Hooker, Joseph Dalton, Sir, 1817-1911

Alternative names
Birth 1817-06-30
Death 1911-12-10

Biographical notes:

Sir Joseph D. Hooker (1817-1911), botanist, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England.

From the description of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker collection, 1828-1909. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 38477374

English botanist and traveler.

From the description of Autograph letter signed, dated : [London] Mar. 25 1878, to an unidentified recipient at the Daily Telegraph, 1878 Mar. 25. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270666429

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker was an English botanist and traveler. He was interested in the geological distribution of species. He succeeded his father, William Jackson Hooker, as director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

From the description of Correspondence, 1844-1910. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122540781

Hooker was an English botanist and explorer. His works included: Botany of Antartica voyages (1840s), and Flora of British India (1872-1879). He was the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew from 1865 to 1885, having succeeded his father in the position.

From the description of [Letter] 1879 Nov. 21, Royal Gardens Kew [to] Mr. Nashua / J. D. Hooker. (Smith College). WorldCat record id: 234302063

English botanist.

From the description of My dear Mr. Children, 1841. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 367332836

From the description of Autograph letter signed : Kew, to an unidentified recipient, 1870 June 4. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270871053

English botonist and traveller.

From the description of Letters : to Mr. Collins, 1873-1884. (Boston Public Library). WorldCat record id: 39782263

1839-1843 surgeon and botanist, HMS Erebus, Antarctic Expedition under Sir James Clark Ross; 1846-1847 worked on the geological survey; 1847-1849 surveyed the central and eastern Himalaya; 1850-1851 Eastern Bengal; 1860 travelled to Syria and Palestine; 1869 CB; 1871 travelled to Morocco and the Greater Atlas Mountains; 1877 travelled to the Rocky Mountains and California, USA; 1855-1865 assistant director, Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew; 1865-1885 director, Royal Bontanical Gardens, Kew; 1873-1878 president, the Royal Society; 1877 KCSI; 1897 GCSI; 1907 OM.

Epithet: botanist and traveller

Title: Knight

British Library Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue : Person : Description : ark:/81055/vdc_100000001083.0x000236

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911, APS 1869) was an English botanist and traveler, and was interested in the geographical distribution of species. He succeeded his father, William Jackson Hooker, as director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Hooker was a close friend and early supporter of Charles Darwin, and arranged for the joint reading of the paper of Alfred R. Wallace with Darwin’s “abstract” on the theory of Natural Selection before the Linnean Society of London.

Hooker was born in Halesworth in Suffolk, England on June 30, 1817. He was the younger son of the botanist Sir William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865, APS 1862) and Maria Sarah Turner. His father William was the regius professor of botany at Glasgow University. As a boy Hooker loved botany and entomology, and began attending his father’s botanical lectures from the age of seven. He was especially interested in plant distribution, but also had a lively interest in travelers’ tales. He remembered sitting on his grandfather’s knee, looking at the pictures in the account of Captain Cook’s Voyages, imagining himself among the participants. He received a traditional Scottish liberal arts education at the Glasgow grammar school and high school, and matriculated at Glasgow University, where he graduated M.D. in 1839.

Through his father’s influence Hooker got his first work assignment as assistant surgeon and botanist aboard H.M.S. Erebus, commanded by Captain James Clark Ross, that along with its sister vessel, H.M.S. Terror, explored the southern oceans. During the four-year voyage, from September 1839 to September 1843, the ships spent the winters in New Zealand and Tasmania, surveying the Great Ice Barrier around Antarctica and visiting numerous tiny islands surrounding that continent, including the Falklands off the eastern coast of Argentina and the Kerguelen islands in the Indian Ocean. Travel was a major means for aspiring naturalists like Darwin and Hooker to establish a scientific reputation. Before his departure, Charles Lyell (the father of the geologist) had given Hooker a proof copy of Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle . While he eagerly read this account by his role model, Hooker felt slightly intimidated by the daunting physical and mental attributes required of a naturalist, wishing to “follow in Darwin’s footsteps.” Even though Captain Ross was a friend of Hooker’s father William, and encouraged his son’s botanical work during the voyage, Hooker’s income did not allow him to travel as a gentleman companion to the captain, as Darwin had done. Instead, Hooker sailed as a lowly assistant surgeon, with many onboard duties and subject to naval discipline. Nevertheless, the experiences on the voyage to previously unexplored regions fostered in the younger Hooker a lifelong interest in taxonomy and plant geography. More important, the botanical investigations that Hooker undertook and judiciously recorded on the Erebus voyage would eventually establish his reputation. The results of his work on the voyage would be published in a series of works that appeared over some fifteen years, including the Flora Antarctica (1844-1847), Flora Novae-Zelandiae (1853-1855), and Flora Tasmaniae (1855-1860). These works, collected in six quarto volumes titled The Botany of the Antarctic Voyage of the H.M. Discovery Ships ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror’ made him a leading world authority in the field of botany.

Upon his return home in the autumn of 1843, Hooker digested the results of his field research on the voyage in his father’s large herbarium and library at Kew. The first fruits of his work was a series of botanical lectures at Edinburgh University to support his candidacy for the professorship of botany, pending the death of Robert Graham, who was seriously ill. After his candidacy proved unsuccessful, Hooker accepted a two year position as a paleobotanist with the Geological Survey. He had earlier shown an interest in paleobotany with a published paper on Tasmanian fossil woods. His first assignment was to prepare a catalog of British fossil plants for the arrangement of specimens in the Geological Survey museum. Although the Survey position was not permanent, Hooker continued to write papers on fossil botany until his appointment as assistant director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in 1855.

In the summer of 1851 on July 15 Hooker married Frances Harriet Henslow, the eldest daughter of Cambridge botany professor John Stevens Henslow, the teacher of Darwin. The couple had four sons and two surviving daughters. After Frances’ death in 1874, Hooker married Hyacinth Jardine, the only daughter of the geologist William Samuel Symonds.

Given Hooker’s lifelong love of travel, his voyage of discovery on the Erebus was only the first of many journeys of exploration. In November 1847 he traveled on a government grant to northeast India, spending most of the time in the central and eastern Himalayan states of Sikkim and Nepal (1847-49). After visiting Calcutta, Hooker went on to Darjeeling in West Bengal in the foothills of the Himalayas, where he met and befriended Brian Houghton Hodgson, an expert on Nepalese culture, a collector of Sanskrit manuscripts and a passionate naturalist. Hodgson assisted Hooker with the preparations for his Himalayan journey, although he fell ill and was unable to accompany him. Instead, he went with Archibald Campbell, a British government agent, who was the superintendent of Darjeeling and a political agent to Sikkim.

When the two men crossed the border from West Bengal into the small, impoverished state of Sikkim, they naturally aroused the suspicions of its raja (ruler) and his chief minister the diwan. Hooker, who was engaged in a survey was occupied with making maps during their travels, and the diwan (rightly) suspected that these might have military, as well as economic significance for the British. The Sikh minister especially warned them not to cross the northern border into Tibet, and when they knowingly violated his order, he used the incident as a pretext to arrest and imprison them. The British government obtained their release within a few weeks, and Hooker spent 1850 traveling in East Bengal with an old university friend Thomas Thompson. After their return to England in 1851, they would collaborate in writing the first volume of a projected work Flora Indica (1855), which was never completed due to lack of support from the East India Company. Nevertheless, Hooker’s introductory essay to the book with its admirable account of the history of botany in India, later formed the basis for his superb “Sketch of the Flora of British India” in the Imperial Gazetteer of India published in 1907. Hooker’s Himalayan journey was a great success in most other respects. He collected about 7,000 species in India and Nepal, securing a grant to classify and name them upon his return to England. The Rhododendrons of the Sikkim-Himalaya (1849-1851), edited by Hooker’s father and illustrated by Walter Hood Fitch, was the first publication to result from the journey. His Himalayan specimens added twenty-five new rhododendron species to the fifty already known, and these spectacular new species created a rhododendron frenzy among British gardeners. The one book most often associated with Hooker’s work in India was his Himalayan Journals (1854), a classic of nineteenth-century travel literature dedicated to Charles Darwin with wide general appeal.

Hooker and Darwin, who met briefly for the first time in 1839 would later become close friends. In fact, they became close enough for Darwin to disclose to him the direction of his thinking about species change and the role of natural selection in the evolution of species. Within a few years of their meeting, Darwin confided to Hooker on January 11, 1844 that, “. . . I am almost convinced that species are not (it is like I am confessing a murder) immutable:--I think I have found the simple way by which species become exquisitely accepted to various ends.” Over the years Darwin kept him informed of his progress from a tentative theory to a conviction about the evolution of species by the mechanism of natural selection. While Hooker was traveling and publishing to establish his own reputation in botany, Darwin was at work on his “big species book”. He had only told close friends such as Charles Lyell and Asa Gray that he was planning a more comprehensive treatment of his theory. The catalyst that pushed Darwin to publish his theory was the receipt of a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, who asked for Darwin’s help in publishing his own theory of the transmutation of species. Enclosing a copy of his manuscript which traced a theory bearing a remarkable resemblance to Darwin’s own, Wallace explained that his reading of Malthus had illuminated his thinking on the origin of species. Darwin was eager not to lose to the priority of his idea, but equally concerned to treat Wallace fairly. Since Darwin was ill at the time, he left it to his friends Hooker and Lyell to decide what action to take. They arranged for the reading of Wallace’s paper together with an abstract of Darwin’s theory (which Hooker had read in 1844), but also a letter from Darwin to Asa Gray that validated the former’s claim to priority. Even though the reading of Wallace’s paper did not arouse public interest in his letter to Darwin, it did prompt Darwin to publish a shorter, accessible version of his theory at once, and the Origin of Species appeared in November 1859.

Only about a month after the appearance of Darwin’s Origin of Species did Hooker announce his public support of “the ingenious and original reasonings and theories by Mr. Darwin and Mr. Wallace.” Although he had already been aware of his friend’s views for fourteen years before adopting them, Hooker arrived at these convictions gradually, and stated that he did so “solely and entirely from an independent study of the plants themselves.” He embraced the theory of evolution on the basis of his own taxonomic work and on the evidence of the geographic distribution of plant species. As late as the writing of the introductory essay to the Flora Novae-Zelandiae in 1853, Hooker tentatively asserted the permanence of species as a practical requirement for taxonomy. In the 1855 introduction to his Flora Indica he still insisted that species are “definite creations,” although “created with a certain degree of variability.” A year later in a review of Alphonse de Candolle’s Géographaphie botanique raisonnée in the Kew Journal of Botany, Hooker insisted that there is no proof for the author’s belief “that the majority of species were created such as they now exist,” and that a “theory of transmutation [of species] accounts better for the aggregation of Species . . . in geographical areas.” However, he doubted whether this theory brought science closer to the origin of species, unless one admitted the doctrine of progressive development against which botany presented considerable evidence. Soon after the publication of Darwin’s Origin, Hooker became a strong advocate of natural selection. What changed his mind? His eventual acceptance of natural selection was partially compelled by his own phytogeographical evidence. Like his American colleague Asa Gray, Hooker was one of the first botanists to present the mutability and derivative origins of species as an explanation for the geographical distribution of plants.

Hooker became assistant director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in 1855, succeeding his father as director in 1865. His father William Hooker transformed the sterile gardens, once the private property of the British monarchs, by relandscaping them, building more new greenhouses, erecting a herbarium and library and establishing botanical museums. He continued his father’s program of improving the gardens by adding more walkways and greenhouses, creating a rock garden, enlarging the arboretum and opening the Marianne North Gallery for the permanent display of botanical paintings. Hooker also made Kew an international center of botanical research with the foundation of the Jodrell Laboratory. On biographer has argued that Hooker’s greatest accomplishment was his administration of the Kew Gardens from 1865 until his retirement in 1885.

Another of Hooker’s major accomplishments was the new Bentham-Hooker classification of plants, resulting from his collaboration with George Bentham, beginning in 1857. Hooker’s official duties prevented him from contributing more than a third of the three-volume Genera plantarum (1862-1883) which remains the standard work in the field. Although not a phylogenetic system showing the evolutionary relationships among plant species, it is a “natural” classification, using (with modifications) the sequence of families proposed by French botanist Augustin-Pyramus de Candolle in 1819. The Genera plantarum was only one of the numerous works abstracted in the Index Kewensis, an essential reference on flowering plants prepared under Hooker’s direction. In addition to his editorial work on the Index Kewensis, Hooker edited the fifth through the eighth editions of Bentham’s Handbook of British Flora and two well-known botanical periodicals: Botanical Magazine (from 1865-1904) and Hooker’s Icones plantarum, founded by his father in 1836. He also published a Student’s Flora of the British Isles in 1870.

In 1871 Hooker joined his American friend Asa Gray in the western regions of North America for his last major botanical expedition. Both botanists were intrigued by the similarities between flowering plants in the eastern United States and eastern continental Asia and Japan.

Also in the 1870’s Hooker’s anxieties over the status of the Botanic Gardens at Kew and his personal reputation in the scientific work drew him into political and personal conflict with Acton Smee Ayrton, the first commissioner of the Office of Works, that took over the administration of Kew from the Office of Woods and Forests in 1850. The immediate cause of what became known as the Ayrton controversy was Richard Owen’s natural history museum in South Kensington. The new building that was supposed to house the natural history collections of the British Museum was to include the herbarium of Sir Joseph Banks. However, in 1868 Hooker proposed that the Banksian herbarium be transferred to Kew, citing the alleged mismanagement at the British Museum. Fueling the controversy was Hooker’s notorious irritability, but also operative were the sharp ideological difference between Hooker, one of Darwin’s best-known public defenders and Owen, his most vocal opponent.

In public Hooker was extremely reticent about his political and religious views. While characterizing himself as a whig and strong Unionist, he never expressed interest in party politics. Despite holding religious views close to the agnosticism of his friend Thomas Huxley, he always remained a church-going Anglican.

Hooker was very highly esteemed in his lifetime, receiving numerous honorary degrees, including ones from Oxford and Cambridge. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1847 and served as its president from 1873-1878. In 1868 he was created a Commander of the Order of Bath, and in 1877 a Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India.

In 1869 he was elected a foreign member of the American Philosophical Society. During the 1907 bicentennial celebrations of Carl Linnaeus’ birth, the Swedish Academy of Science awarded Hooker a specially struck Linnean Medal as "the most illustrious living exponent of botanical science."

Hooker distinguished himself in a number of botanical disciplines, but most notably in taxonomy and plant geography. His reasoning was instinctively inductive, and he never committed himself to a generalization without examining all of the available facts.

Hooker died in his sleep at home on December 10, 1911 after a brief and apparently minor illness. When given the option of having her husband buried alongside Darwin in Westminster Abbey, his widow Hyacinth honored her husband’s wish to be buried alongside his father in the churchyard of Kew Gardens.

From the guide to the Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker correspondence, 1844-1910, 1844-1910, (American Philosophical Society)

Joseph Dalton Hooker was born in Halesworth, Suffolk on 30 June 1817, the son of William Jackson Hooker, a distinguished botanist. After training and practising medicine in Glasgow, he was appointed assistant surgeon and botanist to the British Naval Expedition, 1839-1843, sailing with James Clark Ross on board the flagship HMS Erebus . The voyage was organised primarily to conduct a series of magnetic observations in the Southern Hemisphere and a geophysical observatory was established in Hobart. Along with Robert McCormick, Hooker made a world-wide collection of botanical specimens, including many from southern oceanic islands, providing material for his classic report Flora Antarctica (1844-1847).

From 1845 to 1847, Hooker acted as botanist to the Geological Survey. He undertook further expeditions to Nepal, India, Morocco, the United States of America and the Middle East, giving him the opportunity to collect more botanical specimens. Between 1865 and 1885 he was Director of Kew Gardens, a position that his father held before him. Hooker received the Founder's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society for his services to scientific geography. He died on 10 December 1911.

Published works The botany of the Antarctic voyage of HM Discovery ships Erebus and Terror in the years 1839-1843, under the command of Captain Sir James Clark Ross, Kt, RN, FRS &apm;c. Flora Antarctica by Joseph Dalton Hooker, Reeve Brothers London (1844)(1847) SPRI Library Shelf Special Collection Folio (7)91(08)[1839-1843]

Biographical works Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, traveller and plant collector by Ray Desmond, Antique Collectors Club, Royal Botanic Gardens, Woodbridge (1999) SPRI Library Shelf 92[Hooker, J.D.] The Hookers of Kew, 1785-1911 by Mea Allan, Michael Joseph, London (1967) SPRI Library Shelf 92[Hooker, J.D.]

From the guide to the Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker collection, 1839 - 1906, (Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge)


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  • Botanical literature
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