Hooker’s Biography:
4. A Botanical career

Cyathea medullaris
Site Information

Please note: this material is from my entry on Hooker in the new Dictionary of National Biography. The copyright on this material belongs to Oxford University Press. Please observe the appropriate copyright laws if you cite this material.

The consolidation of a career

In August 1851, Hooker married Frances Harriet, eldest daughter of John Stevens Henslow, the Cambridge professor of Botany who had taught Darwin. Joseph and Frances had four sons and two surviving daughters, but Hooker’s favourite daughter, Minnie (Maria Elizabeth), died in September 1863, when she was just six years old. He wrote to Darwin, who had suffered a similar blow a dozen years earlier when his daughter Annie had died, that ‘It will be long before I cease to hear her voice in my ears, or feel her little hand stealing into mine; by the fireside and in the garden, wherever I go she is there’ (Turrill 1963: 191). Hooker was close to his children and enjoyed playing with them. He also followed Darwin’s suggestion and not only attended their births, but gave his wife the anaesthetic chloroform during labour, as Darwin had done for Emma – a procedure the two men agreed was as soothing for themselves as for the mother. Frances died in 1874 and two years later Joseph married Hyacinth, the only daughter of William Samuel Symonds, with whom he had two more sons.


Hooker in the 1860s, shortly after becoming director of Kew.

The 1850s also saw the appearance of several of Hooker’s most important publications. These were largely taxonomic, concerned with the classification and naming of new species and the re-classification of previously-known ones. Hooker was a taxonomic “lumper”, a proponent of large, broadly-defined species that encompassed many varieties that others classified as separate species. Hooker’s lumping was undoubtedly a product of his global plant surveys – compiling these imperial inventories was made nightmarishly complex by those he called “hair-splitters”, who gave a new name to every minor variation they spotted, thus multiplying species and names. In an effort to over-rule the splitters, Hooker claimed that the size of Kew’s herbarium (which contained about 150,000 species by the early fifties) allowed global comparisons that made his judgements superior to those – like the colonial botanists – who only knew the plants of their locality.

The herbarium was not the only part of Kew that had grown substantially since William Hooker had been put in charge. The gardens had been increased from eleven acres to over 300 acres, containing more than 20 glasshouses and over 4,500 living herbaceous plants. Faced with this enormous expansion, the government finally agreed that the director could not cope alone and their decision brought a conclusion to Joseph’s long search for secure, paid employment; he was appointed assistant director on 5 June 1855.

While Hooker was travelling, publishing and making his name, Darwin was still working in secret on his ‘big species book’. Only his close friends knew that he was planning a comprehensive account of his long-held theory, but on 15 June 1858, Darwin received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, then in the Celebes Islands (Sulawesi), in which Wallace asked for Darwin’s help in publishing his own theory of the transmutation of species – a theory that largely anticipated Darwin’s own. Darwin was anxious not to lose priority for his idea, but equally concerned not to treat Wallace unjustly. As he and several of his children were ill, he left Hooker and Lyell to decide what to do. They arranged for Wallace’s paper to be read at a meeting of the Linnean Society on 1 July, but to be accompanied by an abstract of Darwin’s theory (which Hooker had read in 1844) and by a letter to Asa Gray, the American botanist, which substantiated Darwin’s claim to priority. After the meeting, Hooker wrote to Gray that he was ‘Most thankful … that I can now use Darwin’s doctrines – hitherto they have been kept secrets I was bound in honor to know, to keep, to discuss with him in private – but never to allude to in public’ (Porter 1993).

Although the Linnean Society paper did not create much public interest, Wallace’s letter persuaded Darwin to publish a shortened, more accessible version of his theory immediately and the Origin of Species appeared in November 1859. A month later, Hooker published his ‘Introductory Essay on the Flora of Tasmania’ (the final part of the Flora Tasmaniae), in which he announced his public support for ‘the ingenious and original reasonings and theories by Mr. Darwin and Mr. Wallace’ (Hooker 1859: ii). As evidence for natural selection, Hooker offered a detailed analysis of the distribution of the Australian flora, arguing that a combination of his earlier “Forbesian” geological theories and Darwin’s could best explain the observed distribution of plants.

[BACK] to top of page.

Kew under Hooker

In 1865 Hooker’s father died and Joseph succeeded him as director of Kew. Hooker was by this time a highly-regarded botanist with a world-wide reputation, nevertheless he might not have secured the position without his father’s constant assistance. William Hooker had even offered to leave his vast private herbarium to the nation as long as Joseph were appointed to succeed him.

Hooker remained director of Kew until his retirement in 1885. These twenty years were marked by the continuation and expansion of Kew’s imperial role. In 1859–60, William Hooker and Kew had provided essential assistance in the ‘transfer’ of Cinchona (the tree from whose bark quinine was made) from South America to India. This enabled this crucial crop to be grown in a British colony with plentiful supplies of cheap labour, resulting in cheaper, more reliable supplies of the drug that was essential to combating the malaria endemic to many tropical colonies. The success of the cinchona transplantation was emulated under Joseph Hooker’s direction in the 1870s when rubber trees (Hevea brasilensis) were removed (entirely without the knowledge or permission of the Portuguese government of Brazil) to be grown in British colonies, especially in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Singapore and Malaya.

The public function of Kew became a source of controversy in various ways during Hooker’s tenure as director. He asserted that the garden’s ‘primary objects are scientific and utilitarian, not recreational’ and complained about the need to create elaborate floral displays for those he regarded as ‘mere pleasure or recreation seekers … whose motives are rude romping and games’ (Desmond 1995: 230, 234). Given these views, it is hardly surprising that he continued the tradition of allowing only serious botanical students and artists to enter the gardens during the morning, and resisted all attempts to extend the garden’s opening hours for the general public.

Behind this opposition to admitting the public and providing better facilities for them, lay an anxiety about the scientific standing of Kew and of botany more generally. Botany continued to enjoy enormous popularity with non-professionals and was associated in the public mind with respectable middle-class activities, such as gardening and flower-painting. It was also particularly popular with women – at a time when the world of Victorian science was almost entirely dominated by men. Hooker’s long struggle to find a paid botanical appointment may have made him peculiarly sensitive to issues about the status of his studies. His concern to transform botany into a properly ‘philosophical’ study, one concerned with the laws of distribution and the origin of species, helps explain his opposition to the pleasure seekers and “rude rompers”.

In the 1870s, anxieties over the status of Kew – and over his personal standing in the scientific world – drew Hooker into conflict with Acton Smee Ayrton, the first commissioner of the Office of Works (which had taken over control of Kew from Woods and Forests in 1850). Hooker’s notorious irritability – even Darwin described him as ‘impulsive and somewhat peppery in temper’ (Barlow 1958: 105) – probably contributed to the conflict, but the immediate focus of what became known as the “Ayrton controversy” was Richard Owen’s Natural History Museum at South Kensington. The new building was to house the natural history collections of the British Museum, including the vast herbarium of Sir Joseph Banks. In 1868, Hooker had proposed that the Banksian herbarium be transferred to Kew, citing mismanagement at the British Museum as his justification. Owen, then keeper of the British Museum’s natural history collections, opposed Hooker’s plan, which would have jeopardised his new museum. Sharp ideological differences lay behind the dispute: Hooker was one of Darwin’s best-known public defenders, while Owen was a vociferous opponent.

By 1872, Ayrton had already made several attempts to cut public spending on scientific institutions and had clashed with Hooker several times as he tried to assert his authority over Kew. He now privately consulted Owen as to the future of the rival herbaria and Owen, not surprisingly, proposed that Kew’s collections be transferred to the Natural History museum – a proposal that would have reduced Kew to a mere public park. Hooker resisted this strongly, calling in every prominent British man of science he knew, including Darwin and Lyell, to protest publicly against the proposed change. After debates in both houses of parliament, Hooker and the Darwinians succeeded in getting Ayrton transferred to the office of Judge Advocate General. Both Kew and the Natural History Museum retained their respective collections and at the general election of 1874, Ayrton lost his seat.

Yet despite Hooker’s autocratic opposition to anything he regarded as diluting Kew’s scientific role, he was not opposed to widening public participation in science. In 1866, he addressed the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), whose meetings the general public were encouraged to attend, and delivered a lecture on ‘Insular Floras’ in which he finally gave up what he now called ‘sinking imaginary continents’ and instead adopted Darwin’s theory of plant distribution by migration. Hooker’s involvement with the BAAS also included presiding over the department of zoology and botany in 1874 and over the geographical section in 1881. In 1873, Hooker was elected president of the Royal Society where he instituted various reforms designed to broaden public participation in the society, including the ladies soirées. When he retired from the presidency in 1878, Hooker was particularly proud of the £10,000 he had helped raise which allowed the restrictively-high membership dues to be reduced.

In public, Hooker was extremely reticent about his political and religious views. However, in a letter to Gray, he described himself as a Whig and elsewhere referred to himself as ‘a philosophic conservative, a strong Unionist, but not a Tory’ (Turrill 1963: 197). However, he never expressed much interest in party politics and was similarly discreet about his religious views. He refused to give public support to Sir John Lubbock’s petition in support of the authors of the Essays and Reviews (a collection of essays by liberal clergymen that questioned traditional readings of scripture) because he claimed to be unsure as to the benefits of Lubbock’s campaign. He was similarly cautious in the controversy over the work of John William Colenso, the Bishop of Natal, whose doubts about the historical accuracy of parts of the old testament led to his excommunication in 1863. Hooker gave money to Colenso’s defence fund, provided his name was not published; he told Darwin he was anxious to avoid upsetting his devout, traditionalist mother. In private, Hooker’s religious views were close to the agnosticism of his friend Thomas Henry Huxley; in a letter to his friend, the clergyman and amateur naturalist James Digues de la Touche, Hooker expressed praise for Huxley’s concept of ‘a religion of pure reason’ (Turrill 1963: 198). Huxley and Hooker were among the founders of the X Club, a private dining society that supported Darwinism and opposed those they saw as obstructing scientific progress, especially traditional churchmen. In letters to Huxley, Hooker was forthright about his dislike of theological dogmatism, sacerdotalism and ceremony, but nevertheless remained a church-going Anglican and agreed to act as godfather for Huxley’s son.

[BACK to top of page] · [<< PREVIOUS chapter of biography] · [NEXT chapter of biography >>]
Last updated 22/12/06

[Welcome] · [Biography] · [Writings] · [Collectors] · [Links] · [Archives] · [Sources] · [Search] · [Site info]