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Hooker's career

In 1851, Joseph Hooker married for the first time. During the 1850s Hooker not only travelled but published, in order to establish his reputation as a botanist. The decade saw the appearance of some of Hooker's most important taxonomic work, concerned with the classification and naming of new species and the re-classification of previously-known ones, and also publications in support of Darwin's newly publicised theory.

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

Hooker to Darwin, 1863, on the death of his daughter

Family

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).

Pen and ink portrait of Sir Joeph Dalton Hooker with books and scientific instruments.

Portrait of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker at work, by Theodore Blake Wirgman

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.

Work

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 1850s) allowed global comparisons that made his judgements superior to those – like the colonial botanists – who only knew the plants of their locality.

Dianella tasmanica, first described & figured in Hooker's 'Flora Tasmanicae'

Dianella tasmanica, first described in Hooker's Flora Tasmanicae whose introductory essay first appeared in 1859 and lent support to Darwin's new theory of evolution

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 Darwin 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.

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

Hooker writing to Gray after the meeting (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 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.

Text by Dr Jim Endersby. Reproduced with the permission of the author and Oxford University Press. Full biography also available free online on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography website.