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Significant Scots
George Gardner


GARDNER, GEORGE, an eminent botanist, was born, in 1810, at Ardentinny, where his father, a native of Aberdeen, acted as gardener to the Earl of Dunmore. He was the second son. In 1816 his father became gardener to the Earl of Eglinton at Ardrossan, and there the subject of our sketch attended the parish school till 1822, when his parents removed to Glasgow. Here he was placed at the grammar-school, and, in the course of his studies, acquired a good knowledge of the Latin language. He had early imbibed, probably from his father’s occupation, a taste for botany; but it was perhaps as much by accident as design that he subsequently devoted his life to the science.

He commenced the study of medicine in the Andersonian university of Glasgow, and continued, during the winter and summer sessions of 1829, ‘30, ‘31, and ‘32, to pursue his studies with a degree of zeal and persevering industry which won for him high distinction in college honours. He also, in 1829, ‘30, and ‘31, attended the classes of anatomy, surgery, chemistry, materia medica, &c., in the university, where he likewise distinguished himself in the prize list. In 1830 he joined the Glasgow Medical Society, and during that year, and 1831 and ‘32, his attendance at the Royal Infirmary was unremitting. Still, amidst these severer studies, he found leisure to indulge his early bias for botany. His first rudiments of the science were obtained from Dr. Rattray, and he continued to improve himself by botanizing rambles in the country, and frequent visits to the Botanical Garden, with the curator of which, Mr. Stewart Murray, he formed a friendship which continued to the day of his death. Through Mr. Murray, and from his having discovered, in one of his rambles, the rare Nuphar minima or pulima, growing in Mugdock Loch, he became known to Sir William J. Hooker, the eminent professor of botany in the university of Glasgow. He now attended Sir William’s botanical lectures, and that truly amiable gentleman soon formed a high estimate of his character and talents. As a student, he made several botanical excursions to the Highlands with the Professor and his class; and to the intimacy thus produced may be attributed the important change in his future career.

From the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, Gardner obtained his diploma as surgeon, with high marks of distinction. Meanwhile he had made himself acquainted with the flowering plants of Scotland, and studied cryptogamic botany so successfully that, in 1836, he brought out a work, entitled "Musci Britannici, or Pocket Herbarium of British Mosses," arranged and named according to Hooker’s "British Flora." This work was flatteringly received, and has been of great value to muscologists. The specimens are beautifully dried, and neatly attached; whilst its general accuracy can be depended upon, as he had not only free access to the splendid library of Sir William Hooker, but the benefit of his personal assistance.

A copy of the "Musci Britannici" having reached the late Duke of Bedford—well known for the interest which he took in botanical science—his grace became a liberal patron, and warmly encouraged his ambition to proceed upon a foreign exploratory mission. After the death of the lamented Drummond, whose labours in Texas and parts of Central America had greatly enriched the Royal Botanic Garden, the directors of that institution were solicitous still further to promote its scientific character; and arrangements were made for his proceeding to North Brazil, to explore the botany of that country. As in the case of Drummond, Sir William Hooker undertook to procure a number of subscribers for the dried specimens, and to be at the trouble of subdividing and forwarding them to the respective parties; the curator, at the same time, agreeing to take a similar charge of the seeds and living plants sent home. Many of the public botanic gardens, as well as a number of amateur noblemen and gentlemen, were subscribers, and by this means, for a moderate sum, had their collections largely and richly increased. Amongst others the Duke of Bedford was a munificent contributor; and all preliminaries having been arranged for Gardner’s departure, his grace not only interested his son, Lord Edward Russell, R.N., commanding on the American station, in his behalf, but secured for him a free passage out in one of H.M. ships. This, however, he politely declined, preferring the greater privacy of a merchant ship, that he might have leisure to study, and especially to improve himself in his knowledge of the Spanish and Portuguese languages. So far from being offended, the duke magnanimously sent a draft for 50 in lieu of the free passage.

In the summer of 1836 Gardner sailed from Liverpool, and, after a favourable passage, arrived at Rio de Janeiro, with the appearance of which, and the surrounding scenery, he was perfectly captivated, and wrote home in glowing terms, descriptive of his first impressions. Amidst scenes so tempting to a naturalist, Gardner did not long remain inactive. He made frequent excursions in the vicinity of Rio, and particularly to the Organ mountains. In these rambles he was often accompanied by Mr. Miers, a gentleman resident in the country, of whose kindness he ever spoke in the highest terms. His first collection of plants, seeds, and specimens for the herbarium, were drawn chiefly from this quarter. These came home in excellent condition, and proved highly interesting. They contained many new orchids, liliaeae, palms, &c. He subsequently penetrated into the interior, and spent a considerable time in exploring the diamond regions. He was indefatigable in his mission, and his long and toilsome journeys were often attended with no small adventure, and even peril. Five years—from 1836 till 1841—were passed in Brazil. Before returning home, which he did in the latter year, he paid a parting visit to the Organ mountains, his object in doing so being, as he himself says, in one of his letters, to "make a collection of some of the fine shrubs and herbaceous plants which are to be found principally on the higher levels," of that range, to take home with him in the living state. After penetrating into the interior, he found the difficulty of sending home living plants almost insurmountable; yet he continued to preserve large collections for the herbarium, which, with seeds and such living plants as could endure the inland journey, prior to their long voyage, were sent home as opportunity offered. Some of the Melastomaceae, as Pleroma Benthamianum and Multiflora may be mentioned among the number as now ornamenting every good collection of hot-house plants; also, many beautiful Franciscas, &c.

Although botany was, of course, his chief pursuit, Gardner had always an eye to what might be of interest in other departments of natural history—hence his collections were swelled with minerals, recent and fossil shells, preserved skins of birds, fishes, &c. He, at the same time, did not neglect his medical acquirements. Throughout his extended journeyings, he carried his surgical instruments along with him, and performed several important operations with entire success, which not only improved his finances, but gained him many friends—thus securing a degree of respect, comfort, and, in some cases, safety, among the native tribes, which only a medical man might expect to enjoy. Amidst his multifarious labours, he kept up his home correspondence with surprising regularity, writing often to Sir William Hooker and Mr. Murray, and occasionally communicating with the more distinguished foreign botanists of the day. Several of his papers and letters were inserted by Sir William in the "Journal of Botany." In one of these, dated Province of Minas, September 3, 1840, he refers to the death of his "generous patron, the Duke of Bedford," in terms which bespeak the deep gratitude by which he was actuated. Nor did he overlook the claims of his own relations to a share in his epistolary attention; and even his juvenile friends, such as Dr. Joseph Hooker, and Mr. Murray’s family, were not forgotten.

In 1842, not long after his return, Gardner was elected professor of botany in the Andersonian university, and had prepared a course of lectures; but he did not retain that appointment, seeing, at the time, little prospect of the class being well attended. Meanwhile he occupied himself in arranging the materials of his Brazilian journal, with a view to publication. The work, however, was still incomplete, when, in 1843, he was appointed to Ceylon, as island botanist and superintendent of the botanic garden there, by the colonial government. This situation he owed to the influence of his never-failing friend, Sir William Hooker, who had himself been, some time previously, promoted to the office of director-general of the Royal Gardens at Kew. While in London, receiving instructions before embarkation, he experienced much kindness from Lord Stanley, now the Earl of Derby.

On arriving in Ceylon, his first consideration was bestowed on the botanic garden, which he repaired, re-arranged, and greatly improved. He then began to make botanical excursions over the island, thus enriching the garden with the fruits of his journeys. He also transmitted to the botanic gardens in Britain, especially Kew, such plants and seeds as were likely to prove acceptable, obtaining in return the productions of other climes—South America, the West Indies, &c., for the Ceylon garden. During his rambles he discovered the upas tree, which was not previously known to exist in Ceylon. A writer in one of the Ceylon papers, whose article was copied into "Chambers’s Journal,"says:—"When returning to Kornegalle, we were most fortunate in the pleasure of having for a companion Dr. Gardner, the eminent botanist, in whose company the most insignificant plant or flower has an interest, in relation to which, he has always something instructive to tell. On our journey back to Kandy, he discovered the upas tree, growing within a few miles of Kornegalle. It was not known before that it grows in Ceylon."

Gardner’s position and eminence, as a botanist, led him into an extensive correspondence, notwithstanding which, and his multifarious official duties, he so regulated his labours as to be able, not long after his arrival in Ceylon, to finish the arrangement of his Brazilian papers, which were published in London, by Reeves Brothers, in 1846. The work, 562 pp. 8vo, is entitled, "Travels in the Interior of Brazil, principally through the Northern Provinces and the Gold Districts, during the years 1836-41." It was very favourably received, being sufficiently popular in its style to interest the general reader, whilst it did not disappoint the expectations of the man of science.

Lord Torrington, governor of Ceylon, proved a kind friend and patron to Gardner, thereby enabling him greatly to extend his botanical labours; so also did Sir James Emmerson Tennent, the secretary. Both of these honoured names are often mentioned with grateful feelings in his letters. It was at Neuria Ellia Rest-house, the residence of Lord Torrington, that his demise took place. He arrived there on the 10th of March, 1849, about 3 o’clock P.M., and, after luncheon with Lord and Lady Torrington, retired to rest in his room, his lordship and Dr. Fleming riding out meanwhile. Next day the party was to have gone on an excursion to the Horton Plains. Lord Torrington and the doctor had not proceeded far when they were recalled by express, Gardner having been attacked by a severe fit of apoplexy. Everything was done which medical science could suggest, but all to no purpose; he died at 11 o’clock at night, surrounded by a circle of deeply grieved friends. He was in the prime of life, and, as remarked at luncheon by Lady Torrington, never seemed in better health and spirits. He had been remarkable throughout life for abstinence. Even during three years of constant travelling, irregularity, and fatigue, while exploring the interior of Brazil, he drank nothing stronger than tea, of which he had secured a good supply before leaving Pernambuco.

Lord Torrington, in communicating the afflicting intelligence to Sir William Hooker, thus warmly eulogizes the character of the deceased: "I can honestly say that the colony, and the public in general, have experienced a severe loss in this talented and excellent man—one who was loved by all—never did I see so amiable a person, one who possessed more benevolence, or was more ready to impart information to those who asked for it."

Thus the science of botany was deprived of an enthusiastic student, and able expositor, in the prime of life and the vigour of intellect. It is believed, by those who best knew him, that his end was hastened by excessive mental labour. Amongst his numerous MSS. is one in a finished state, which he was about to send to press, designed as an elementary work on the botany of India; and, as stated by Sir W. Hooker, in noticing his death in the "Journal of Botany," he had made extensive collections towards a complete "Flora Zeylanica." As a matter of general interest, it is not unworthy of notice that Gardner had taken out a patent for preparing coffee leaf, so as to afford a beverage, by infusion, "forming an agreeable, refreshing, and nutritive article of diet."

According to Gardner’s will, his books and herbarium were to be offered to the Ceylon government, to form part of the establishment at Peradinia, at a certain valuation; and, if not accepted, to be forwarded to his executor in Britain, Sir W. Hooker. The government having declined the offer, they were accordingly placed at the disposal of Sir William, by whose disinterested efforts the herbarium realized prices much beyond what could have been expected.


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