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About Joseph Hooker

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker was one of the most respected scientists of his day and one of the most important botanists of the 19th century.

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For anyone not familiar with Joseph Hooker's life and long career this video is a succinct introduction to his life and work. Made to tie in with Kew's recent publication The Story of Kew Gardens in Photographs, it explains the great contributions he made to botany and his legacy at Kew Gardens.

 


To learn more about Hooker's early life and his father, William Jackson Hooker, watch the video from documentary-maker Peter Donaldson (link at bottom of page).

Biography: Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911)

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker

Hooker's passion for plants was ignited early. As the son of William Jackson Hooker - who was to become Regius Professor of Botany at Glasgow University and later the first official director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew - perhaps a career in botanical science was likely if not inevitable for Joseph. He started attending his father's lectures when he was as young as seven. But there is no doubt that it was through a lifetime of dedicated study, pioneering travel, scientific investigation, botanical discovery and taxonomic innovation that he built his own towering reputation as a man of science, and as the leading botanist of his age.

Hooker began his career as a surgeon in the navy. Unable to travel as a gentleman naturalist of independent means like his idol Charles Darwin he used his medical qualification to secure an appointment as Assistant Surgeon on HMS Erebus for the Ross expeditions to the Antarctic (1839-1843). He then used this opportunity to do much botanising in the Southern Ocean nations, especially New Zealand.

Hooker had a taste for travel and seems to have understood that exploration was one way to establish his reputation and scientific credentials. A few years after returning from the Antarctic Expedition, Hooker gained a government grant to travel in India and the Himalayas (1847-1851). He was the first westerner to set foot in the more remote northern areas of the Himalaya, once roaming so far that he got himself imprisoned by the Rajah of Sikkim for exploring where he should not have. In India he collected around 7,000 plant species including 25 new species of Rhododendron that helped create a craze among British gardeners.

Hooker was more than just a plant collector, he was an interrogator of the natural world, keenly observing the lands in which he travelled so that he could describe, classify and understand what was all around him. This combination, of plant collecting and interpreting the data he collected, earned Hooker a global reputation as an expert in plant distribution. For example, in India he sought evidence in the botany and geology of the highest mountains in the world that would support Darwin's theory On the Origin of Species, to be published famously in 1859.

Hooker's own publications were numerous: accounts of the botany in the countries he explored; the beautifully illustrated Rhododendrons of Sikkim Himalaya; Colonial floras of New Zealand and British India; and several learned and important articles on the relationship of American and Asian floras, prompted by his tour of the Rocky Mountains. He would also use his collections and those of others to compile a world flora. The Genera Plantarum, prepared with co-author George Bentham over more than 25 years, was finally published in 1883 and has been called the most outstanding botanical work of the century. It describes over 7,500 genera and nearly 100,000 species and established the Bentham-Hooker model for plant classification.

In 1855, Hooker was appointed Assistant Director of The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, later following in his father's footsteps as Director (1865-1885). Under Hooker, Kew's imperial role continued to expand and he furthered the Gardens' function as a scientific institution, expanding the herbarium collections and overseeing the construction of the first Jodrell Laboratory. Hooker himself continued to travel taking botanical trips to Morocco and the United States of America. On the latter he covered 8,000 miles, proving that, although aged 60, he still had the passion for plants born at his father's knee age seven.

Hooker died in 1911, aged 94, and is buried in the churchyard of St. Anne's on Kew Green. 

He retired from his post at Kew in 1885 but continued to work on botany until his death in 1911. He is buried alongside his father in St Anne's graveyard on Kew Green. It was proposed that he be laid to rest at Westminster Abbey alongside his life-long friend and idol Charles Darwin. In life Hooker was a defender of Darwin, having in fact been Darwin's first confidant for his controversial theory in a letter dated 1844. But, in death, it was felt he would prefer to be interred close to the gardens of Kew.