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Hooker & Huxley

Joseph Hooker (1817-1911)

Joseph Dalton Hooker

Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911)
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons


Joseph Hooker followed his father William Hooker (1785-1865) as Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and was England’s most outstanding and decorated botanist of the 19th century at the height of the Victorian British empire. He was a close friend of Charles Darwin who described him as ‘impulsive and somewhat peppery in temper’. He displayed the typical Victorian capacity for great industry throughout his working life that spanned over 70 years.

As a plant geographer Hooker extended Darwin’s observations and; in his lifetime he named about 12,000 plant species and was a major contributor to an inventory of plants growing in the countries of the British Empire.

As Director of Kew, a position he held for 20 years, Joseph Hooker weathered several public storms to usher in the era of the professional government scientist when virtually the only salaries government positions were for teaching medical students. Like Banks before hime he was closley engaged with imperial economic botany and is well known for his transfer of Qinine (Cinchona) and rubber (Hevea) plants from South America to south and southeast Asia.

Among his many decorations were his election as a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1842 and of the Royal Society in 1847. In 1868 he was appointed President of the British Association for the Advancement of science and in 1873 was appointed President of the Royal Society, a position he held until 1878.

Early life

Joseph’s father William Hooker (1785-1865) was not wealthy, Joseph Banks facilitating his appointment as Regius Professor of Botany at Glasgow University in 1820 before he followed Banks in 1841 as Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew his position, as the first public (government) appointment, ending the tradition of royal appointments.

Frail in build and always dealing with health problems he made up for this with a dogged determinism and strength of purpose. Natural history was part of his life from an early age, attending his father’s lectures at the age of seven, going on field trips with knowledgeable botanists, and needing little persuasion from James Smith (President of the Linnean Society and his neighbour) to choose botany as a career. Apart from his father’s interest in botany his grandfather on his mother’s side, Dawson Turner (1775-1858) was a naturalist who specialised in mosses.

Attending Glasgow Grammar School, at the age of 15 he moved to Glasgow University where he studied classics and mathematics before taking up medicine and graduating in 1839, a special year because this was when he first met Charles Darwin by chance in Trafalgar Square, the two remaining life-long friends, also in this year meeting American botanist Asa Gray then professor of botany at the University of Michigan and later professor at the Harvard Herbarium.

Fascinated by accounts of Cooks voyages and keen to add another layer of knowledge to the work of Darwin on the Beagle he first needed to establish himself in the botanical world. It was by now clear that one way of achieving this was to become naturalist on a voyage of scientific exploration. However, this now required a qualification in medicine as seafaring naturalists were generally employed as ships surgeons. With his qualification from Glasgow he was able, at the age of 22, to join the expedition of polar explorer James Ross in the ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, being appointed Assistant Surgeon on HMS Erebus.

James Ross expedition to the Antarctic (1839-1843)

With the naturalist Robert McCormick already appointed to the expedition (McCormick had joined the Beagle expedition in 1832 but did not get along with Darwin, leaving the ship at Rio feeling that Darwin was being unduly favoured) it took considerable persuasion by Joseph, his father and his father’s contacts, to satisfy all parties. Giving him the title ‘botanist’ achieved this and he got along well with McCormick. As preparatory reading he had been given proofs of Darwin’s Journal of Researches 1839 (later titled Voyage of the Beagle). As a paid government employee he could not please himself on board but was expected to be obedient in the performance of his various duties – unlike Darwin and Banks he had no private funding or servant(s).

The expedition called at Ascension, St Helena, the Cape, Kerguelen, Van Diemen’s Land, New Zealand, Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands, also working along a long stretch of the coast of Antarctica. Two stops were made at Van Diemen’s Land, first in August-October 1840 and then March-May 1841, and a short time was spent at Port Jackson.[8]

In the years following this expedition, Hooker wrote his monumental The Botany of the Antarctic Voyage …, published between 1843 and 1859 in six large volumes as one of the most important works in Australasian botany comprising the Flora Antarctica (2 vols: Lord Auckland Island, Campbell’s Island, Terra del Fuego, Falkland Islands, etc.), Flora Novae Zelandiae (2 vols) and Flora Tasmaniae (2 vols). Each part was introduced with a critical essay on the plants of the region, the introductory chapter on Tasmania in particular a seminal work on biogeography. Illustrated with numerous colour plates these books gave detailed descriptions of over 3000 species, many new to science.

To complete this work Hooker realized that, in true Banksian fashion, he would need to source plants more widely than he was able by himself: to this end he had amassed a team of collectors with his greatest assistance in Van Diemen’s Land coming from lifetime supporter and friend Ronald Gunn and, in New Zealand, William Colenso.

Historian Jim Endersby, a Joseph Hooker expert, lists his following collectors in Australia and Tasmania:[2] William Archer, James Backhouse, John Bidwill,George Clifton, Daniel Curdie, James Drummond, Ronald Gunn, William Harvey, John MacGillivray, Charlotte MacDonald-Smith, James Mangles, Augustus OldfieldFlora Tasmaniae called ‘Outlines of the progress of botanical discovery in Australia’. William Hooker had encouraged his son to collect less well-known groups of plants including mosses and seaweeds and, in addition to his Irish friend, the phycologist William Harvey, Joseph noted that ‘amongst the other zealous collectors of the Algæ of the coast, not elsewhere mentioned in this sketch, are G. Clifton, Esq. of Fremantle, Dr. Curdie, of Geelong, Mr. Rawlinson, and Mr. Layard of Melbourne, and in Tasmania, Mrs. M’Donald Smith, Mrs. W.S. Sharland, and especially the Rev. John Fereday, of Georgetown‘.

Return to England (1843-1846)

Returning to England the Admiralty placed Hooker on half pay with a grant towards publication of his work, but it was barely sufficient to survive and in 1845 he applied, unsuccessfully, for a position as Professor of Botany at Edinburgh University.

Demand for botanical expertise at this time was virtually non-existent, the only salaried positions being in teaching. However, he joined the Geological Survey (1846-1847) working on fossil plants. Established a decade earlier this survey was the first British government project providing funds for professional scientists; it was part of a general assessment of the country’s mineral resources as part of its increase in industrialisation.[2]

India (1847-1851)

After becoming engaged to Frances Henslow the daughter of John Henslow, Darwin’s friend and Botany Professor at Cambridge, Joseph travelled to India and, in spite of being arrested for crossing the Tibetan border (Indian authorities had told him not to do this), he remained in India amassing a plant collection of about 7,000 species. From 1848 to 1849 he set up base at Darjeeling in the north-eastern Himalayas, from which he explored Sikkim and eastern Nepal. It was this period as a Plant hunter for which he is perhaps best known, sending back magnificent rhododendrons and other horticultural treasures and assembling an impressive collection of his own botanical illustrations. His The Rhododendrons of Sikkim-Himalaya (1849) and Himalayan Journals (first published in 1854) rank among the most popular travelogues of the time and they set off a period of rhododendron mania.

Assistant Director of Kew (1855-1865)

On his return in 1851 he married Frances. After bearing seven children Frances died in 1874, Joseph remarrying to Hyacinth Jardine in 1876 who bore two sons.

William Hooker had obtained a grant for his son to write up the Indian work, the Antarctic publications selling well and in 1855 he was appointed Assistant Director to his father at Kew. This was a period of dogged and painstaking work as he completed the three-volume The Botany of the Antarctic Voyage comprised of Flora Antarctica (1844-47), Flora Novae-Zelandiae (1852-55), and Flora Tasmaniae (1855-59). Many additional plant collections were needed if these books were to live up to their titles and in this he was assisted by numerous unpaid collectors.

Always a strong supporter and friend of Charles Darwin and with the independent discovery of natural selection by Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858 he and geologist Charles Lyell managed to avoid hard feeling between these men by presenting a ground-breaking Darwin and Wallace combined paper to the Linnean Society of London one year before the release of Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species in 1859.

Director Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (1865-1885)

With the death of his father in 1865 Joseph took over the reins at Kew his academic stature and public esteem increasing until in 1873 he was made President of the Royal Society, the first naturalist to hold this position since the time of the great Sir Joseph Banks. He had reached the pinnacle of the scientific and botanical world.

At Kew Hooker continued the work on economic botany that had been initiated by Banks, distributing from Kew’s nursery various ornamental novelties and raising seedlings of the Rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis from Brazil, which were sent to Ceylon and Malaya where they initiated the rubber industry in Asia. Other places for botanical exploration included Lebanon (1860), Morocco and the Atlas Mountains (1871) and a ten-week, 8,000 mile journey across North America with his long-term American friend Asa Gray which included the Rockies in Colorado and Utah (1877).

Steady botanical descriptive work including the monumental Genera Plantarum (1862-83) with George Bentham.

Retirement from Kew came in 1885 but Joseph retained his interests in botany.

On his death in 1911 it was proposed that he should be buried in Westminster Abbey next to Darwin but his widow, true to her husband’s wishes, insisted that he be interred next to his father in St Anne’s Church, Kew Green, adjacent to Kew Gardens where he had worked for most of his life. The rhododendrons he collected in the Himalayas have been hybridized and are now a feature of the world’s temperate landscapes.

Joseph Hooker was succeeded as Director by his son-in-law William Thistleton-Dyer.


Thomas Huxley (1825-1895)

‘My scientific career practically commenced with work done in the Australian seas, four and thirty years ago; the strongest ties of my life were formed in Sydney’

Thomas Huxley

Thomas Huxley (1825-1895)
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In 1847, eleven years after Darwins’s visit to Sydney Cove ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ Thomas Huxley came ashore from HMS Rattlesnake eventually being forced to leave behind the girl of his dreams, rather than taking a Chair of Natural History at the a new University of Sydney.[9] Public and private buildings of polished stone had been added including Government House, a piped water supply, wharves, foundries, shipyards, breweries and shops and a planned university.

In 1846 at the age of 20 Huxley was appointed Assistant Surgeon to HMS Rattlesnake on a voyage of discovery and survey to New Guinea and Australia. The official naturalist for the expedition was John MacGillivray[18] who did some botanising but is perhaps better remembered for his work on Aboriginal languages and his journal of the Rattlesnake voyage. In 1847, eleven years after Darwins’s visit to Sydney Cove Thomas Huxley came ashore from HMS Rattlesnake where he found the girl of his dreams and nearly took the Chair of Natural History at the new University of Sydney.[9] Even in the short time since Darwin’s visit, public and private buildings of polished stone had been erected among these being a rejuvenated Government House. There was also a piped water supply, wharves, foundries, shipyards, breweries, shops and a planned university.

Largely self-taught, Thomas Huxley (1825-1895) was a comparative anatomist specialising in the relationship of humans and apes. He was a Darwin supporter although, like Gray, Hooker, and Lyell, was not totally convinced by Darwin’s the theory of natural selection. As a powerful public Darwinian advocate, Huxley’s performance in a famous debate with Bishop William Wilberforce at the Oxford University Museum in 1860 earning him the title ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’. He fought against religious extremism and in 1869 coined the term ‘agnostic’ to describe his own views on theology. FitzRoy had attended the debate brandishing a Bible, standing up to exclaim that Darwin was a ‘damned scientific Whig’.[20]

Places visited included Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Hobart and Lord Howe Island. While in Sydney he met Henrietta Heathorn and befriended naturalist William Sharp Macleay also visited Hobart and rode to the Darling Downs from Brisbane. He appears to have been at a low ebb, or possibly diverted by thoughts of Henrietta when, from April to September 1848 the Rattlesnake surveyed the biologically dazzling inner passage of the Great Barrier Reef, which he hardly records in his journal.

On returning to England in 1850 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at age 26, soon meeting and befriending Joseph Hooker. It was not until 1855 that he was joined by Henrietta in London when he pair was married and produced eight children.

Plant commentary & sustainability analysis

Darwin had given biology the much needed ‘law’ that had been so lacking in its rivalry with the laws of physics and chemistry.

Darwin’s friends Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker were a new breed of extremely productive hard-working scientists in government service (Robert Brown was also a government appointment to London’s Natural History Museum). With this pair the era of colonial exploration was drawing to a close; the Ross expedition was to be the last major voyage of scientific exploration in sailing ships.

Hooker and Bentham (aided by Mueller in the Australian account) produced what amounted to a botanical inventory of the British Empire which included Floras of Antarctica (Hooker, 1844-47), New Zealand (Hooker, 1852-55), Australia (Bentham & Mueller), Tasmania (Hooker, 1855-1859), British India (Hooker, 1855), and Hong Kong (George Bentham, 1861).

With these two men the Australian colonial connection based in England was drawing to a close as botanical work passed to European-trained Australian residents. Hooker noted that he had produced some of his finest work and enjoyed some of his happiest memories working on the Tasmanian flora while Huxley’s lifetime contented marriage to a Sydney girl was a happy romantic connection.

Like Banks, Hooker was influential in making appointments and advising government. It was through Banks’s pushing that Joseph’s father William had obtained the professorship at Glasgow. During Joseph Hooker’s watch government was taking on more of the role that private individuals had previously occupied. In the early nineteenth century there were still few paid positions in natural history except in teaching. The world was changing from one in which people engaged in the various pursuits of natural history for the sheer love of it, paying their own way as Banks had done, into an era of official government-paid and formally trained scientists with academic qualifications in specialist subjects. Joseph was the Director at Kew when, in 1841, it passed from Royal patronage to government control.

After Banks and the era of Botanophilia it seems botany underwent a rapid decline in both public and scientific esteem: it was a descriptive science, little more than pressing, illustrating and describing and therefore well suited to occupy the well-to-do ladies of the nation with time on their hands. Joseph Hooker set about making botany respectable again and tackled an undercurrent of sentiment that did not welcome the paid scientist as natural history was considered by many to spring from a spontaneous love of the natural world untainted by money.

It is clearly evident from the time of Banks that communication and interaction in the world of botany and even science in general was part of a community. Scientists married into the families of friends and correspondence connected all in a close network. It reminds us of the anonymity of large population numbers. 8,174,100 in 2011. In 1801, when the first reliable modern census was taken, greater London recorded 1,096,784.[6]

Globalisation had begun, scientifically the next step after reconnaissance and initial inventory was to account for why things were the way they were, not necessarily in an evolutionary sense but in a geographic sense (vegetational structure, composition and distribution), and this is where Hooker could make his mark building on earlier work into climate, showing himself remarkably relevant to today. A century before the idea of Gondwana Hooker had hypothesised: a southern flora as part of a great southern land; migration of plants northward and to mountain tops as the climate warmed, posing the question of where these plants are to go as the climate worms up more; he noted the presence of southern beech, Nothofagus, in Australia, New Zealand, and South America.

Among the theoretical problems that occupied his attention was the origins of island floras, prompted by his visits on the Erebus to what are now the UK Overseas Territories Saint Helena (uninhabited when discovered by the Portuguese in 1502), Ascension (probably discovered by Spaniard Joao da sailing for the Portuguese Crown in 1501, but unregistered so its discovery is attributed to the Ascension Day discovery in 1503 when Portuguese navigator Afonso de Albuquerque sighted it), and Falkland Islands (competing Portuguese, Spanish and British claims to discovery in the 16th century, though the first reliable record is by the Dutch, and settled at different times by French, British, Spanish, and Argentina though Britain made claim in 1833, contested by Argentina). Even in Hooker’s time the island vegetation was degraded and today Kew is assisting in regenerating some of the indigenous vegetation.

Meanwhile society itself was in transition. It would be some time before the old class system would crack but Endersby in his introduction to a Kew booklet on Hooker mentions that Dickens in his Great Expectations, which became available to the public in 1860-1861, was posing the question as to whether gentlemen were born or made[p.16] while, later in the booklet, we get a feel for the times in a record of William Hookers written thoughts on his son’s marriage to Frances Henslow in 1851 where he says ‘I believe Miss Henslow to be an amiable and well-educated person of most respectable, though not high connections, and from all that I have seen of her, well suited to Joseph’s habits and pursuits. He himself seems well pleased with his choice.’

By about the 1880s science had changed again as more and better scientific apparatus and technology was acquired, laboratories were built up and botany began to fragment into specialised and independent areas of study.

The word ’scientist’ gradually came into common usage at this time.

Probably the most poignant close to this era was the combined work of German-Australian resident Ferdinand Muellerand George Bentham of Kew, Flora Australiensis, the junior author keen to escape the colonial yoke of seniority but acknowledging, as have subsequent botanists, the remarkable botanical acumen produced at Kew in England by George Bentham, a man who never visited Australia.

First published on the internet – 1 March 2019


Portrait of Joseph Dalton Hooker, Director of Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in Sikkim with his Lepcha collectors.
Pine forest at 9000 f: Kanchenjunga in the background
Mezzotint by William Walker (1791-1867) from a painting by Frank Stone (1800-1859).
Tree trunk on rhs swathed with Rhododendron dalhousiae and other epiphytes.
The British Empire enjoying exotic lands, exotic people, and exotic plants
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Shyamal – Accessed 13 February 2018

Joseph Hooker - plant hunter
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