How Halesworth’s Joseph Hooker revolutionised botany and his connections to Charles Darwin

PUBLISHED: 13:57 23 July 2020 | UPDATED: 13:57 23 July 2020

Joseph Dalton Hooker, aged 34, portrait by TH Maguire

Joseph Dalton Hooker, aged 34, portrait by TH Maguire

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Suffolk-born botanist Joseph Hooker was one of Britain’s most eminent scientists and a friend of Charles Darwin | Words: John Wright

Queen Victoria was 29 when the botanist explorer Joseph Dalton Hooker, only two years older, arrived in Calcutta (Kolkata), India, in January 1848.

Little did he know that he was about to stumble on flowers in the Himalayas so spectacular and multi-coloured that when he brought news of them back to England they sparked a Victorian craze.

“You do not know how, from my earliest childhood, I nourished and cherished the desire to make a creditable journey in a new country, and with such a respectable amount of its natural features, hand my name down as a useful contributor of original matter,” Hooker wrote to Charles Darwin in February 1854.

Spring is the perfect time to see the spoils of his exploration in some of the 1,000-plus rhododendron species in full splendour in Suffolk gardens such as The Place for Plants, East Bergholt Place, near Colchester and Somerleyton Hall Gardens, near Lowestoft.

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in New Zealand, August 1841, c1847 painting  by John Wilson CarmichaelHMS Erebus and HMS Terror in New Zealand, August 1841, c1847 painting by John Wilson Carmichael

Hooker was born on June 30, 1817 at Halesworth, the second son of botany professor William Jackson Hooker and his wife Maria Sarah, eldest daughter of Dawson Turner, banker and naturalist of Norwich.

His father became the first director at the Royal Botanic Gardens in 1841 and Joseph would follow in his footsteps. As a young child, he listened to his father’s lectures at Glasgow University and heard about the travels of explorers like Captain James Cook.

He became a doctor, which qualified him for employment in the Naval Medical Service. At 22, he was the youngest on board when he joined Captain James Clark Ross’ Antarctic 1839-43 expedition to the South Pole as assistant-surgeon on HMS Erebus which headed into the Southern Ocean with HMS Terror.

He wrote to his father: “It is a great consolation after so long a cruise to gather plants further South than have heretofore been detected.”

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica during the 1839-43 Ross Expedition, c1845 oil painting (Rex Nan Kivell, National LibHMS Erebus and HMS Terror in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica during the 1839-43 Ross Expedition, c1845 oil painting (Rex Nan Kivell, National Lib

The ships circumnavigated and mapped the continent, taking them into polar ice three years running.

Ross described a storm: “Soon after midnight our ships were involved in an ocean of rolling fragments of ice, hard as floating rocks of granite, which were dashed against them by the waves with so much violence that their masts quivered as if they would fall at every successive blow; the destruction of the ships seemed inevitable from the tremendous shocks they received.”

In March 1842, the ships collided after Erebus turned sharply in front of Terror to avoid hitting an iceberg. Their rigging was tangled, and masts snapped off before they finally broke clear.

Hooker wrote in his diary: “At ½ past 7 all turn out to breakfast. . . the sick are attended to. (9-12) I have some calculations for the captain to make in a Meteorological Journal. . . after dinner (at 12) go to draw, as by that time the towing net has generally yielded something. . .

HMS Erebus, sketch by Owen Stanley, 1845 (National Library of Australia)HMS Erebus, sketch by Owen Stanley, 1845 (National Library of Australia)

“I am most generally drawing or describing in the Captain’s Cabin, the evening (6-9) being the most productive time for Marine Animal cull.”

In a letter home he wrote: “When the motion of the ship is such that my things have to be lashed to the table and I have to balance myself to examine anything under the microscope I fear many errors have crept in.

“It is often no joke, the specimens being minute and they will not keep to be worth examining next morning. . . This is my general routine of sea life, anything but monotonous. . . with one haul we drew up 30 different kinds of animals, corals, shrimps, crabs, red-blooded worms, sponges and no sea weed or any trace of a submarine vegetation, which grievously disappointed me.”

Despite the odd bad day, Hooker made extensive notes on plants he found and drew them.

Rhododendron argenteum (now R. grande), from The Rhododendrons of Sikkim-Himalaya, by Joseph Dalton Hooker, illustrated by Walter Hood FitchRhododendron argenteum (now R. grande), from The Rhododendrons of Sikkim-Himalaya, by Joseph Dalton Hooker, illustrated by Walter Hood Fitch

In winter the ships sheltered in New Zealand and Tasmania, where he collected plants avidly and published his findings, especially how the flora fitted the jigsaw distribution of plants around the world.

He was always on the lookout for specimens from local enthusiasts, but wasn’t always successful. In his Handbook of the New Zealand Flora he wrote that he was “often perplexed by the collectors sending, as localities, the names of insignificant hamlets or streams which are not found on attainable maps”.

Hooker returned to England in 1843 after four years on the Erebus. His father, now Sir William Jackson Hooker, helped find him a £1,000 Admiralty grant to cover the cost of writing and illustrating his botanical discoveries.

Joseph also received his assistant-surgeon’s pay while he worked on it. Darwin asked him to classify the plants he’d collected in South America and the Galápagos Islands and the two men became friends.

Before long, Hooker’s The Botany of the Antarctic Voyage emerged in three large volumes to wow the botanical world – Flora Antarctica (1844-47), Flora Novae-Zelandiae (1853-55) and Flora Tasmaniae (1855-60), all illustrated by botanical artist Walter Hood Fitch.

In 1847 he headed to India, ‘botanising’ in Madeira, Gibraltar, Egypt and Sri Lanka. On arrival they put him in a sedan chair but he preferred elephants.

He wrote to his aunt of “stepping on a tusk, and gripping at a broader ear. And if I drop anything, hat or book, he picks it up with his trunk and adroitly tosses it over his head into my lap.”

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Hooker and another man went to jail in Sikkim, in India’s north-east, for crossing a border into Tibet against orders.

Tibet and Cholamoo Lake from the summit of the Donkia Pass, looking North West, from Hooker's Himalayan Journals (PDH, Wikimedia CommonsTibet and Cholamoo Lake from the summit of the Donkia Pass, looking North West, from Hooker's Himalayan Journals (PDH, Wikimedia Commons

When the Rajah of Sikkim, who received a British pension, imprisoned him, special commissioner CH Lushington told him British troops would “exact a severe retribution” unless they were released – which they were.

Although this was done with profuse apologies and gifts, the Rajah had his pension removed and his territory annexed.

After three years in Sikkim, Bengal and Assam, Hooker returned to England on a steamer with 3,000 species of flowering plants, such as beautiful orchids, 150 ferns, mosses, lichens and fungi. Some he’d found growing at 18,000 feet, higher than anyone believed possible.

He also came back with 700 drawings and field sketches. When they were published shortly afterwards they were greeted by the literary and science magazine, The Athenaeum, as “one of the marvels of our time”.

V0028401 Sir Richard Owen. Photograph by Ernest Edwards, 1867.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
images@wellcome.ac.uk
http://wellcomeimages.org
Sir Richard Owen. Photograph by Ernest Edwards, 1867.
Published:  - 

Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/V0028401 Sir Richard Owen. Photograph by Ernest Edwards, 1867. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Sir Richard Owen. Photograph by Ernest Edwards, 1867. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

In 1851 Hooker married Frances Harriet Henslow. They had four sons and three daughters. Hooker wrote to Darwin in 1854: “She is very well indeed lately; we spent yesterday. . . visiting the Zoological Gardens and not getting back here till dark, so that she had fully four or five miles walk and is rather tired today but none the worse.

“I am now happy to go on jog-trot at Botany till the end of my days. . . what marriage or the first-child is to most men, my book is to me, though I have never attached the same importance to it as I have to wife and child.”

Frances died in 1874 and two years later Hooker married Lady Hyacinth Jardine. They had two sons.

Other travels followed – the Middle East, Morocco and America – a relief perhaps, after the professional jealousy he encountered at Kew, when he took over in 1865.

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker OM, GCSI, CB, FRS, aged 80 in 1897 (US National Library of Medicine, Wikimedia CommonsSir Joseph Dalton Hooker OM, GCSI, CB, FRS, aged 80 in 1897 (US National Library of Medicine, Wikimedia Commons

Richard Owen, head of the plants department at the British Museum, didn’t like the idea of Kew becoming a scientific institution with a great botanic garden. He saw red when Hooker suggested Joseph Banks’ huge herbarium collection be moved to Kew.

When the MP Acton Smee Ayrton, head of Kew’s funding body, got involved The Times called it “another instance of Mr Ayrton’s unfortunate tendency to carry out what he thinks right in as unpleasant a manner as possible”.

Owen and others, supported by Ayrton, interfered behind Hooker’s back, tried to make him resign, and shunned his scientific work, seeing Kew merely as an amusement park.

Hooker wrote: “What can be more humiliating than two years of wrangling with such a creature!” Eventually, Hooker presented a statement signed by scientists, including Darwin, to Parliament.

Kew Gardens in the summer, with roses in the foreground, with the Palm House and Parterre in the background.Kew Gardens in the summer, with roses in the foreground, with the Palm House and Parterre in the background.

They had already seen a secret Ayrton report criticising both Hookers, which Joseph calmly refuted. The press got involved. Ayrton called Hooker “too low an official to raise questions of matter with a Minister of the Crown”.

By now Prime Minister William Gladstone had had enough and in 1874 pushed Ayrton sideways. The MP lost his seat, and Kew Gardens thrived the way it has ever since.

Hooker did more travelling and writing. The Student’s Flora of the British Islands (still available today) proves he never forgot his home. And he was showered with honours and scientific medals.

Sir Joseph Hooker died on December 10, 1911, aged 94, and was buried where he wanted to be, in a churchyard at Kew Green, next to his father and a stone’s throw from his beloved plants.

About Joseph Hooker

- Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker OM GCSI CB PRS, British botanist and explorer in the 19th century

- Born: June 30 1817, Halesworth, Suffolk

- Died: December 10, 1911 (buried Kew)

- Second son of the famous botanist Sir William Jackson Hooker, Regius Professor of Botany, and Maria Sarah Turner, eldest daughter of the banker Dawson Turner. Sister-in-law of Francis Palgrave.

- From age seven, Hooker attended his father’s lectures at Glasgow University.

- Founder of geographical botany and Charles Darwin’s closest friend.

- For 20 years served as director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, succeeding his father, William Jackson Hooker

- Awarded the highest honours of British science

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