Hooker’s Biography:
5. His place in history

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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.

Hooker’s place in history

According to his son in law, William Thiselton-Dyer, Hooker was ‘five feet eleven inches in height and spare and wiry in figure’ (there are portraits of him at the Royal and Linnean Societies and numerous photographs and drawings at Kew) and ‘in temperament he was nervous and high-strung’. Thiselton-Dyer also attested to Hooker’s capacity for hard work, a claim borne out by the full list of his publications, which fills twenty pages (Huxley 1918: 486–506). Some of the more important later ones include: ‘Outlines of the Distribution of Arctic Plants’ (1862 ); the Student’s Flora of the British Isles (1870); Genera Plantarum (with George Bentham, 1860–1883); the Flora of British India (1855–1897); editing the Journal of Joseph Banks (1896); completing Trimen’s Handbook of the Flora of Ceylon (1898–1900); and, finally, writing ‘a sketch of the life and labours’ of his father (1902). As well as writing, he continued to travel and visited Syria (1860), Morocco (1871) and the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Utah (1877).

Hooker was highly-regarded in his lifetime and received numerous honorary degrees including ones from Oxford and Cambridge. He was created C.B. in 1869; K.C.S.I. in 1877; G.C.S.I. in 1897; and received the Order of Merit in 1907. The Royal Society gave him their royal medal in 1854, the Copley in 1887, and the Darwin in 1892. He received numerous prizes and awards from both British and foreign scientific societies; the full list of his honours runs to ten pages (Huxley 1918: 507–517).

Although botanists have long-recognised Hooker’s taxonomic skills and his pioneering work on distribution, his wider reputation has been somewhat obscured by his close relationship with Darwin. When Hooker appears in histories of nineteenth century science, it is almost invariably as a minor character in Darwin’s story and his own work, attitudes and opinions have been neglected as a result.

However, recent scholarship has begun to recognise that Hooker’s preoccupations – especially taxonomy, botanical distribution and the disciplinary status of botany – are central to understanding the material practices of nineteenth century natural history, particularly in its imperial context. Hooker’s correspondence with his colonial collectors illustrates how the practices of nineteenth century natural history need to be seen as a complex series of negotiations, rather than in terms of straightforward metropolitan dominance; much existing historiography has assumed that those in the colonies were passive servants of imperial science, and as a result their interests and careers have been neglected. Hooker’s career also casts doubt over standard accounts of the professionalisation of British science, particularly the assumption that he and the other young professionalisers (especially those in the X Club), were determined to replace institutions based on patronage with those based on merit: Hooker inherited Kew from his father and bequeathed it to his son in law – and the role of patronage in these transitions is unmistakable. Likewise, Hooker’s equivocation over Darwinism undermines the assumption that it functioned as a unifying ideology for the professionalisers. While he welcomed and embraced natural selection as allowing naturalists to form ‘more philosophical conceptions’, he also stressed that both Darwinists and non-Darwinians, ‘must employ the same methods of investigation and follow the same principles’ (Hooker 1859: iv). This apparent ambivalence probably resulted from his need to maintain good relations with his diverse collecting networks, whose members were often deeply divided over the species question. As is illustrated by the Ayrton controversy, conflicts over Darwinism were potentially dangerous to a man in Hooker’s position.

Hooker died in his sleep at midnight at home on 10 December 1911 after a short and apparently minor illness. He was buried, as he wished to be, alongside his father in the churchyard of St Anne’s on Kew Green. His widow, Hyacinth, was offered the option of burial alongside Darwin in Westminster Abbey, but perhaps she understood that – despite the importance of his relationship with Darwin – it was botany, Kew Gardens and his father who should determine his final resting place.

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See also the Sources section of this website.

  • Allan, M. (1967) The Hookers of Kew, 1785–1911. London, Michael Joseph.
  • Barlow, N., (Ed.) (1958). The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. London, Collins.
  • Barton, R. (1998) ‘Huxley, Lubbock, and Half a Dozen Others: Professionals and gentlemen in the formation of the X Club, 1851–1864’. Isis 89(3): 410–444.
  • Browne, E. J. (1979) CR Darwin and JD Hooker: Episodes in the History of Plant Geography, 1840–1860 (Imperial College, University of London, PhD, London).
  • Browne, J. (1983) The Secular Ark: studies in the history of biogeography. New Haven, Yale University Press.
  • Browne, J. (1995) Charles Darwin: Voyaging. London, Jonathan Cape.
  • Burkhardt, F. and S. Smith (1987) The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Darwin, F. (1888) The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin. London, John Murray.
  • Darwin, F. and A. C. Seward, (Eds.) (1903). More letters of Charles Darwin. London, John Murray.
  • Desmond, A. (1989) The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine, and Reform in Radical London. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
  • Desmond, A. and J. Moore (1991) Darwin. London, Michael Joseph.
  • Desmond, R. (1995) Kew: A history of the Royal Botanic Gardens. London, The Harvill Press.
  • Desmond, R. (1999) Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker: Traveller and Plant Collector. Woodbridge, Suffolk, Antique Collector’s Club.
  • Drayton, R. H. (2000) Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain and the ‘Improvement’ of the World. New Haven, Yale University Press.
  • Endersby (forthcoming) ‘“From having no Herbarium.” Local knowledge vs. metropolitan expertise: Joseph Hooker’s Australasian correspondence with William Colenso and Ronald Gunn’. Pacific Science.
  • Hooker, J. D. (1855) Flora Novae-Zelandiae (Botany of the Antarctic voyage: volume 2). London, Lovell Reeve.
  • Hooker, J. D. (1859) Flora Tasmaniae (Botany of the Antarctic voyage: volume 3). London, Lovell Reeve.
  • Huxley, L. (1918) Life and Letters of Joseph Dalton Hooker. London, John Murray.
  • MacLeod, R.(1974) ‘The Ayrton Incident: A Commentary on the Relations between Science and Government in England, 1870–1873’. Science and Values: Patterns of Tradition and Change. A. Thackray and E. Mendelsohn, (Eds.). New York: 45–78.
  • Porter, D. (1993) ‘On the road to the Origin with Darwin, Hooker, and Gray’. Journal of the History of Biology 26 (1): 1–38.
  • Rehbock, P. (1983) The Philosophical naturalists: themes in early Nineteenth-Century British biology. Madison, Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Secord, J. A. (2000) Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
  • Turrill, W. B. (1963) Joseph Dalton Hooker: botanist, explorer and administrator. London, Scientific Book Club.
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