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Summary Article: Hooker, Joseph Dalton (1817-1911) from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Place: United Kingdom, England

Subject: biography, biology

English botanist who made many important contributions to botanical taxonomy but who is probably best known for introducing into the UK a range of previously unknown species of rhododendron and for his improvements to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.

Hooker was born on 30 June 1817 in Halesworth, Suffolk. He studied medicine at Glasgow University, where his father was professor of botany, graduating in 1839. In the same year he obtained the post of assistant surgeon and naturalist on an expedition to the southern hemisphere. The expedition, which was led by Captain James Clark Ross, set out in 1839 and returned in 1843; its main aims were to locate the magnetic south Pole and to explore the Great Ice Barrier, but other places were visited, including the Falkland Islands, Tasmania, and New Zealand. On his return to England, Hooker applied for the botany chair at Edinburgh University but was not accepted and so took a job identifying fossils for a geological survey. From 1847 to 1850 he took time off to undertake a botanical exploration of northeastern India, mainly of the Himalayan state of Sikkim and eastern Nepal. In 1855 he became assistant director of Kew Gardens, where his father was by this time director. On the death of his father in 1865 Hooker became the director, a post he held until 1885, when he retired. He died on 10 December 1911 in Sunningdale, Berkshire.

While Hooker was on the expedition to the southern hemisphere he made extensive notes and sketches of the plants he saw and collected many specimens, which he pressed and mounted. On his return to the UK he produced a six-volume work (published 1844-60) of his observations and findings, with two volumes each on the flora of Antarctica, New Zealand, and Tasmania. This work combined accurate and detailed descriptions of plants with perceptive essays on plant distribution and established Hooker's reputation as a botanist of the highest calibre. The importance of this work was quickly recognized by the Royal Society, which elected Hooker a fellow in 1847.

In 1854 Hooker published a general account of his travels in the Indian subcontinent, entitled Himalayan Journals. He also wrote many scientific works based on his research on the Indian flora; the first of these was about rhododendrons and was published by Hooker's father while Hooker himself was still in India. In addition, Hooker sent back to England many previously unknown species of rhododendron. His first general botanical work on Indian plants was the single volume Flora Indica (1855), written in conjunction with Thomas Thomson. This was superseded by Hooker's monumental seven-volume Flora of British India (1872-97), written jointly with several other scientists. While in India, Hooker became interested in the genus Impatiens (a group that includes the Himalayan balsam, which has since become naturalized in the UK), and gave descriptions of about 300 species of this genus. He supplemented his Indian work by writing volumes four and five of A Handbook to the Flora of Ceylon 1898-1900, a work that had remained unfinished since the death in 1896 of its original author, H Trimen.

As director of Kew Gardens, Hooker introduced many improvements, with the introduction of the rock garden, the addition of new avenues, and an extension of the arboretum. Several other important developments occured during Hooker's directorship. In 1876 T J Phillips Jodrell, a friend of the Hooker family, died and left a bequest for the foundation of a botanical laboratory at Kew. The Jodrell Laboratory is now world famous for the scientific work performed there on the structure and physiology of plants. Kew Gardens also became increasingly important as a repository for collections of pressed plants and as a centre for the propagation and distribution of many crop plants, including rubber, coffee, and the oil palm. Furthermore, in 1883 the Index Kewensis was founded; this is a list of all scientific plant names, accompanied by descriptions, which, since the publication of the first volume in 1892, has become an invaluable aid in preventing duplication and error in the naming of plants.

As well as establishing Kew Gardens as an international centre for botanical research, Hooker also continued his own botanical work. With the botanist George Bentham he published Genera plantarum (1862-83), a complete catalogue of all the known genera and families of flowering plants from all parts of the world. Nevertheless, Hooker did not neglect the British flora. In 1870 he published Student's Flora of the British Isles, and from 1887 to 1908 he edited various editions of Bentham's Handbook of the British Flora. He was also interested in aspects of botany other than taxonomy, such as the dispersal of plants over large areas and the evolution of new species. After much consideration he became an evolutionist, but his belief in the theory was founded on his own rather specialized knowledge of plants and regional floras and so he contributed little to the popular debate on the subject.

© RM, 2016. All rights reserved. Helicon Publishing is a division of RM.

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