Making of Modern Botany' the Joseph Hooker bicentenary conference poster
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Joseph Hooker, 'The Making of Modern Botany' Conference

Virginia Mills, a researcher at Kew, reflects on 'The Making of Modern Botany', the Joseph Hooker bicentenary conference
Date: 
14 July 2017
Author: 
Virginia Mills

 

On 30th June 2017 Kew marked the 200th birthday of our most illustrious past Director, Joseph Hooker, with a conference titled 'The Making of Modern Botany', celebrating the great man's botanical legacy. In 2011, the centenary of Hooker's death, a Kew meeting reflected on the history of Hooker; this time around we looked at how he shaped and is still shaping botanical practices and developments built on Hookerian foundations. Proceedings were opened by leading Hooker scholar, Jim Endersby, Reader in The History of Science from University of Sussex in front of a sold out audience of over 200 delegates. 

                       Joseph Hooker in Birthday Hat

Bicentenary Conference

With 10 speakers from far and wide, we heard diverse talks on subjects as wide-ranging as the flora of Sikkim to island biogeography (we agree with The Natural History Museum's Mark Carine that there should be a 'Hookerian law' in biogeography to express the significance of human intervention in island floras). 

What united the topics was of course their connection with Joseph Hooker and his fields of study, but their diversity shows how extensively Hooker's legacy is still felt. Hooker covered a wide geographical range from India to Antarctica, having botanised on every continent during his long career. He also had a wide intellectual range. Our final session looking at 21st century botany was particularly fascinating in representing this variety: Kew's Dr. Eve Lucas demonstrated Hooker's continuing relevance to taxonomy even as we move to gene-based classifications; botanical artist Lucy Smith delighted us with her insights into the enduring relationship between artist and botanist; and, Nina Schuback of Curtin University, Australia helped us all to understand the importance of phytoplankton and shared her research from the recent multidisciplinary Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition organised by the Swiss Polar Institute. 

                                                                   Antartic Routes

Botanising on every continent

Speakers from closer to home included Kew scientists represented by the likes of Colin Clubbe speaking about Hooker's legacy in the UK Overseas Territories, and Lulu Rico sharing her heroic efforts with colleagues in South America to decipher Hooker's historical collections, mapping archive documents to herbarium specimens to enrich the data about these species collected in the 19th century, and to help provide insights into the flora of Cape Verde. This is a truly excellent use of archive material and we salute Lulu's skills in deciphering Joseph Hooker's handwriting, which, as we heard from Cam Sharp Jones, Hooker Correspondence Project Officer, is often incredibly challenging. The palaeographical challenges haven't stopped the project volunteers transcribing over 2,000 pages of travel letters, familial missives and scientific exchanges which provide a new online resource to understand Hooker and his work.

                                                                 Difficult letter image

Hooker in the Himalayas

Joining us from further afield, Seamus O'Brien came over from Kilmacurragh Botanic Garden in Ireland to talk about travelling in Joseph Hooker's footsteps in the Himalayas, and Sailesh Pradhan who travelled all the way from Sikkim to share an Indian perspective of 19th and 21st century Sikkim. Sailesh made us all envious of his home country with spectacular photographs of the landscape and flora of the region.

                                            Sikkim Flora

With further chances to enjoy Kew's historic collections and network with fellow Joseph Hooker enthusiasts at a private viewing of the Joseph Hooker exhibition in Kew's Shirley Sherwood Gallery, I was personally delighted to have the privilege of meeting with many of Joseph Hooker's descendants who had joined us to celebrate their forebear.

To catch up with conference proceedings you can view speakers' slides on iSpring Cloud (look out for updates by liking our Facebook page) and several papers will be published in the summer edition of Curtis's Botanical Magazine.

Last month we also marked the bicentenary by hosting a group of Harvard University students at Kew who learned about Joseph Hooker as part of an evolution summer school. They also helped out on the day of the conference by supplying insightful tweets - search #JDHooker2017 to see their perspective and look out for a blog contribution in the coming weeks.

As part of the celebration we also unveiled a specially commissioned illustration of Rhododendron thomsonii, a Himalayan species collected and named by Joseph Hooker. The new illustration by Masumi Yamanaka will take its place in Kew's art collection alongside depictions of the species in field sketches by Hooker and lithographs by Walter Hood Fitch, and is currently on display in the Library, Art & Archives Reading Room (open to the public Mon–Fri 10am–4pm). More of Hooker's spectacular Rhododendron introductions can be seen in an anniversary edition of The Rhododendrons of Sikkim-Himalaya published by Kew.

“The Making of Modern Botany” Joseph Hooker bicentenary conference was made possible through the support of Frederik Paulsen, The Linnean Society, The Bentham-Moxon Trust and the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project.

- Virginia Mills - 

(Project Officer – The Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project)


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