Sir Joseph Hooker (1817 - 1911)

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He was the son of Sir William Hooker, but this was not an inherited title; both men were the most eminent British botanists of their day. Both were Directors of Kew Gardens, again because of undoubted merit. Kew Gardens had been founded in 1759 as a royal botanic garden. Joseph Banks in 1772 persuaded his friend King George III that it would be suitable for the scientific study of plants, which might become useful around the British Empire, with Banks its unofficial Director. William Hooker became the first official Director in 1841, taking over the original 11 acres and extending it within five years to 288 acres (Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens occupy 60 acres, Fairchild Tropical Gardens 83 acres), as well as opening it to the public. He built the Palm House and the Temperate House, and a Museum of Economic Botany, the first of its kind.

Joseph Hooker was a collector for the gardens, even before his father became Director. Having first graduated in Medicine at Glasgow, in 1839, aged 22 years, he was appointed surgeon-botanist on a four year expedition to the Antarctic, visiting Tasmania, New Zealand and South America during Antarctica's winters. They also visited the numerous tiny islands around Antarctica , where Hooker was finally able to gratify a desire to knock penguins on the head as well as collecting plants from relatively unexplored regions.

In 1848 he was put in charge of a plant-hunting expedition, which was to continue for two years, to the State of Sikkim in the Himalayas, a little-known region between Nepal and Bhutan. He started from Calcutta with a train of bullock carts and elephants and 60 servants, while he rode in a palkee, a kind of sedan chair hauled by twelve men, but later was forced to walk. Finally he set up a base at the hill station of Darjeeling, at an altitude of 7,000 feet, making collecting trips as high as 19,300 feet, the highest that anyone had climbed at that time, in conditions of great hardship. Ignoring the local authorities objections, he crossed the border into Tibet. As a result he and a companion were arrested and imprisoned in Sikkim. The British government secured their release within weeks by threatening to invade Sikkim. He collected Rhododendrons, Balsams, Orchids, Ferns and Mosses and 2,000 flowering plants for Kew. Altogether Hooker collected about 7,000 species in India and Nepal.

Joseph Hooker is said to have been the ideal plant-hunting type - courageous, energetic, resourceful and intelligent - with the chauvinism and arrogance of a Victorian Englishman, convinced of his perfect right to be wherever he chose, and never in the slightest doubt that he was the correct person to carry out his commission.

Hooker's journey resulted in his Himalayan Journals (1854), which were dedicated to Darwin. Later collecting trips took him to Syria in 1860, the Atlas Mountains of Morocco in 1871 and the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Utah in 1877.

In 1855 he became Assistant Director to his father at Kew and in 1865 Director, retiring in 1885. His main contributions to botany were his writings: Flora of Antarctica, Flora of New Zealand, Flora of Tasmania, Flora of British India, Flora of Ceylon, culminating in co-authorship of what has been called the outstanding botanical work of the nineteenth century, Genera Plantarum. Joseph Hooker also established the Kew Bulletin and Index Kewensis, a list of all known flowering plants. To help establish the latter, Charles Darwin made a substantial donation. Darwin had been a friend for many years, encouraging Hooker in his botanical work. And it was Joseph Hooker who encouraged Darwin to put on paper his own ideas, in the Origin of Species. When Alfred Russell Wallace turned up with similar ideas, Hooker arranged for their papers to be read jointly. Darwin had been inclined to yield priority to Wallace, but as Wallace himself said, the idea had occurred to Darwin nearly 20 years earlier.

Joseph Hooker gained an international reputation as a plant geographer. He had been impressed while on his Antarctic trip by the fact that most of the plants in Tierra del Fuego were very similar to species in England, and his mind was drawn to "that interesting subject - the diffusion of species over the surface of our earth". He was puzzled, for example, by the species he had seen growing on widely-scattered islands; like other naturalists, he wondered how they had got there. This was a topic for much discussion with Charles Darwin during the long gestation of Origin of Species. He examined Darwin's collection of plants from the Galapagos Islands, and Darwin was "delighted and astonished" at the results. "How wonderfully they support my assertion of the difference in the animals of different islands." The collaboration continued for 15 years, Darwin saying "I know I shall live to see you the first authority in Europe on that grand subject, that almost keystone of the Laws of Creation, Geographical Distribution". Darwin's prophesy was fulfilled.

Among the many plants named after Joseph Hooker are the palms Arenga_hookeriana, Pinanga_hookeriana, Eremospatha_hookeri and Raphia_hookeri.

Contributed by:

Ian Edwards

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