Darwin’s Botanists: Joseph Dalton Hooker

Illustration of Rhododendron glaucum from Joseph Hooker’s The Rhododendrons of Sikkim-Himalaya, Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911) was born into the botanical world.  His father was William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865), a botany professor at the University of Glasgow who then became director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  Joseph eventually succeeded his father in that post, but his career had more bumps than this succession might suggest.  The Hookers did not have the wealth of the Darwins, so they needed salaried appointments in order to pursue their interest in science, something Charles Darwin never had to consider.  William could provide for his family, but as an adult, Joseph had to find his own means of support after graduating with a medical degree from the University of Glasgow.  Eight years younger than Darwin, Joseph Hooker took a similar route to gain experience in natural history by participating in the British Navy’s Ross Expedition to Antarctica, serving as assistant surgeon; both he and the surgeon were also charged with collecting natural history materials.  Setting out in 1839, they visited South Africa and several groups of islands on their way to and from Antarctica, as well as Australia, New Zealand, and Tierra del Fuego. 

By the time Hooker arrived back in Britain four years later, he had not only amassed a large herbarium but also made many drawings.  Like his father he was an accomplished botanical artist and created many of his own illustrations, especially for his early publications.  On his return to Britain, he began work on studying his collection and publishing descriptions of new species.  Hooker also analyzed some of Darwin’s specimens from the Beagle expedition.  Eventually Hooker described many of them and in the process became quite friendly with Darwin who was thrilled to have his plant collection studied after the long delay in John Henslow’s hands (see last post).  Their friendship flourished and continued until Darwin’s death.

In 1841 William Hooker became director of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, but there was no paid position available to his son.  Joseph applied to be professor of botany at Edinburgh, but didn’t get the job, so he worked for the British Geological Survey and learned paleobotany.  In 1847, he went on another expedition, this time to the Himalayas as a plant collector financed by Kew.  He sketched many of the plants, especially the rhododendrons, and it is amazing how beautiful these sketches are considering the rough conditions under which he worked (see above).  When Joseph returned to Britain he went to work on his collections, and finally obtained a paid position at Kew as his father’s assistant in 1855.  Ten years later, when his father died, he became director and was paid to cede the elder Hooker’s herbarium to Kew where he could still have access to it. 

In the meantime, Darwin had been developing his ideas on evolution, having written up a 230 page “summary” in 1844.  He had copies made and gave them, in sealed envelopes, to his wife Emma and to Joseph Hooker so that in case of his death it could be published, though he wasn’t ready to do the deed himself.  At one point after this, Hooker bluntly suggested that while Darwin’s interests were definitely broad, extending from variation in domesticated animals to fossils to plant breeding, he really hadn’t delved deeply into any one group of organisms.  He needed to study some segment of the living world so closely that he would get a sense of the issues involved in distinguishing one species from another.  This was the start of Darwin’s eight-year odyssey studying barnacles that resulted in a two-volume publication on them.  Janet Browne (1995) sees this as Hooker’s most significant contribution to Darwin’s thinking. 

Hooker was also very involved in dealing with the crisis that overwhelmed Darwin when he received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858 outlining a theory of natural selection very similar to Darwin’s own.  Hooker and the geologist Charles Lyell calmed Darwin down and devised a plan in which they presented Wallace’s paper, along with a short summary of Darwin’s work, at a meeting of the Linnean Society of London (Browne, 2002).  This was another major event in Hooker’s relationship with Darwin and led to Darwin’s writing On the Origin of Species (1859) within a year.  Though they didn’t always agree on all the finer points of the theory, Hooker remained an important support to Darwin especially because in the years after publication of The Origin, Darwin wrote a number of major works on plants.  Hooker supplied not only advice and taxonomic assistance, but also sent Darwin orchids and other plants from Kew. 

Hooker had an illustrious career in his own right as described in Ray Desmond’s biography (1999).  In Imperial Botany, John Endersby (2008) takes a different tack toward Hooker’s profession and analyzes how he used his position at Kew to command an army of collectors around the world to add to the already outstanding herbarium his father had amassed.  Endersby argues that Hooker was intent on remaining in control of plant taxonomy, particularly of naming new species.  He sternly directed collectors to send the material to Kew rather than attempt to describe species themselves.  Such tight reins were difficult to maintain as collectors became more knowledgeable about the plants where they lived and collected, for example, in Australia and India.  Hooker’s argument was that they lacked the broad collection he had available and so tended to see something as a new species, when it was only a variant (Boulter, 2009).  In other words, colonial botanists were splitters and imperial botanists like Hooker were lumpers.  During his career, Hooker published an impressive array of books including Genera Plantarumwith George Bentham, The Rhododendrons of Sikkim-Himalaya, and Flora of British India, as well as works on plants he collected in Tasmania, New Zealand, and Antarctica. 

References

Boulter, M. (2009). Darwin’s Garden: Down House and the Origin of Species. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.

Browne, J. (1995). Charles Darwin: Voyaging. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Browne, J. (2002). Charles Darwin: The power of place. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Desmond, R. (1999). Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker: Traveller and Plant Collector. Kew, UK: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Endersby, J. (2008). Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Plants in Toronto: Adam White

Grave

Watercolor of G.S. Malcolm’s grave in an Adam White scrapbook in the collection of the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

Adam White (1817-1878) was a Scottish entomologist who never traveled outside his country, so why is he considered important to the Green Plant Herbarium (TRT) of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM)?  The answer was revealed during my recent visit to the herbarium (see 1, 2).  From the age of 18, White was employed in the zoology department of the British Museum.  There he dealt with materials collected during British expeditions to all parts of the world.  For example, he identified and published on the spiders that Charles Darwin collected on The Beagle.  At times, he was given duplicate specimens from various expeditions.  He kept some of these materials, including plant specimens, in notebooks, and two of these ended up at the TRT, donated by relatives of White who lived in Toronto.  This is one of countless herbarium stories about how specimens can travel long distances over a long time before finding a permanent home.

Because these scrapbooks are so rich, it makes sense to treat them separately.  One was described by Nicholas Polunin (1936) shortly after it was donated to the TRT.  Its contents, available online, open with a series of 36 plants collected by Peter Sutherland during an 1850-1851 expedition to Baffin Bay in search of evidence for what happened to the last Franklin Arctic Expedition, which was last seen in Baffin Bay in July 1845.   Sir John Franklin’s wife pushed for searches to discover the fate of the party of over 100 men.   Sutherland sent a collection of 54 plants to William Jackson Hooker for identification, and the White specimens appear to be duplicates of some of these.  They have botanical importance because few collections have ever been made in this area.  Next are about a dozen plants from Sir John Richardson who led the expedition.  While Richardson named them, he didn’t give collection dates or locations as Sutherland did.  These are followed by 20 plants collected in southern Norway by L. Esbark.  The last 25 specimens date from the late 1840s and were gathered by Joseph Dalton Hooker and Thomas Thomson in India and the Himalayas.  These are significant because most were published by the pair.

Since this is a scrapbook, it’s not surprising that along with plants there are other items pasted on its pages including an autographed engraving of the Arctic explorer W.E. Parry and an original watercolor depicting the grave of G.S. Malcolm who was in the Franklin search party and died of frostbite (see photo above).  There is a handwritten note relating that “The plant which covered Malcolm’s grave was the Saxifraga oppositifolia,” so it’s appropriate that it should end up in a herbarium.  There are other such miscellanea, but it is the plants that make this scrapbook interesting and valuable, and explain its residence in TRT.

The second Adam White scrapbook has some empty pages so it’s described as unfinished, but it’s still a treasure trove.  It too has its own website, with information on White and on those who contributed the specimens, as well as maps of the locations where these were collected.  There are several distinct and unrelated areas represented: Europe, Palestine, and the sites visited by Joseph Dalton Hooker on the Ross Expedition to Antarctica (1839-1843).  The European material comes from British botanists: Joseph Woods, W.C. Hewitson, and Robert Brown.  The Palestine material was collected by the Scottish botanist Horatius Bonar.  Images and information on all the specimens, organized by collector and location, are available on the website.

Among the Hooker specimens is a new species, Lyallia kergulensis, (see photo below) that he collected on the subantarctic Kergulen Islands and named for his friend David Lyall who was surgeon on the HMS Terror during the Ross Expedition.  In later years, Lyall also served on ships exploring the Arctic and made valuable collections of plants at both poles.  It’s also interesting to note, as Deb Metsger pointed out, that the two ships on the Ross Expedition to Antarctica (1839-1843) were the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror.   These ships were later refitted and carried the Franklin party into the Arctic, where they disappeared.  Remarkably, both ships have been found recently.  The Erebus in 2014 and the Terror 31 miles away in 2016.  The latter’s location was 57 miles from where it was reported abandoned in 1845.  So White’s notebook united these two ships in a remarkable way, through plant specimens collected at both ends of the world.

Lyallia

Specimen of Lyallia kergulensis from an Adam White scrapbook in the collection of the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum

I should note in closing that there was a third Adam White scrapbook donated by his family.   It contained moss specimens and was taken apart so the specimens could be filed taxonomically in the general collection.   When the bryophyte collection was reorganized a few years ago, Deb Metsger undid this work and reunited the White mosses.  Because many of its pages were cut up to separate specimens, it would be difficult to reconstitute the scrapbook, but Metsger hopes to find a way to fittingly preserve the treasure.  This is the attitude of a truly dedicated curator, and Deb is definitely that.  She cares very thoughtfully for the collection and is generous to those like myself who want to learn more about it.

Note: Thanks to Deb Metsger for taking the time to show me these wonderful treasures of the TRT.  She made my visit memorable.

Reference

Polunin, N. (1936). A botanical scrapbook. Rhodora, 38, 409–413.

History and Herbaria: Digital Humanities Projects

2-sloane

Reconstructing Sloane Website

In the previous post, I discussed the digitization of herbarium specimens. Now I want to jump to what may seem an unrelated topic: the digital humanities, a field that seems to defy precise definition. Most simply, it’s the use of computer technology in the humanities and may involve anything from digitizing texts and doing computerized textual analyses to linking various studies of a historical period across several disciplines such as philosophy, history, and art. One large-scale endeavor is Mapping the Republic of Letters, a Stanford University project presenting the correspondence of some of the great minds of that republic, including Condorcet, Franklin, Voltaire, Locke, and Galileo. These are separate projects, but each is available within the Republic of Letters portal. Not only is there correspondence, but also a variety of graphic displays of how these figures related to a host of others with whom they corresponded, including, for example, a map of where Franklin’s correspondents lived. In other words, there is visual support for the idea that these individuals did indeed inhabit a wide-ranging republic united through letters. A rich example of what digital humanities can achieve, the site also links to publications that have grown out of the various projects.

Since all fields are ultimately interrelated, it’s not surprising that some of these websites have scientific content. For example, there is Reconstructing Sloane coordinated by the botanist Charlie Jarvis of the Natural History Museum, London (NHM). It required collaboration among that institution, the British Museum (BM), and the British Library (BL), all of which grew out of Hans Sloane’s (1660-1753) massive collections, with the library and natural history museum eventually developing individual identities at separate locations. This is one reason why collaboration is so important. For a particular plant species, there may be specimens at NHM, manuscripts at the BL, and illustrations at the NHM, BM, or BL. In his massive study of the Sloane Herbarium, J. E. Dandy (1958) noted the difficulty of trying to identify handwriting on herbarium labels because the related letters and other manuscripts were in the BL and the specimens in NHM; both were too valuable to leave their home institutions. In the age before easy photocopying, this was hardly a trivial issue.

But for many projects, collections are much farther afield. Specimens alone may be spread over several herbaria. Add to this field notebooks, letters, and articles in long out-of-date publications, and the task becomes ever more daunting. However, as with science itself, it is often a good tactic to begin with a relatively simple system to work out technical difficulties; once a foundation has been laid larger and more complex projects can follow. The British botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911) was a prolific author, letter writer, and collector so digitizing his letters and specimens was hardly a simple task. However, it was doable because most of the material was housed at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew where he had served as director. A similar project was undertaken at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, where the German botanist George Engelmann (1809-1884) had been adviser to the garden’s founder Henry Shaw. This site links not only to correspondence and other papers, but to herbarium specimens and printed references as well. Another successful project involves the work of Nathaniel Wallich (1786-1854) who was director of the Royal Botanic Garden in Calcutta. This website includes his correspondence, specimens, and plant illustrations he commissioned from Indian artists. For a particular genus, material in all these categories can be found with one search. This site could serve as a useful model for other web portals linking various kinds of collections.

Exploring the back ends—the software and coding—involved in such projects, leads to an appreciation for how difficult they are to pull off. I am hardly in a position to discuss this topic, but I know enough to realize the massiveness of such endeavors and their expense. First, scanning or photographing materials is labor intensive, as is inputting the metadata that makes the images scientifically valuable and also searchable. A horde of volunteers seems an appealing solution, but someone has to organize them and control the quality of their work. Then there is the software platform for the data so there is enough metadata for each item that it can be linked to a variety of other items in multiple ways. To create something that works well for a particular project requires extensive coding for customization, even if the basic software is “out of the box.” Software and coding are two large-budget items, no matter how simple the project, and to do such an undertaking well is not “simple” at all. The disheartening thing is that any solution will probably look dated and unwieldy ten years from now.

In early digitization efforts, just scanning items seemed to be a great step forward, and many treasures became available online as a result. Two of my favorites are the Conrad Gessner’s (1516-1565) botanical notebooks, Historia Plantarum, in the library of the University of Erlangen-Nuremburg University in Germany. These are two PDFs of about 500 and 350 pages each, with each page a gem—a watercolor of one or more plants with notations by Gessner and a number of others. The PDF format means that while the images are available, they are not searchable. There is a massive reference work on the notebooks that has thumbnail-sized images of all the pages and enlargements of some (Zoller, Steinmann & Schmid, 1972). The explanatory text, in German, is rich, both giving the text that accompanies each image and also providing commentary on them. It would be an amazing resource if all this were available online in a searchable format. But there is not a great deal of interest in this from the botanical community because the work is pre-Linnaean by over 150 years, therefore the names are not relevant to accepted plant binomials. However, the information that is noted including uses of the plants, where they were collected, and by whom is a great historical resource.

Such a project could provide an excellent model for what the digital humanities could achieve. It’s value to art history alone would be immeasurable. Gessner’s work dates from the Northern European Renaissance and suggests the attention to naturalistic detail that was evident in the high art of the period. These images are also of value to historians of science because they tell a great deal about what a botanist of that time valued in terms of information about plants. Not only is the plant as a whole realistically pictured, but there are also enlargements of seeds, flowers, and fruits. While the emphasis on flower structure is not as great as it would become from Linnaeus’s time onward, it’s obvious that seeds were greatly valued as were the differences among those from various species. Just the use of magnification is interesting for its time. While Gessner is my dream endeavor, there are many project that have already been realized that deserve note. I’ll describe several in my next post.

References
Dandy, J. E. (1958). The Sloane Herbarium. London: British Museum.

Zoller, H., Steinmann, M., & Schmid, K. (1972). Conradi Gesneri Historia Plantarum. Dietikon-Zürich: Urs Graf-Verlag.