Philip Henry Gosse (6 April 1810 – 23 August 1888), known to his friends as Henry, was an English naturalist and popularizer of natural science, virtually the inventor of the seawater aquarium, and a painstaking innovator in the study of marine biology. The aquarium craze was launched in early Victorian England by Gosse who created and stocked the first public aquarium at the London Zoo in 1853, and coined the term "aquarium" when he published the first manual, The Aquarium: An Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Sea, in 1854.
Gosse was also the author of Omphalos, an attempt to reconcile the geological ages presupposed by Charles Lyell with the biblical account of creation. After his death, Gosse was portrayed as a despotic father of uncompromising religious views in Father and Son (1907), a memoir written by his son, the poet and critic Edmund Gosse.
Gosse was born in Worcester in 1810 of an itinerant painter of miniature portraits and a lady's maid. He spent his childhood mostly in Poole, Dorset, where his aunt, Susan Bell, taught him to draw and introduced him to zoology as she had her own son, Thomas Bell, twenty years older and later to be a great friend to Henry.
At fifteen he began work as a clerk in the counting house of George Garland and Sons in Poole, and in 1827 he sailed to Newfoundland to serve as a clerk in the Carbonear premises of Slade, Elson and Co., where he became a dedicated, self-taught student of Newfoundland entomology, "the first person systematically to investigate and to record the entomology" of the island. In 1832 Gosse experienced a religious conversion—as he said, "solemnly, deliberately and uprightly, took God for my God."
In 1835 he left Newfoundland for Compton, Lower Canada where he farmed unsuccessfully for three years, originally in an attempt to establish a commune with two of his religious friends. Nevertheless, the experience deepened his love for natural history, and locals referred to him as "that crazy Englishman who goes about picking up bugs." During this time he became a member of the Natural History Society of Montreal and submitted specimens to its museum.
In 1838 Gosse taught eight months for Reuben Saffold, the owner of Belvoir plantation, near Pleasant Hill, Alabama. Gosse studied and drew the local flora and fauna, assembling an unpublished volume, Entomologia Alabamensis, on insect life in the state. He also recorded his negative impressions of slavery, later published as Letters from Alabama (1859).
Returning to England in 1839, Gosse was hard pressed to make a living, subsisting on eightpence a day ("one herring eaten as slowly as possible, and a little bread"). His fortunes began to improve when John Van Voorst, the leading publisher of naturalist writing, agreed, on the recommendation of Thomas Bell, to publish his Canadian Naturalist (1840). The book, set as a conversation between a father and his son (a son Gosse did not yet have), was widely praised and demonstrated that Gosse "had a practical grasp of the importance of conservation, far ahead of his time." Gosse opened a "Classical and Commercial School for Young Gentlemen" while keeping detailed records of his microscopic investigations of pond life, especially cyclopidae and rotifera.
In 1843, Gosse gave up the school to write a An Introduction to Zoology for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and to draw some of the illustrations. Writing the work inspired him to further his interest in the flora and fauna of the seashore and also revealed him to be a determined creationist, although this position was typical of pre-Darwinian naturalists.
In October 1844 Gosse sailed to Jamaica, where he served as a professional collector for the churlish dealer Hugh Cuming. Although Gosse worked hard during his eighteen months on the island, he later called this period his "holiday in Jamaica." Gosse's study specialized in birds, and Gosse has been called "the father of Jamaican ornithology." With no racial prejudice, he easily hired black youths as his assistants, and his Jamaican books are full of praise for one of them, Samuel Campbell. For Christian companionship he enjoyed the company of Moravian missionaries and their black converts and preached regularly to the Moravian congregation.
On his return to London in 1846, he wrote a trilogy on the natural history of Jamaica including A Naturalist's Sojourn in Jamaica (1851), which was "written in a congenial style and firmly established his reputation both as a naturalist and a writer."
In the field of herpetology he described several new species of reptiles endemic to Jamaica.