Select Page


It is difficult to define what defines ‘greatness’ in a person, or to state why any particular gallery of greats should be favoured over another. Those chosen for this series of ‘people’ articles have been largely selected for their lasting influence on plant knowledge.

Viewed from today the list reflects historical tradition with its predominance of white Anglo-European males. It is a sad fact that although Aboriginals have occupied Australia for around 65,000 years and Europeans for only 250, the outstanding figures of the past reflect the traditions of the dominant culture. How many Europeans could name a single pre-European settlement Aboriginal? This sad state of affairs reflects arrogant European indifference and lack of cross-cutural communication. The article on Boongaree was included as a commentary on this situation. In 2019 Aboriginals are still seeking recognition in the country’s constitution.

In post-Scientific Revolution Europe the world of learning was essentially a male domain. It was through the world of botany, a ‘soft’ science, and botanical illustration that many women became acquainted with this world. From classical times the woman had been expected manage the home (or estate in the case of the wealthy), while the man was occupied with affairs of state. At the time of the Enlightenment with its respect for antiquity this tradition was still strong. The selection of Josephine Bonaparte in this series of articles reflects this tradition. Her garden at Versailles would influence fashions and tastes across the European aristocracy and intelligentsia which would then filter down to the general populace. Australia played its part in changing these circumstances as, in 1902, it was the first country to permit women to stand for parliament and the second (after New Zealand) to allow women the vote.

Europeans and Aborigines are modern humans of the same genetic stock that populated the world after migrating out of Africa about 60,000 years ago. Australia was settled about 50,000 years ago, Europe about 30,000 t o40,000 years ago. The cultural divide between the two peoples at the time of European settlement was nevertheless a chasm. Australian Aborigines were the product of the land, adapted to it and part of it: Europeans culture was a response to urban living, agriculture, and a trade network of people with very different cultures and traditions.

Aboriginal Australia

There are many reasons for this including: the loss of oral tradition through the decimation of its people at the time of European settlement; the poor communication between European and Aboriginal cultures, partly the result of the arrogant European assumption that Aborigines had little to offer; and the absence of a written Aboriginal record. This is all the more tragic because Aboriginal interaction with the plant world would have been intimately interwoven with the ecology of the land and the directness and intensity of daily life experience in a way that European agriculture and science could not possibly capture. Only in recent times has a concerted effort been made to assemble and explore the depth and range of Aboriginal botany (see Plant use (tools & society) and Plant use (tools & medicine). Today the history of 50 millennia of Aboriginal-plant interaction on the Australian continent is therefore largely lost along with the names of individuals. These years are therefore viewed through the narrowed perspective of Europeans and their history.

European ideas, customs, values and beliefs that shaped Australian attitudes to the world of plants is discussed in detail elsewhere. Here I have chosen to look at these formative factors through thirteen key figures who have in various ways helped define today’s plant world – people who lived both in Europe and Australia. The list includes five ancient Greek philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Theophrastus and Epicurus. From today’s perspective this may be viewed as a gross overemphasis on inconsequential figures who lived through a brief historical period that is divorced from us in both distance and time. I hope I can persuade you otherwise.

Ancient Greece

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle together represent a mode of thinking about and structuring the world that has persisted into the modern age: they symbolise a culture with well articulated ideas about, among other things, art, architecture, literature, ethics, politics, the law, mathematics, astronomy, logic, and the process of reasoning itself. In Plato (c. 424-348 BCE) we confront the spiritual and transcendental side of of our nature, that part of us that became associated with Christianity. In Aristotle (384-322 BCE) we have an advocate for the materialism and empiricism that underlies modern science. Indeed, Aristotle may be called the founder of science: he was succeeded as Head of the Lyceum (the educational institution he established himself) in Athens by Theophrastus (c.371-287 BCE), the indisputable founder of modern plant science whose work would not be eclipsed for another 1200 years.

Socrates, it is true, is not noted for his science and biology: in fact we have nothing that that he wrote: all we know about him is what has been reported by others. But he is included as an important symbolic reminder of a tradition that made the ancient Greeks so effective: the tradition of critical thought unconstrained by religious belief, subjective bias, tradition and custom, social authority or simply a feeling of certitude. He was, as it were, a spokesman for the pre-Socratic philosophers who probably voiced ideas that had in turn passed imperceptibly from earlier civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Levant – like the star charts that the Greeks inherited from Egyptian and Babylonian astronomers.

Epicurus lived at the same time as Theophrastus but little is known of any interaction between these two men. He was an outsider. Not only did he reject the entire pantheon of Greek and other gods but he lived away from the public eye in a kind of commune with his friends that included women and slaves treated as equals on a property called The Garden, possibly the first ornamental garden established in Athens. He was no doubt an escapist and his science could not match that of his contemporaries but his garden and insights provided relief from Greek intensity and teh tumult of human striving. Strangely it was Epicurus, rather than the other philosophers, who appealed to the subsequent Roman culture.

Classical studies, once core curriculum for the well-educated, are now unfashionable. There are of course other and important contemporary matters in education but this cannot erase the significance of the Greek contribution to the Western world. The Greek philosophers form the trunk of today’s Western tree of knowledge and Western perceptions, a tree that is steadily absorbing the rest of the world within its politics, science, and medicine.

Christianity, the Renaissance & Enlightenment

With the decline of the classical world came Christianity which, like Platonic transcendentalism, had its own truths that were not of this world. However, thinking slowly came down to earth, finding its feet again with the Renaissance and eighteenth century Enlightenment as a classical revival and return to science. Pre-eminent natural scientist of this period was a Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) who set out with the modest ambition of, first, providing a universal naming system for the living organisms of the world and, secondly, beginning a descriptive catalogue of them all. His favourite student was Daniel Solander, who he hoped would marry his daughter. Instead Solander travelled to England, deciding to become assistant to Joseph Banks on Cook’s first voyage of scientific exploration around the world in HMS Endeavour in 1768. Banks and Solander would capture the European imagination with their amazing plant discoveries at Botany Bay setting off a plant frenzy, a ‘botanophilia’ that would enthrall European high society and scientists alike. Banks subsequently had a special relationship with Australia as he became de facto Director of Kew botanic gardens in London which he transformed into a hub for the economic botany resulting from the interaction between the many outposts of the burgeoning British Empire. Linnaeus and Banks were towering figures in the natural science of the day and have left an indelible impression on the botany of Australia. Linnaeus had extended the Aristotle’s groundwork by providing an agreed way of putting order into the natural world, and especially the plant world, without which communication and knowledge accumulation was barely possible, a lasting legacy to biological science.

Philip Miller (1691-1771) was Head Gardener and plant collector at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London who did not get along with Linnaeus although his period in office signals a major period of plant introduction that changed the British landscape and opened up horticulture and gardening to a newly affluent British middle class exciting Joseph Banks and serving as vanguard for the drive toward the global plant interchange that would transform the world landscape.

Joseph Banks (1743-1820) was an Enlightenment entrepreneur, explorer, Director of Kew Botanic Gardens, and naturalist on the Endeavour; through his contacts and management of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew he built on Miller’s tradition of plant introduction by creating the global networks necessary for a colonial economic botany that underpinned the largest empire the world has seen and accelerated the process of neo-colonial crop homogenisation, horticulture, and a global weed flora.

Josephine de Beauharnais (1763-1814), French socialite and wife of Napoleon Bonaparte together with her gardener-explorer Félix Delahaye epitomise the social whorl that was a part of the remarkable era of botanophilia – the romance of plant hunting in distant lands, the competitive accumulation of live plant collections by the wealthy and influential (especially women), all coupled with an insatiable desire by Enlightenment scientists to describe them, cultivate them, and illustrate their beauty. Banks sent her roses – but not in the carriageloads that he demanded for Catherine the Great of Russia.

Australian botany & science

Scottish botanist Robert Brown (1773-1858) was part of a new world order in natural history, the era of reduced influence of patronage, the introduction of public museums, and the arrival of government scientists. He was the first major botanist to produce a substantial account of the Australian flora.

Ferdinand Mueller, though European was the most outstanding of Australian resident botanist explorers and academics. Born in European himself, bridged the divide between the era of European colonial influence and control on colonial administration, science and politics, to a colony with its own identity, institutions and scientists.

The reasons why this ‘select few’ were chosen requires some explanation. The following brief introductory account of the lives of these people sets the scene for more detailed accounts of their lives and a summary of their contribution to today’s plant world. It was these people who, with their friends and colleagues, laid the foundations of Enlightenment botany and horticulture – creating the neo-European Australian horticulture and botany that we know today.

The common man

The thirteen people described in some detail here were selected for their contribution to the scientific (botanical and environmental), social, intellectual and economic ethos of Australia, especially in the period of early Australian settlement. Together they convey to us something of what it means for Australia to have a European and British heritage.

History is of course much more than the story of the great and famous. For most early settlers life was about survival and practical day-to-day realities, not the fancy ideas of intellectuals, scientists and the nobility. Nevertheless, the contribution of these thirteen and other people and their acquaintances undoubtedly helped to mould the environment in which the new settlers lived: society was ruled from the top much more than it is today. By looking closely into the lives of particular individuals we can at least get an inkling of what it was like to live in their world. This section of the web site also includes a ‘Roll of Honour’ extending the list of people who have contributed in a significant way to the world of plants in Australia: it includes people from many backgrounds, from botanists to agriculturists, botanical artists to politicians.

We cannot stand in the shoes of those who went before us: we see their world through a mass of historical fact and fiction, constantly judging them with the values of the present and the wisdom of hindsight. But what was it actually like to live in these distant times? Here I will make a limited attempt to describe what I think are some of the major social differences between our own times and those of the people discussed. A first difference is that today, with so many more people (especially since the population explosion after World War II), an established body of scientific knowledge, and many academic disciplines and social roles the contribution that any one individual, like personal authority, has become more diffuse than in the past. This is why we are unlikely to experience again such giants of history like Aristotle, Darwin and Ferdinand Mueller whose presence was far more noticeable in history’s formative years.

Then & now

In this introductory article I will attempt to cover what I think are some of the more obvious general differences that we would notice if suddenly transported into the worlds of the people I have discussed.

Society & social hierarchy

Perhaps the most immediate and striking difference we would notice would be the ranking of people within society. From the earliest civilizations people have been organised into rigid strata of social status, a situation that would only change in England after the levelling influence of two twentieth century world wars combined with the erosion of the gentry and aristocracy and the greater role played by women in society and other factors.

Differences in social status would be marked in not only displays of wealth and property ownership but also in dress, language. Social position was in most cases immediately evident through not only the manner of speaking and general bearing. Higher status entailed the observance of many social protocols and procedures from formal introduction to an elaborate general etiquette and table manners. Your existence was determined by your place in society. The educated were markedly different from the ill-educated. Ferdinand Mueller, Director of the botanic gardens in Melbourne when writing to Hooker, Director of Kew Gardens in London would sign off, ’Your humblest and most dutiful and obedient servant.’ Social deference was expected and willingly given. Social hierarchy has been with us from the times of the earliest civilizations indeed its presence in primates and the ‘pecking orders’ that occur throughout the animal kingdom suggest that this may be hard-wired (see Moral psychology). In modern society social rank more than ever before, is based on merit, skill and ability rather than heredity and tradition. Today we no longer attend to thrones, bowing and curtseying, and making sure that our written names are preceded and succeeded by as many titles and letters as possible, and our clothes decorated with tier upon tier of medal. Mostly we are content with confusion over who should go through a door first and respect everyone equally. It is tempting to think that hierarchy, though possibly innate, occurred as a means of enforcing social order and that its minimisation today is an indication of social maturity.

The people discussed in this article demonstrate the direct lineage of social hierarchy from the Greeks and Romans to the Western tradition. Aristotle’s will contained instructions for the futures of at least twelve slaves. Joseph Banks on his voyage in HMS Endeavour took a staggering personal retinue of eight servants including musical entertainers, two Negroes, and greyhounds. This was a world of conspicuous wealth, privilege, and status. In the Greeks we see a male world emphasising honour, physical prowess, and military achievement. To fight to the death for your people was expected and to refuse would be cowardice. Great military heroes of the classical world were part and parcel of the classical education of the West’s administrative elite. Napoleon styled himself ‘Emperor’ and Queen Victoria was ‘Empress of India’. (pride,dignity)

Today we shun rather than respect excessive wealth and privilege: we can envisage warfare as an unpleasant necessity, but hardly an honour. For most of us a personal insult today can be ignored or managed. More and more we treat everyone with respect, not deference. Not so long ago an insult it would have meant pistols at dawn. Today we have learned to aquiesce rather than resist placing less emphasis on honour, pride and dignity.

Today we recognise that social hierarchies are man-made, not God-given or part of the natural order, and therefore distinctions and rankings between people are based more on practical necessity than the presumption of moral or social superiority or inferiority.

Today social hierarchy is tolerated, not blindly accepted or encouraged.

Science & technology

Science and technology have transformed our world. This is a commonplace: it is not that we need to remind ourselves that we can communicate with people on the other side of the world in a fraction of a second, and of the recent origin of cars, aeroplanes, computers, telephones, televisions, smartphones, X-ray machines, and gene technology … the difficulty is more in coming to terms with the fact that less than 200 years ago men could not view every rock on the world surface through Google Maps but instead set off on horseback to try and discover Australia’s vast inland sea. Transport and communication has brought everyone closer together and also made us more the same. Science is not necessarily the saviour of humanity but modern medicine, for example, speaks a practical, universal and acceptable language to all nations; the same cannot be said of religion.

Moral improvement

Man’s inhumanity to man has always troubled us. Perhaps the most stark reference to this comes to us through the Christian notion of the ‘fall’ and original sin. Here was a claim that humans were imperfect creatures. Perhaps an acknowledgement of human imperfection was at the heart of the desire to improve other races. Our greatest awareness of human fallibility probably comes through the desire to contain our capacity for violence. Thrown back into the world of yesteryear violence would never have been far away, throughout society and on a scale we can barely imagine today as those with socially-acknowledged power over others took advantage of that power. Beatings and beltings were part of both home and school life as discipline was meted out to both children and wives. Use the cane and other forms of corporal punishment by headmasters, teachers, and parents was socially sanctioned. Capital punishment was the norm. Bullying and cruelty was rife and frequently used against children and animals not to mention the deformed, weak, and different. We only need to remember the maritime traditions of pirates, mutineers, official keel-hauling and flogging with the cat-o-nine-tails to realize that we now live in a very different world.

Today, on average, we live longer, healthier, and better educated lives than ever before in human history. Though this is always precarious, we also live in a genuinely morally improved, less threatening, less violent and more secure world.

Education & knowledge

Historically the benefits of an education would have been immediately apparent. We forget that literacy was the fortune of the few. Most of us can trace ancestry back to people who signed marriage registers with a ‘mark’. Only a generation ago doctors, lawyers and teachers looked and sounded different from the general mass. Today, for the first time in history, it is remarkable that when I speak to someone in the street they may be the prime minister, a shopkeeper, a doctor, a headmaster (school principal), or a gardener – and I may be unable to distinguish between them. Communication of information and people across the world means that the Director of Kew Botanic Gardens in London is quite likely to come from colonial Australia (Joseph Banks would turn in his grave).

Another recent consequence of education has been the impact of accumulated knowledge. As individuals we have probably learned about the world in much the same way as our parents: we might characterise knowledge today as just different from knowledge of the past. But a more apt way of thinking about knowledge is as a literally ever-increasing and accelerating number of recorded facts and information about the world. At the time of Aristotle the number of disciplines studied by philosophers would have been in the tens. Proliferation of disciplines has followed until today there are thousands and growing fast. This is truly astounding. The English Wikipedia alone contains 4,650,000 articles and dwarfs the work of encyclopaedists like Classical era Pliny, Enlightenment era Diderot, and the massive works of the twentieth century like Encyclopaedia Britannica. Knowledge, once the province of an elite group of people entered only through the careful cultivation of connections has now become, in principle, much more democratic.

Drowning in torrents of information has changed our world in serious ways. It is now impossible to have an in-depth knowledge of a wide range of disciplines so nobody can claim wide-ranging academic authority; as a corollary our times are characterised by guarded academic ‘silos’ and a resistance to multi-disciplinary studies; training becoming rapidly specialised; a tendency for universities to be based much more around fund-raising, vocational training, and commercial sponsorship than former ideals of understanding and researching our world. The presumption seems to be that we now understand the world, we just need to ‘run’ it more efficiently?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email