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Hooker's place in history

Hooker is perhaps best known for his friendship with Darwin, but recent scholarship has begun to recognise that Hooker’s own preoccupations – especially taxonomy, botanical distribution and the disciplinary status of botany – are central to understanding the material practices of 19th century natural 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).

Joseph Hooker's Linnean Society medal

Joseph Hooker's Linnean Society medal, awarded for services to the Society in 1898.

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 19th 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 19th century natural history, particularly in its imperial context.

Hooker’s correspondence with his colonial collectors illustrates how the practices of 19th 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 burying him 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.

 

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.