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Significant Scots
David Douglas

DOUGLAS, DAVID.—It seldom happens in the present day, when the path of knowledge is accompanied with the comforts and facilities of a railway, that the pursuit of science is closed with the honours of martyrdom. In this case, however, the subject of the present memoir forms a rare and mournful exception.

David Douglas was born at Scone, in Perthshire, in the year 1798, and was the son of a working mason. After having received a common education at the parish school of Kinnoul, he was, at an early period, placed as an apprentice in the garden of the Earl of Mansfield, at Scone Palace. In this occupation his favourite pursuit had full scope and development, so that he soon became remarkable in the neighbourhood for his love of reading during the winter, and his researches in quest of wild plants during the months of summer. Thus he continued till his twentieth year, when a still more favourable opportunity of improvement presented itself at Valleyfield, the seat of Sir Robert Preston, in whose garden, famous for its store of rich exotics, he became a workman; and the head gardener of the establishment, Mr. Stewart, having observed the ardour of his young assistant in the study of botany as a science, procured him access to Sir Robert Preston’s rich botanical library. From Valleyfield, David Douglas removed to Glasgow, where he was employed as gardener in the Botanic Garden of the university; and here the valuable knowledge he had acquired was so highly estimated by Dr., afterwards Sir William Hooker, the professor of Botany at Glasgow, that he made him the companion of his professional explorations while collecting materials for his "Flora Scotica." In this way Douglas had ample opportunity of improving his knowledge of plants in the Western Highlands, over which these scientific tours extended, as well as recommending himself to the favourable notice of one who could well appreciate his acquirements. The result was, that Professor Hooker recommended his talented assistant as a botanical collector to the Horticultural Society of London, by whom he was sent in 1823 to the United States, for the purpose of enriching our home collection in botany with choice transatlantic specimens; and this he successfully accomplished, by bringing home before the close of the year many fine plants, as well as a valuable collection of fruit trees, by which the store of the society in the latter important production was materially augmented.

The zeal and ability which Douglas had shown on this occasion soon procured his employment in a wider field of enterprise. This was to explore the botanical resources of the country adjoining the Columbia River, and southwards towards California, and ascertain its multifarious productions. He left England for this purpose in July 1824, and as soon as the vessel touched the shore he commenced his operations. This was at Rio-de-Janeiro, where a large collection of rare orchidacous plants and bulbs rewarded his labours. Among these bulbs was a new species of gesneria, hitherto unknown to the botanists of England, and which Mr. Sabine, the secretary of the Horticultural Society, named the G. .Douglassii, in honour of its discoverer. So rich was the soil, and so plentiful the productions of this part of South America, that Douglas, who could here have increased his scientific treasures to an indefinite extent, was obliged to leave it with regret. In doubling Cape Horn, he shot several curious birds, only to be found in these latitudes, and carefully prepared them for being brought home. The vessel touched at the island of Juan Fernandez, romantic residence of Alexander Selkirk; and Douglas, who was delighted with its wooded scenery and soil, sowed here a plentiful collection of garden seeds, in the hope that some future Robinson Crusoe would be comforted by the produce, should such a person again become its tenant. On the 7th of April, 1825, he arrived at Fort Vancouver, on the Columbia, where his mission was to commence; and here his fitness for it was well attested, by the immense collection of seeds and dried specimens which he transmitted to the Horticultural Society at home. Among his discoveries were several species of a pine of enormous size, one of these, belonging to the class which he called the Pinus Lambertiana, in honour of Mr. Lambert, vice-president of the Linnaean Society, measuring 215 feet in height, and 57 feet 9 inches in circumference. The cones of this forest Titan, of which he sent home specimens, were sixteen inches long, and eleven in circumference. But they had something else than mere bulk to recommend them; for their kernel, which is pleasant to the taste, and nutritious, is roasted or pounded into cakes by the Indians, and used as an important article of food; while the resin of the tree, on being subjected to the action of fire, acquires a sweet taste, and is used by the natives as sugar. After spent having two years in the country adjoining the Columbia, and exploring it in every direction, Douglas, in the spring of 1827, left Fort Vancouver, and crossed the Rocky Mountains to Hudson’s Bay, where he met Sir John Franklin, Dr. Richardson, and Captain Back, on their way homeward from their second overland Arctic expedition, with whom he returned to England. His successful labours in botanical science, and the important additions he had made to it, insured him a hearty welcome among the most distinguished of the scientific scholars in London; so that, without solicitation, and free of all expense, he was elected a fellow of the Geological, Zoological, and Linnaean Societies. He was also requested to publish his travels, and a liberal offer to this effect was made to him by Mr. Murray, the publisher; but though he commenced the undertaking, he did not live to complete it, so that his authorship was confined to several papers which he contributed to the "Transactions" of the three societies of which he was elected a fellow; and extracts from his letters to Dr. Hooker, which were published in "Brewster’s Edinburgh Journal" for January, 1828.

After remaining in London for two years, Mr. Douglas resumed his duties, and set off upon that last scientific tour which was destined to a melancholy termination. He returned to the Columbia River in 1829, and after some time spent in exploration among his former fields of research, which he prosecuted with his wonted ardour and success, he went to the Sandwich Islands. The inhabitants of these islands being in the practice of trapping wild bulls in pits dug for the purpose, Mr. Douglas, one evening, after a few months’ residence, fell into one of these excavations, in which an animal had been previously snared; and the fierce creature, already maddened by its captivity, fell upon him, so that next morning he was found dead, and his body dreadfully mangled. This tragical event occurred on the 12th of July, 1834.

Thus prematurely, in the thirty-sixth year of his age, was the life of this enterprising traveller and skilful botanist cut short. The value of his discoveries, even in so brief a career, it would be difficult fully to appreciate. He introduced into our country almost all the new hardy plants that enrich our gardens. To these may be added many ornamental shrubs, as well as valuable timber trees that adorn our sylvan plantations, and give promise of extensive future advantage to Britain. Of the plants alone, which are too numerous to specify in this work, he introduced fifty-three of the woody, and 145 of the herbaceous genus, while his dried collection of Californian plants alone consists of about 800 different kinds. He was thus no mere curiosity hunter, but a benefactor to society at large; and it may be, that while new productions are implanted in our soil, and naturalized in our climate, the name of the humble but sagacious and enterprising individual who thus benefited our country for ages to come, will pass into utter forgetfulness. But if he has been unable to command immortality, he has done more—he has deserved it.

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