The year 2012 marked the one hundredth anniversary of
what was, in some respects, the end of an era. Calcutta, which had been
the capital of British India since 1772, ceased to be so in 1912. The
founder, in 1787, and first Superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic
Garden had been a Scottish infantryman, Colonel Robert Kyd. It is a
remarkable fact that this Garden was subsequently superintended, with
one important exception, by an almost continuous succession of nine
Scottish medical doctors, starting in 1793 with the appointment of John
Fleming and ending in 1905 when the then incumbent, Sir David Prain,
left to become Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (the
important exception was the Danish superintendent, Nathaniel Wallich).
So, for the best part of a century, throughout the directorships at Kew
of Joseph Banks, William and Joseph Hooker and William Thiselton-Dyer,
the most important colonial botanic garden – in the capital of British
India – was run by an almost unbroken succession of Scottish medical
doctors. This was, moreover, just part of a much wider phenomenon. In
this period, Scots and Scots trained botanist physicians were to be
found operating in most other parts of the Empire and also participating
in most of the British voyages of discovery, land explorations and even
diplomatic missions. This remarkable phenomenon requires an explanation.
In the late 18th century and early 19th century, when
the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew were being formed, the Scottish
universities, especially Edinburgh, were enjoying a golden age. This was
at the height of the phenomenon known as the Scottish Enlightenment. A
problem with the two English Universities at this time was that they
excluded many able students by allowing only Anglicans to take exams,
and at Oxford in particular, a low priority was given to the
non-mathematical sciences and the applied sciences – a situation that
persisted until the mid-19th century. It was symptomatic of this that
Joseph Banks (see below), while attending Oxford University, had to
employ a botanist at his own expense to deliver the lessons the
Professor of Botany declined to teach!'
It has been calculated that a remarkable eighty-seven
percent of British doctors in the second half of the eighteenth century
were Scottish trainedii. Much of medical treatment at this time, it must
be said, was of dubious value (the Scottish naval surgeon, James Lind,
who in the mid 18th century advocated the use of citrus juice to
counteract scurvy, was the first person known to have done any actual
clinical testing iii). However, Chemistry and Botany, which were not yet
considered academic disciplines in their own right, were taught in
addition to Anatomy and Physiology as part of a physician’s education so
that he would be able to prepare his own remedies. With this scientific
training many doctors were to find themselves in great demand in other
John Hope, Professor of Botany at Edinburgh
University Medical School (1761-86), was one of the first academics to
teach the new Linnaean system of classification – an epoch-making
innovation that was a boon especially to plant collectors out in the
field. He also, incidentally, created a new well-stocked botanic garden
for the University that bore the title "Royal" before the one at Kew.
His English students included James Edward Smith, founder and first
President of the Linnaean Society (still in existence)iv. Also, three of
the English founders of the organisation that would become the Royal
Horticultural Society – Richard Salisbury, Charles Greville, and John
Wedgwood (son of Josiah) – were students at Edinburgh University at the
time of Hope’s tenure. These Englishmen did not envisage a career in
medicine, but most of Hope’s Scottish students went on to serve as
doctors with the army, navy or East India Company and some of these
found careers as botanists playing crucial roles in Britain’s growing
empire. This was the start of a trend that would persist for more than a
Sir Joseph Banks
Joseph Banks had sailed round the world as a
naturalist on the first voyage of son-of-a-Scot Captain James Cook (HMS
Endeavour, 1768-71). He returned to instant fame, became around 1773
the second unofficial Director of the Kew botanic garden (then in the
ownership of "farmer" George III) and went on to serve as President of
the Royal Society for 42 years. At a time of great imperial expansion he
was the British government’s chief scientific advisor.
Understanding the extent to which the Empire was
built on plants of economic importance (tobacco, cotton, sugar, etc.)
Banks envisaged a network of botanic gardens all around the Empire with
Kew at its centre and plants passing back and forth between them (the
"hub and spokes" structure as it was called). He was interested in
plants of all kinds out of scientific curiosity. However, of special
interest to him were exotic ornamental plants, for which there was a
burgeoning demand in the 18th and 19th centuries, and what Banks called
"useful vegetables" that might be grown as cash crops on plantations in
suitable parts of the Empire. He helped lay the foundations of the hub
and spokes system, and under his successors at Kew – William Hooker,
Joseph Hooker and William Thisleton-Dyer – the system, albeit of an
informal nature, reached its zenith. As well as acting as an entrepôt
for the interchange of plants throughout the Empire, Kew’s sphere of
influence came to include the dissemination of botanical knowledge and
advice, and the nomination of individuals for such positions as naval
plant collectors and managers of colonial botanic gardens.v
Banks and his successors often made use of gardeners
as plant collectors and some of these went on to become managers of
colonial botanic gardens. Excellent though these gardeners were – some
of the all-time greatest plant collectors, such as Francis Masson, David
Douglas and Robert Fortune, had been gardeners – a very different breed
of professional botanist had also arisen – scientifically trained
doctors who were sufficiently intrepid to go anywhere in the world,
including such perilous war zones as the Caribbean and the Indian
subcontinent. Fortuitously, these doctors were currently being churned
out in large numbers by the Scottish universities, especially Edinburgh,
in order to meet the medical needs of an ever expanding empire. 3
These botanist physicians that were such a feature of
the Banksian and Victorian eras had their precursors. (Sir) Hans
Sloane, an Ulster Scot, had collected many plants new to science in
Jamaica while employed as the private physician of the English Governor
(1687-89). He went on to become President of the Royal Society and
ushered in the golden age of the Chelsea Physic Garden. Scotsman
James Cuninghame, a surgeon with the East India Company, was the
first European to collect plants in China (1698-1709) including the
conifer Cunninghamia. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal
Society. Another Scot, William Houston, was a ship’s surgeon with
the ill-fated South Sea Company and collected plants in the Caribbean
and the Americas (1730-33). These plants were dispatched to Philip
Miller at the Chelsea Physic Garden. Isaac Lawson, who was a
pupil of the great Dutch botanist Herman Boerhaave and subsequently
became an army doctor, deserves a mention for financing the first
publication of Linnaeus’ ground-breaking Systema naturae in 1735.
Scottish physician William Pitcairn and Edinburgh-trained English
physician, John Fothergill, both had renowned private botanic
gardens – at Islington and Upton respectively. In 1775 they jointly
employed Scottish gardener William Blaikie as probably the first
professional collector of Alpine plants. Finally, James Lind, a
cousin of the advocate of citrus juice, accompanied Joseph Banks as
surgeon/naturalist on the latter’s scientific exploration of Iceland in
Naval surgeon is a misleading title since these
officers served also as general physicians on board ship. The rank was a
high one - generally only the captain was paid more than a full surgeon.
At this time surgeons were more often than not Scots. The Scots novelist
Tobias Smollet, himself a former naval surgeon, had one of his
characters, Roderick Random, present himself for examination in London
as a prospective ship’s surgeon, only to be met with the wry comment:
"We have scarce any other countrymen to examine here – you Scotchmen
have overspread us of late as the locusts did Egypt"!vi Most of the
important voyages of exploration and other scientific expeditions in
this period had Scottish or Scottish trained surgeons on board, and,
because of their training, these doubled as botanists or naturalists
(the latter collected animals as well as plants and were paid more).
"The mental process is the same at the bed-side of the patient and in
the cabinet of the naturalist ... correct observation leading to correct
diagnosis [i.e. identification]" said the Manx naturalist Edward
Forbes (Edinburgh trained)vii. Kew usually got a share of their
plant collections. From 1854, in fact, it became a requirement that Kew
was the first destination for all collections made at government
expense: for the Royal Navy this had been unofficially so since the
early 1840’sviii. "These exploratory voyages of the 18th and 19th
centuries, to which naturalists were attached ... constitute an almost
unrecognised government subsidy to natural science as important as any
more formal government subsidy to science in our own time."ix The
following are Scots unless otherwise stated.
- William Anderson, a correspondent of
Professor Hope and Joseph Banks, was surgeon on Captain Cook’s second
and third voyages (HMS Resolution, 1772-75, 1776-78), the latter
in search of a north-west passage between the Pacific and the Atlantic.
Both died on that voyage – Anderson of tuberculosis and Cook killed by
unfriendly Hawaiians. As well as collecting plants, Anderson made
important studies of Pacific island languages and culture. 4
- Archibald Menzies, was a Professor Hope
pupil, who served as surgeon/naturalist on Captain Vancouver’s
around-the-world voyage and survey of the Pacific Coast of North America
(HMS Discovery, 1791-94). This was following Menzies’
participation in the American War of Independence, including a British
victory against the French in the Battle of the Saints (1782). He
obtained seed of the Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) – a
favourite ornamental of the Victorians – allegedly by picking them out
of a dessert he had been offered. He sent back a plethora of other new
plant species to Kew and Edinburgh, and described many more. The
Hawaiians called him "the red-faced man who cut off the limbs of men and
gathered grass"! Menzies’ botanical work, his animal and ethnological
collections and meteorological observations make this one of the
important early scientific expeditionsx.
- Robert Brown, a pupil of Professor Hope’s
successor Daniel Rutherford, served as naturalist/surgeon on Captain
Flinders’ expedition around Australia (HMS Investigator,
1801-05). He sent back a huge haul of seeds, most of them new to
science, prompting Banks to write: "[the seeds] are all sown in Kew
Gardens, and much hope is built on their success, which will create a
new epoch in the prosperity of that magnificent establishment"xi.
Edinburgh also received some of his plants. In a career spanning sixty
years Brown became the most eminent British botanist of his day. He
became the Librarian (later President) of the Linnaean Society and
championed the more natural system of plant classification that
eventually replaced the Linnaean. He was also curator of Joseph Banks’
incomparable herbarium collection (later the British Museum herbarium):
Brown generally received dried plant specimens from collectors while Kew
at that time received seeds, bulbs and any living plantsxii. He also
advanced the use of microscopy in botany: he named the cell nucleus and
was the first to observe the phenomenon that became known as "Brownian
- (Sir) John Richardson, naturalist/surgeon on
Sir John Franklin’s first two Arctic expeditions (1819-22, 1825-27). He
returned from the first to face accusations of murder and cannibalism,
but the matter was not pursued. His many finds were the basis for the
Flora Boreali-Americana and the Fauna Boreali-Americana, the
former compiled by William Hooker at Glasgow. When Franklin’s
third expedition went missing, Richardson joined another eminent
medically trained Scots Arctic explorer, John Rae, in an
unsuccessful rescue attempt. Rae was noted for his ability to live off
the land. Richardson excelled in several fields: a 20th century tribute
to him stated that "it is not every day that we meet in one person
surgeon, physician, sailor, soldier, administrator, explorer,
naturalist, author and scholar."xiii
- John Scouler, naturalist/surgeon on a Hudson
Bay Company ship bound for the north-west coast of America via the
Galapagos (William & Ann, 1824-26). His colleague was the great
Scottish plant collector David Douglas who had been recruited to collect
on behalf of the (Royal) Horticultural Society (both were protégés of
William Hooker – see below). They were the first naturalists to explore
the Oregon region: Douglas stayed behind to complete what would be his
greatest haul of new plants. Scouler later collected plants in South
Africa and the Indian Ocean and went on to have a distinguished academic
career in Scotland and Ireland.
- Alexander Collie, naturalist/surgeon on the
voyage of HMS Blossom, captained by Frederick Beechey (1825-28),
collected plants in such diverse places as Africa, South America,
California and Taiwan. Although he was subordinate to an ailing English
surgeon, it was acknowledged by William Hooker that Collie had done most
of the 5
work (Hooker had sponsored Collie’s membership of the
Linnaean Society and later worked on his plant collection). Collie
subsequently settled in Western Australia where, as well as collecting
more plants, he became one of the important early explorers of that
- Charles Darwin was an Englishman who
functioned only as a naturalist, not a surgeon, on the HMS Beagle
expedition (1831-36), but his two years at Edinburgh University Medical
School were the only formal scientific training he received. He was also
introduced to Lamarckian evolutionary theory there – by his mentor,
Robert Grant, a zoologist who would become the first Professor of
Comparative Anatomy in Britainxv. Being too squeamish to dissect corpses
or amputate limbs, Darwin did not complete the course (unlike his father
Robert and grandfather Erasmus, the eminent natural philosopher, who
were both practising doctors trained at Edinburgh University). Kew
received plants from the Beagle expedition.
- Andrew Sinclair served as naturalist/surgeon
on (Sir) Edward Belcher’s survey of the Pacific coast of South America (HMS
Sulphur, 1834-37) and later collected plants in Central America,
Brazil, Australia and New Zealand, which he sent to Kew. His final post,
before dying in a drowning accident, was colonial secretary in New
Zealand under Vice-Admiral Robert Fitzroy (formerly Captain of HMS
- David Lyall and (Sir) Joseph Hooker (the
latter an Englishman educated at Glasgow High School and Glasgow
University Medical School) on Scotsman Sir James Clark Ross’s Antarctic
expedition (HMS Erebus & HMS Terror, 1839-42). Between
them the two surgeons collected many new land and sea plants. Lyall
subsequently served as naturalist/surgeon on Captain Stokes’ exploration
around New Zealand (HMS Acheron, 1847-51), then on one of
numerous searches for Sir John Franklin, then in the Crimean War, and
finally (c.1858) on a survey of the Canada-USA border. "Back home again,
and awash with plants, Lyall enjoyed a few happy years completing his
report at Kew."xvi Despite the plethora of plants that he collected from
all around the world (6,700 specimens), he is largely overlooked.
Hooker, on the other hand, went on to become one of the most celebrated
botanists of his day (see below) and an important collaborator with
- Thomas Edmonston was a Shetlander and a
remarkably precocious botanist. At the age of fifteen he contributed
material to the Annals & Magazine of Natural History, and after
his medical training at Edinburgh he was offered, at the age of
nineteen, a professorship in Glasgow. However, he first elected to serve
as naturalist on HMS Herald (1845-46) exploring the Pacific and
the coast of California along with two assistant botanists from Kew
Gardens. Tragically, less than a year into the voyage, Edmonston was
killed by the accidental discharge of a rifle.
- John Macgillivray and T.H. Huxley:
MacGillivray, like Darwin, did not complete his medical training at
Edinburgh. He served as a naturalist on HMS Fly (1842-46)
surveying the south-western Pacific and the Great Barrier Reef; on
HMS Rattlesnake (1846-50) off the north-eastern coast of Australia
with the English naturalist/surgeon, and Darwin’s future "bulldog", T.H.
Huxley (subordinate to MacGillivray); and finally on HMS Herald
(1852-56) around Fiji and the Pacific. After twelve years spent on
cramped Royal Navy ships, MacGillivray descended into alcoholism and
died in obscurity in Australia. "He is remembered for his integrity and
diligence as a naturalist and collector, enduring uncomfortable, often
dangerous, conditions to send back specimens on which other men made
their reputations"xvii. 6
- Robert Oliver Cunningham interrupted an
academic career to serve as naturalist on Captain Mayne’s survey of the
Magellan Straits and western Patagonia (HMS Nassau, 1866-69). He
was appointed on the recommendation of Joseph Hooker and collected
plants for Kew. He went on to have a successful academic career in
- (Sir) Charles Wyville Thomson and (Sir) John
Murray, on the HMS Challenger expedition (1872-76), founded
the science of oceanography. Thomson, though the son of an East India
Company surgeon, did not practise as a doctor following his medical
training at Edinburgh, but Murray did serve as a ship’s surgeon. Prior
to this expedition the ocean bed was very much terra incognita.
By trawling and sounding all the major oceans other than the Indian,
they discovered 4,700 new species of marine plant and animal and made a
host of important scientific measurements. Murray immodestly but fairly
described the consequent report as "the greatest advance in the
knowledge of our planet since the celebrated discoveries of the 15th and
- William Speirs Bruce studied medicine at
Edinburgh and in his spare time worked as a volunteer on some of the
Challenger collection. Inspired by this, he became a
naturalist/surgeon on a whaling expedition in the Antarctic, and then
participated in various expeditions in the Arctic regions before
organising his own expedition to the Antarctic (Scotia 1902-04)
with a personnel that was almost exclusively Scottish. This was a huge
success. New coastline was discovered, the first weather station in the
Antarctic was established (which is said to have "laid the foundation of
modern climate change studies"xix) and their extensive scientific
collections, which included plant specimens, provided the basis for the
Scottish Oceanographic Institute in Edinburgh. Bruce kept up a
correspondence with the aging Joseph Hooker – himself a former Antarctic
"A competent and capable botanist may do more to open
up the country than a dozen mining engineers, for the discovery of a
single plant useful to commerce may be of greater value to Africa than
many gold mines" [Pall Mall Gazette,1891].xx "I have heard the
celebrated traveller Mungo Park ... rather gave the preference to
travelling as a discoverer in Africa than to wandering by night and day
the wilds of his native land in the capacity of a country medical
practitioner" [Sir Walter Scott, 1827].xxi
Some of the most important explorers of Africa and
elsewhere were Scots botanist physicians. In the middle of the 19th
century, one of the great movers and shakers in the field of imperial
science, along with William and Joseph Hooker, was the eminent Scots
geologist, Sir Roderick Murchison. As President, and one of the
founders, of the Royal Geographical Society and concurrently
Director-General of the Geological Survey, he organised many scientific
expeditions around the world, and "while his countrymen [i.e. Scots]
played prominent roles in imperial administration, defence, medicine and
science, Murchison acted as an important metropolitan connection in
their network for mutual advancement."xxii All of the following, except
Joseph Hooker, were Scots.
- Mungo Park, "the jewel in the crown of the
African Association", was an able botanist. He collected plants for
Joseph Banks on his first expedition to Sumatra 7
in1793. Edinburgh also received some plants. His two
subsequent explorations of the Niger region (1795-97, 1805-06 – he died
on the latter following an attack by natives) opened up a huge area of
West Africa for trade and colonisation. His autobiographical Travels
was an instant bestseller and remains a classic of the genre.
William Jack was the son of the Principal of
Aberdeen University. In 1818, after serving as a ship’s surgeon, he
accompanied Sir Stamford Raffles on an expedition to Sumatra. He
collected plants in India and Malaya as well as Sumatra (sent to Kew and
Edinburgh), and compiled a flora of Malayan plants before his untimely
death from malaria at the age of twenty-seven. (N.B. Another gifted
Scots botanist physician, John Leyden, had died from malaria
during Raffles’ invasion of Java in 1811.)
- John Crawfurd and George Finlayson: Crawfurd
was an Edinburgh trained army surgeon who rose to become a distinguished
colonial administrator in South-East Asia. He led two diplomatic
missions – the first to what is now Thailand and Viet-Nam (1821-22) and
the second to the Burmese court (1826-27). On the former he was
accompanied by another able Scots army surgeon, George Finlayson, in the
capacity of naturalist/surgeon. Many botanical and geological specimens
were collected in the course of these missions. Perhaps Crawfurd’s most
famous discovery was the strikingly beautiful flowering tree,
Amherstia nobilis (Pride of Burma)xxiii. Apart from his geological
findings, Crawfurd is noted for his writings on the languages, geography
and ethnology of South-East Asia. (N.B. On earlier occasions, Scots
physicians had been employed as naturalists on other historic diplomatic
missions: Alexander Hamilton on fellow Scot George Bogle’s
mission to Tibet, 1773-75; and Hugh Gillan on Lord Macartney’s
famous mission to China, 1792-94 – although, in the latter case, most of
the botanical work seems to have been left to two gardenersxxiv.)
- Walter Oudney served as a naval surgeon in
the East Indies. He had hopes of an academic career, but instead, on the
recommendation of an Edinburgh University botanist, he agreed to serve
as naturalist in the company of Major Denham and Lieutenant Clapperton
on what proved to be an important expedition in search of the upper
reaches of the Niger (1821-25). They were the first Europeans to make a
north-south crossing of the Sahara and they greatly advanced the state
of geographical knowledge of sub-Saharan Africa. Oudney collected
hundreds of natural history specimens before his untimely death from
malaria in 1824.
- John Imray was not an explorer as such, but
his four decades of botanical, agricultural and humanitarian work on the
island of Dominica is worthy of note. He was sent by the British
Colonial Office to Dominica as a government surgeon in 1832. During his
lengthy tenure he introduced public health legislation, founded
hospitals and alms-houses, and researched tropical diseases. In
addition, he corresponded with Joseph Hooker, collected plants (Kew
received some), contributed to the Flora of the British West Indies,
created his own botanic garden, and initiated lime and Liberian coffee
production on the island. He was also a fervent spokesman for small
peasant farmers and emancipated slaves (the emancipation of slaves in
British colonies took effect in 1834). His good work was continued by
his successor, Henry A. A. Nicholls, an Aberdeen educated
- David Livingstone kept up a lengthy
correspondence with William and Joseph Hooker and sent many "useful
vegetables" and artefacts made from plants to Kew during his long
sojourn in Africa (1841-52, 1852-56, 1858-64, 1866-73)xxvi. The 8
famous missionary was interested in economically
important plants because he believed that the "two pioneers of
civilisation – Christianity and commerce – should ever be
inseparable".xxvii As an explorer he opened up and mapped a vast area of
Central Africa, and, as a missionary he was a passionate opponent of
slavery and an advocate of education, pointing the way towards a
relatively more ethical style of colonisation (see also John Kirk
- (Sir) Joseph Hooker (1848-51): see next
- William Balfour Baikie also started out as a
naval surgeon. He then became naturalist/surgeon, later leader, on two
expeditions up the Niger by steam boat (1854-55, 1857-59). He proved the
navigability of the river and, incidentally, the effectiveness of
quinine in preventing malaria. Many dried specimens of plant were sent
back to Kew. He later founded the city of Lokoja (Nigeria), built roads
and studied African languages. Among his many writings was a natural
history of his native Orkneys.
- Peter Sutherland served as naval surgeon on
the first of several unsuccessful searches for Sir John Franklin. Like
many of the botanist physicians his skills were multidisciplinary. When
he moved to South Africa it was his geological skills, and the support
of Roderick Murchison, that earned him the post of Surveyor-General
(1855-87) in the recently acquired British province of Natal. In the
course of his travels in South Africa he collected many plants, which
were sent to Kew.
- (Sir) James Hector, another Murchison
protégé, was naturalist/geologist/physician on Captain Palliser’s
exploration of western Canada (1857-60). He later settled in New Zealand
where he became that country’s leading scientist. Among his multitude of
activities he founded and managed New Zealand’s first botanic garden (at
Wellington). It was Murchison and William Hooker who jointly facilitated
his election to the Royal Society.
- (Sir) John Kirk, after volunteering for
service as a surgeon in the Crimean War, was appointed
botanist/physician on Livingstone’s second Zambezi expedition (1858-64).
Livingstone wrote: "I take ... an economic botanist [Kirk] to give a
full report of the vegetable productions – fibrous, gummy and medicinal
substances together with dye stuffs – everything which may be useful in
commerce"xxviii. Kirk too corresponded at length with both Hookers, and
the plethora of plants he collected formed the basis of the Flora of
Tropical Africa. He later became British Consul in Zanzibar and
negotiated the ending of the slave trade in the region, thereby
fulfilling one of Livingstone’s greatest aspirations. He continued to be
interested in economically important plants: he fostered the copal and
rubber industries in East Africa, in the latter case using a native
African vine, Kirk’s Landolphia.
- James E. T. Aitchison, an Indian born Scot,
trained in medicine at Edinburgh University and joined the Bengal
Medical Service. He subsequently became the British Commissioner to the
strategically important region of Ladakh and accompanied General (Lord)
Roberts throughout the Second Anglo-Afghanistan War (1878-80). This,
from a British perspective, was considerably more successful that the
First. He combined his military duties with botanical work, although he
complained to Joseph Hooker during the war: "We go on to Allykke. I will
try to do my best but fighting and botany do not amalgamate."
Nevertheless, in six years he collected c.10,000 specimens (c.800
species) in Afghanistan alone. He collected many more in 9
India. His writings include various articles on the
flora and fauna of the region and a Handbook of the Trade Products of
Ladakh. In retirement he took up residence near Kew with a view to
writing up a Flora based on his plant collections, but he died before he
could carry out the project.xxix
- Henry Ogg Forbes, between 1878 and 1887,
after plant collecting in Portugal, explored and collected plants in the
Moluccas and New Guinea, the latter on behalf of the Royal Geographical
Society. Both Edinburgh and Kew received plants from Forbes, but because
of friction at the time between Kew Gardens and the Natural History
Museum, the latter did not share the New Guinea plants with Kewxxx.
Sir Joseph Hooker & Friends
Joseph Hooker’s father Sir William, though English,
was Professor of Botany at Glasgow University Medical School for 20
years (i.e. throughout the period of Kew’s temporary decline following
Joseph Banks’ death). Murchison said of him: "Numbers [of his students]
entered the army, navy and Indian Medical Service or sought other
positions in foreign countries. To all Sir William was ready to lend a
helping hand, guiding their studies when pupils, and furthering their
interests afterwards, well satisfied to be repaid by a share of their
[plant] collections"xxxi. Any dried plant specimens provided by these
former medical students would have been added to Hooker’s private
herbarium, which eventually grew to surpass even Robert Brown’s at the
British Museum. In 1841, Sir William became the first official Director
of the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew after Queen Victoria had donated it
to the nation. He brought his collection of dried plants with him from
Glasgow and this became the foundation of Kew’s first on-site herbarium,
in Hunter House, in 1852.xxxii
Under Hooker’s Directorship at Kew, the original
small botanic garden expanded to absorb around 100 hectares of the
surrounding royal pleasure grounds and a magnificent new Palm House was
built. The funding that Sir William and his successors received from the
government was largely predicated on Kew’s usefulness to the British
Empire.xxxiii Joseph described his father as "the projector and able
assistant of those efforts on the part of our Home and Colonial
Governments that have led to the formation of botanical and
horticultural establishments in so many of our colonies, in India and in
our foreign possessions, [and] as the liberal and disinterested patron
of private scientific enterprise everywhere, especially among the
officers of the army, navy and civil services."xxxiv
As mentioned above, Joseph had been a student at
Glasgow University Medical School and had been botanist/surgeon on
Captain Ross’s Antarctic expedition. His next plant collecting
expedition, in 1848, was on land – in the Himalayan region of India.
This expedition was on behalf of Kew and was facilitated by the
energetic Scots Governor-General of India, Lord Dalhousiexxxv. Hooker’s
first companion on this expedition was Archibald Campbell, a
Scottish medical doctor who had become the British agent in Darjeeling.
While botanising in Sikkim, which was an independent state, they were
both arrested by a Sikkimese government official and Campbell was badly
beaten up. Although they were subsequently released, the British used
this as an excuse to annex a large part of Sikkim around the district of
Darjeeling. Campbell experimented with tea planting there, demonstrating
that conditions were ideal for producing the finest teaxxxvi. The rest,
as they say, is history. 10
Hooker’s next companion was Thomas Thomson, an
old school and university friend of Hooker from his Glasgow days
(another fellow pupil had been the future Lord Kelvin, the great
physicist). Thomson had become an army surgeon and had been part of the
British force that occupied Afghanistan in 1839-42. He was one of the
few who came out alive following wholesale massacres of the occupying
force. Hooker and Thomson collected many new plants in the eastern
Himalayas and Thomson went on to become Superintendent of the Calcutta
The 25 new species of Rhododendron brought back to
Kew from these Himalayan expeditions created a Rhododendron craze in
Victorian Britain. More significantly, Hooker’s growing knowledge of the
geographical distribution of plant species, based on his own and others’
collections was to be of indispensible use to his friend Darwin.
East India Company Surgeons & Botanic Garden
"We continue to have a false idea of the Industrial
Revolution, and to recognise its meaning only in coal, pig iron,
factories and in the remade landscapes and demography of northern
England ... But the rise in cities and the Industrial Revolution in the
West was inseparably connected to plantation farming, ranching and
forestry economies in every other human community. Machines did not run
merely on coal: they consumed cotton, wool, dyes, vegetable oils and the
strength of the peripheral populations which provided these. Wheat,
beef, tea and sugar allowed operatives to meet the brutal pace of work.
Shiploads of timber and rubber went to absorb shocks, and indeed
electricity, which steel would not have contained. Without plant fibres
twined into rope, woven into sacking, and crushed into paper, no
administration and commerce could take place, and a whole civilization
which depended on commodities being moved and recorded would have
collapsed. Only within the lifetime of our parents did the synthetic
magic of organic chemists limit industry’s utter dependence on plants
and on agricultural labour." [Drayton, 2000]
Between 1784 and 1858 British India was governed by
the East India Company on behalf of the British government. Sir Walter
Scott said that the East India Company was "the corn chest for Scotland
where we poor gentry must send our youngest sons as we send our black
cattle to the south."xxxvii And not just the gentry. Botanic gardens
were springing up all over the Empire (in the Victorian era 80% of all
colonial botanic gardens in the world were Britishxxxviii), the most
prestigious ones being in the Indian subcontinent. With Kew as the
central scientific authority, a huge amount of plant collecting, flora
compilation, and experimenting with the propagation and cultivation of
plants was carried out in and around these gardens. They were the first
to receive economically important plants from often distant parts of the
world and their task was to determine whether they were suitable for
growing in the soil and climatic conditions in their area. This process
was known as "plant transfer".
In this period the notorious breadfruit, intended to
feed slaves, was transferred from the South Pacific to St. Vincent in
the West Indies (by Captain Bligh on his second attempt – his first
attempt was on HMS Bounty!); tea was transferred from China to
India and Africa; rubber from South America to Malaya; mahogany from the
West Indies to India; cocoa from the West Indies to Africa; the oil palm
from Africa to Malaya; quinine from South America to India (this, as a
treatment for malaria, facilitated British exploration and colonisation
of the tropicsxxxix); and the American pineapple to all the tropical
regions of the Empire. Many more such transfers 11
continued up to the end of the Empire and this has
had huge economic consequences around the world. Ray Desmond lists some
of the useful plants, native and exotic, handled by just one botanic
garden superintendent in late 18th /early 19th century India (William
Roxburgh – see below): black pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, coffee,
sugar-cane, breadfruit, mahogany, mulberry (for silk), flax, jute,
sisal, various hemps, indigo and prickly pear (for cochineal dye)xl.
Medical Doctors were now routinely being appointed as
superintendents of botanic gardens and to other senior posts in the
colonies. The sheer number of Scottish doctors in such posts from the
late 18th to the late 19th century tells the story. Most of the
following have entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:-
- Canton (East India Company): brothers
John and Alexander Duncan and John Livingstone, 1782-1829
(plant collecting only, notably for Joseph Banks)xli.
- St Vincent (the first imperial
botanic garden, founded by the Scots governor, Gen. Robert Melville in
1765): George Youngxlii, Alexander Anderson, William
- Jamaica: William Wright,
Thomas Clarkexliii, Thomas Dancer, James Macfadyen.
(Dancer and two Kew gardeners had accompanied Cpt. Bligh when the latter
delivered the above mentioned breadfruit plants to Alexander Anderson on
St. Vincent in 1793.)
- Madras: William Roxburgh
(founder, c.1781), Patrick Russell, James Anderson,
Robert Wight, Edward Balfour, Hugh F.C. Cleghorn,
- Saharanpur: George Govan,
John Forbes Royle (Scottish mother and Scottish education)xliv,
Hugh Falconer, William Jameson, John Stewart, Sir
- Calcutta: (founded by Scotsman Col.
Robert Kyd, 1787) John Fleming, William Roxburgh (transferred
from Madras) , Francis Buchanan-Hamilton (all three Professor
Hope pupils), John McClelland (an Ulster Scotxlv), Hugh Falconer
(transferred from Saharanpur), Thomas Thomson, brothers Thomas and
John Anderson, Sir George King (also from Saharanpur), Sir David
Prain, Sir George Watt, Arthur Barclay (mycologist).
- Bombay (founded by the Scots
governor, Sir John Malcolm, 1828): Alexander Gibson, Nicol
Dalzell, John Forbes Watson.
- Ceylon: George Gardner
(previously a plant collector in Brazil).
- Wellington (NZ): Sir James Hector
(see above under "Land Explorers").
[N.B. There, were, of course, botanic gardens in
other parts of the Empire:-
- Ontario: George Lawson,
Edinburgh educated, founded the Botanical Society of Canada at Kingston,
- Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane: these
gardens were managed at this time by gardeners, mostly Scots who had
been trained at Edinburgh Botanic Garden and/or Kew Gardens.
- British Africa: ditto.]xlvi
The historian of Indian botany, Isaac Burkill,
assessing the various categories of botanist who had operated in the
sub-continent, concluded that "the surgeons did the most for the
advancement of the subject" (he also acknowledged the importance of
Edinburgh University and its succession of notable botany professors:
John Hope, Robert Graham and John Hutton Balfour)xlvii. Calcutta, the
capital of British India from 1772 to 1912 – India being the "Jewel in
the Crown" of the British Empire – was a particular stronghold of the
Scots surgeons. Joseph Hooker said of its botanic garden, which was
known as the "Kew of India", that it had "contributed more useful 12
and ornamental tropical plants to the public and
private gardens of the world than any other establishment before or
since"xlviii. Calcutta also had a Medical School where several of the
surgeons served as Professors of Botany, an Indian Museum that was
curated for 21 years by another surgeon (John Anderson), and a
Journal of Natural History founded and edited by yet another
Of the Calcutta botanists listed above, William
Roxburgh, who is recognised as the "father of Indian botany", initiated
the Flora Indica, was one of the most prolific suppliers of
plants to Kewxlix, and was an early environmentalist (see below); Hugh
Falconer received Robert Fortune’s tea plants from China as part of the
momentous tea transfer, played an important part in conserving teak
forests in Burma, and, from studies of animal fossils, was the first to
suggest the evolutionary theory that is today known as "punctuated
equilibrium" (a century before Stephen Jay Gould!); Sir George King,
following two disastrous cyclones, re-built the Botanic Garden to an
even higher standard than before, was the first Director of the
Botanical Survey of India (still in existence), and pioneered affordable
quinine for the masses; and Sir George Watt compiled a massive
ten-volume Dictionary of the Commercial Products of India that is
probably the greatest compilation of commercial plants in India ever
It is an indication of the prestige of the Calcutta
Botanic Garden, and of Scots botanists, that its tenth Scottish manager
(by then the post had been upgraded to Director), Sir David Prain,
became the first official Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew who
was not a member of the Hooker family. This was in 1905 following 20
years’ service in India. He also became President of the Linnaean
Society. Prain was the last of the major botanist physicians: by his
time botany had become an academic subject in its own right and a career
independent of medicine.
According to his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of
National Biography, Alexander Anderson (who had served as an army
surgeon in the American War of Independence before becoming the
Superintendent of the St. Vincent Botanic Garden in 1785) "was the first
of a long line of Scottish colonial experts concerned with the
relationships between deforestation, climate change, and the extinction
of plants and animals as well as indigenous people"l. This early example
of environmentalism would culminate in what has been called "Scottish
Hippocratic responses to ecological crises"li (Scottish doctors were
trained in the environmental causes of disease).
According to the Cambridge historian Richard Grove:
"In India, William Roxburgh [Calcutta], Edward Balfour [Madras],
Alexander Gibson [Bombay] and Hugh [F. C.] Cleghorn [Madras], all
Scottish medical scientists, wrote alarmist narratives relating
deforestation to the danger of climate change … The writings of Edward
Balfour and Hugh Cleghorn in the late 1840’s in particular illustrate
the extent of the permeation of a global environmental consciousness and
could be said to constitute some of the first writings on world
environmental history."lii Edward Balfour was the nephew of Joseph Hume,
the Scots leader of the Radicals in the House of Commons, and the cousin
of Allan Octavian Hume, the leading founder of the Indian National
Congress (the political party that would eventually achieve Indian
independence). Balfour and the rest of his colleagues in India espoused
such radical causes as social reform, 13
feminism (Madras Medical College was opened to women
in 1875) and even outright anti-imperialism, as well as environmental
With the support of both Hookers, they mounted a
campaign that culminated in the creation in 1861 of an all-India Forest
Department under Hugh Cleghorn. Lord Dalhousie, during his governorship,
initiated a vigorous conservation policy, very much against the wishes
of the private capitalists, based on controlled felling, re-planting and
the provision of tree nurseries. Grove sees this achievement as an
important development in the early history of the conservation movement
that provided a model for later schemes throughout the world from the
USA to Australialiv.
There were English, French, German, Dutch, Swedish,
etc. botanist physicians, but in terms of sheer numbers at least, the
Scots and Scots trained ones must surely take the prize. In the century
or so during which the botanist physicians flourished, botany became a
respected professional career rather than the domain of gardeners and
amateurs, plant collecting and cataloguing reached its zenith, Kew
became arguably the most prestigious botanic garden in the world at the
centre of an international network of co-operating gardens, and the
inter-continental transfer of economically important plants transformed
the world economy for ever. The early example of practical conservation
mentioned above was a foreshadowing of Kew’s current role in the world.
Today the movement of plants between countries is highly regulated, and
Kew is actively involved in this regulation. The promotion of
sustainable agriculture and the conservation of plants and habitats
throughout the world, rather than serving the needs of the British
Empire, has become Kew’s principle role. The following is a balanced
modern assessment of the botanist physicians (by botanist Henry Noltie
of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh):-
"The great period of establishment [of Indian botanic
gardens] was from the late 18th to the late 19th centuries, initially by
the East India Company. This arose as a result of two major factors: as
part of the process of economic/imperialistic expansion, and in the
pursuit of scientific knowledge for its own sake in the wake of the
European Enlightenment. These factors, driven by figures such as Sir
Joseph Banks and Sir William Hooker in England, cannot be separated and
there has been much debate over their relative importance and the use of
science as an instrument of imperialist control. … That from the start
the running of these establishments was entrusted to men with a
scientific training – the Company's surgeons, who had studied botany as
part of their medical courses, notably at Scottish universities – led to
a diversity of motivation and potential conflicts of interest with their
employers. The Company's agenda was to a large extent, though not quite
exclusively, commercial – investigating indigenous plants for potential
exploitation, and introducing exotic species to be grown either as cash
crops or as sources of food, medicine, dyestuffs, etc. The surgeons,
while supporting the aims of their paymasters, often had additional
motives ranging from the philanthropic, such as investigating local and
imported crops that might withstand droughts and alleviate famine, to
taxonomic investigation of the Indian flora (not merely its economic
species), using gardens to raise trees for reafforestation schemes, and
as a base for wider scientific investigations such as the climatic
effects of deforestation."lv
© Ron McEwen (2014) 14
i Carter, 1988.
ii Statistic quoted in E. Wills, Scottish firsts,
iii Harvie, 2002.
iv Noltie, 2011.
v Brockway, 1979.
vi Smollett, The adventures of Roderick Random
vii Forbes 1843 quoted in J. Endersby, Imperial
nature , 2008.
viii Drayton, 2000.
ix Brockway, 1979.
x McCarthy, 2010.
xi Desmond, 1995.
xii Desmond, 1995.
xiii ODNB entry for Richardson.
xiv Friends of Cruikshank Botanic Garden,
Newsletter, February 2011.
xvi Lindsay, 2005.
xvii ODNB entry for MacGillivray.
xviii Wikipedia entry for Murray.
xix Wikipedia entry for Bruce.
xx Pall Mall Gazette, 23 March 1891.
xxi Scott, The surgeon’s daughter, 1827.
xxii Stafford, 1989.
xxiii Desmond, 1994.
xxiv Alastair Lamb (ed.) Bhutan and Tibet: Bogle
and Hamilton Letters, Journals and Memoranda, 2002. Macartney
(ed. Cranmer-Byng), An embassy to China, 1962, Appendix.
xxv Lennox Edward Honychurch, The Dominica story:
a history of the island, 1995.
xxx Drayton, 2000.
xxxi Journal of the Royal Geographical Society,
vol. 36, 1866.
xxxii Allan, 1967.
xxxiii Drayton, 2000.
xxxiv Kew Report, 1865.
xxxv Desmond, 1999.
xxxvi Moxham, 2003.
xxxvii Quoted in J. G. Lockhart, Memoirs of the
life of Sir Walter Scott, bart., 1837.
xxxviii McCracken, 1997.
xxxix Brockway, 1979.
xl Desmond, 1992.
xli Kilpatrick, 2007.
xlii Hamilton, 2005. Probably related to Scots
colonial administrator, Sir William Young, 1st baronet.
xliii Hamilton, 2005.
xliv Indian Medical Service records (British
xlv Nationality established from Indian Medical
Service records (British Library).
xlvi For an article on Scottish gardeners as plant
collectors, proprietors of specialist plant nurseries and managers of
botanic gardens in the U.K. and around the British Empire, see: Ron
McEwen, "The northern lads" in Sibbaldia, vol.11, 2013.
xlvii Burkill, 1965.
xlviii Quoted in M. Hoyles, The story of gardening,
xlix Desmond, 1995.
l ODNB entry for Anderson.
li Grove, 1995.
lii Grove, 2006.
liii Grove, 1995.
liv Grove, 1995.
lv In P. Taylor (ed.) Oxford companion to the
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