George Gardner (1812–1849) – a short biography

Coptophyllum millefolium [=Anemia millefolia (Gardner) C. Presl] [Hooker’s Icon. Pl. 5: tab. CDLXXVIII (1842)] based on Gardner 4083George Gardner was probably born in May 1812 at Ardentinny (some records suggest ‘near Glasgow’) in Scotland. Son of a gardener to the 5th Earl of Dunmore, and probably the youngest of two sons, George commenced his education when the family moved to Ardrossan until 1822 when his parents moved again, to Houston near Glasgow, where he continued at grammar school. George’s medical studies began in 1829 when he enrolled at the Andersonian University, Glasgow, and in 1835 he obtained his diploma as a surgeon.

He had become well acquainted with Scottish plants during his period at university, and attended Sir William Hooker’s botany lectures, as well as making several excursions with his professor in the Highlands. He brought out his first publication, Musci Britannici, or pocket herbarium of British mosses in 1836; it is an extremely rare work.

Apparently poor health had been one of the stimuli to visit a tropical country, but with strong recommendations by Hooker, George decided to travel and collect in Brazil. Although the country was by now widely collected, few explorers had really travelled into the interior of Brazil, so George endeavoured to travel throughout the northeast. In July 1836 George arrived in Rio de Janeiro and spent a little over thirteen months collecting around the city and in the Organ Mountains, and perfecting his Portuguese. In September 1837 he began his main expedition. Travelling via Bahia to Pernambuco, Alagoas, Ceará, Piauí, Goiás, and Minas Gerais, he returned to Rio de Janeiro in October 1840. During his extensive travels George practised medicine, carried out surgery, made many pertinent observations on slavery, and made several geological observations including the first discovery of chalk in South America. Spending another six months in Rio de Janeiro George sorted his collections, undertook a further trip to the Organ Mountains and further explored the State, before finally returning to England in April 1841.

George’s collections sent to England included many live plants, seeds, fossil fishes and an assortment of other natural history collections. Several collections, such as his insects, bats, and some animal skins did not survive his Brazilian expedition, except perhaps ‘three large birds and two small bats’ ‘to take out and present to Dr W. D. H.’ ‘on the top of some fossil fishes from Barra do Jardim’. The herbarium collections were routinely sorted by Bentham and Hooker and sold by Pamplin’s of Soho at the rate of £2 per 100 specimens. With between 15 and 30 duplicates of many numbers Gardner hoped that his expedition would be self-financing. Gardner’s own estimates of the collections were impressive and were said to consist of some 3,000 species and 60,000 specimens. His Catalogue of Brazilian plants (ms at K) numbers his collections to just over 6,100, although with missing numbers, number splits and other problems 6,090 is a more reasonable estimate; to this must be added over 150 mosses, lichens and fungi. The top set of his Brazilian plants is now considered to be at BM, finally purchased by the museum as not having been sold previously at auction in 1851. Large numbers of duplicate sets exist, especially amongst his sponsors of the Brazilian trip (W.J. Hooker, G. Bentham, Mr Winch, H.B. Fielding, Duke of Bedford) and in many major herbaria.

Following George’s return from Brazil he was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society early in 1842. George’s main occupation upon his return, at the suggestion of George Bentham, was to document his recent Brazilian collections. George lived in Hammersmith at the time, working on his and Sir William Hooker’s set at Hooker’s residence in West Park, Sheen, as there was no herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew at that time. Later that year Gardner also worked in Bentham’s private herbarium at his house in Pontrilas, Herefordshire. George also became (in 1842) ‘Professor of Botany and Natural History, in the Andersonian University, Glasgow’ but relinquished the post seeing poor attendance prospects at his lectures. In 1843 George went to work for Fielding, at ‘£1 a week and all found’, who had a fairly complete set of duplicates, in order to arrange his herbarium and prepare descriptions of the new taxa for publication. With some animosity developing between them, largely because Fielding did not want George’s name on the title page, George left. Sertum Plantarum (1843–44) was finally published under Fielding’s name ‘assisted by George Gardner’; the work was illustrated by Mrs Fielding.

In May 1844 George was appointed as the Superintendent and Chief Gardener of the Royal Botanic Garden, Peradeniya. From his appointment development work in the garden began in earnest and the scientific era began, with the assistance of an amateur botanist Captain J. G. Champion, by George’s energy in starting work towards the Flora Zeylanica. The early collections of the superintendents had been sent to Robert Wight in Coimbatore for a catalogue of the Ceylon Flora to be compiled. With Wight unable to complete this task, the material was returned and George then saw this as one of his main tasks to complete. He made extensive collections on the island and acquired many other collections, also undertaking extensive fieldwork in the Nielgherry Mountains in India. He established good relations with a number of botanic gardens including Belfast, Munich, and Rio de Janeiro and introduced in several species of ‘exotic plants’ to the Garden from 1844 till 1847. Whilst there he became a Corresponding Member of the Royal Horticultural Society and the Natural History Society of Mauritius. George also published several papers in the Calcutta Journal of Natural History, which he also edited (1846–1847). In 1846 the results of George’s labours on providing an account of his Brazilian expedition were published as Travels in the Interior of Brazil. Of the few memorials in the gardens at Peradeniya, two notable are those of George Gardner (erected in 1855) and George Henry Kendrick Thwaites.

It was during his final excursion, to have been to the Horton Plains, and as a guest of the Governor, Lord Torrington, that George fell ill after a late lunch with Lord and Lady Torrington. Lord Torrington and Dr Fleming had to be called back from an afternoon ride because of George’s condition. George was found ‘lying in a fit of apoplexy’ and died later in the evening. I believe this was from a brain haemorrhage, most probably the inevitable result of his horse riding accident in December 1838, near Barra do Jardim, Ceará. He had been felled from his horse by a tree bough, whilst attempting to catch the runaway horse of his host in the area, Lieut. Col. João José de Gouvea. George died on 10th March 1849, Neura/Neuria Ellia Rest House, Ceylon [Sri Lanka].

Gardner’s memorial inscription reads: ‘GEORGIUS GARDNER, Soc. Linn. Soc., horum hortorum ab anno 1843 ad 1849 Custos, rei herbariæ peritus, viarum strenuus, flores, herbas, arbores utriusque orbis diligentissime scrutatus est. Qui ut in memoriam habeatur hoc cenotaphium posuerunt amici Taprobanenses a. d. 1855. Obiit in urbe Nuwara Eliya a. d. vi. Id. Mart. anno 1849, ætat. 37.’

Contrary to many accounts the only genus named after George Gardner was Gardnerodoxa Sandwith [BIGNONIACEAE].

D.J.N. Hind, August 2012