbes became president of the Geological Society of London. In 1854, he was appointed professor of natural history at the University of Edinburgh, a long sought goal. During his later years, Forbes found more time in between lecturing and writing to order his stores of biological information.
In November 1854, soon after the start of winter classes at Edinburgh, Forbes became ill. He died at Wardie Parish, near Edinburgh, on 18 November 1854. He was interred at the Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh.
Forbes's widow provided papers to George Wilson to write up the memoirs of Forbes. Wilson however died in 1859 and his sister then passed on the papers to Archibald Geikie who had met Forbes only twice. Forbes's widow married Major Yelverton in 1858 and forbade Geikie to work on the memoirs, seeking back all the papers. Forbes's brother however wished that Geikie finish the book as did the publisher Alexander Macmillan. In 1860, it was found that Yelverton had earlier married Maria Teresa Longworth and the separation had not been made with a witness. Yelverton was accused of bigamy and Teresa Longworth wrote about her plight in a book Martyrs to Circumstance. Mrs Forbes had two sons by Yelverton and with the case being in the limelight, she had no time to apply pressure on Geikie. Geikie however had to exercise considerable diplomacy while writing the biography as Forbes had claimed that he had been sufficiently remunerated by the School of Mines.