Saturday, 10 December 2011

Sir Joseph by proxy



I was a little concerned to see that the first talk on a day honouring the life of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker was all about his father. Sir William was a famous botanist himself, and also a Director of Kew Gardens, but amongst six talks could we afford a whole presentation devoted to dad?

As it turned out the main talks all swirled around Sir Joseph rather than targeting in on the man. I have to admit that 100 years after his death, it was a sound approach. We’ve read and heard about Hooker before, particularly in recent years on the coat tails of Charles Darwin. By using his father, changes to places he visited, his correspondence with Darwin, and re-examining his ideas on the flora of south-west Australia, was fresh and thought-provoking.

Whether Sir Joseph would have been amused is another question. Given what Paul White from the Darwin Correspondence Project at University of Cambridge said today, I suspect not - he was seldom amused. And Paul would know, having read all 1500 letters between Hooker and Darwin.


Bill Baker started things with something a little more direct, describing Hooker as the greatest botanist of his time and perhaps of all time. A big call, which I won’t dispute here other than to say that Darwin gently chastised Hooker for being reluctant to generalise and synthesise, albeit in the roundabout way of saying that he showed admirable constraint from doing what many did badly and too much.

Part of Hooker’s reluctance to speculate was a desire to have all the data at hand. For him that meant describing all the species left to describe in the world. Steve Hopper pointed out that Joseph Hooker described something like 12,000 species, more than 3% of the known species of flowering plant on Planet Earth today. But even with his prodigious output the task was beyond him.

[This reminded me of a story we were all told by Dr Gerry Kraft in the first year of our marine botany course at the University of Melbourne. Bryan Womersley, a man of Hookerian stature amongst Australian phycologists, started life as a rocky-shore ecologist but realised he couldn’t do any sensible ecology until he knew all the seaweed species. Bryan died in January this year, aged 89, and having only recently completed the last of his seaweed flora volumes for southern Australia. He never did return to ecology.]


So what did I learn today other than he had a father, things have changed since his time, he helped Darwin and south-western Australia is a fascinating part of the world (with apologies to all speakers who I rush to say did superlative jobs at saying much more than this!)?

From Anne Secord, also from the Darwin Correspondence Project, I was reminded of Sir William’s fascination with mosses and other bryophytes, and that Joseph, at age 5 or 6, was grubbing around in a wall looking for the moss Bryum argenteum which he knew from his father’s collections.

Peter Donaldson from Jute Productions talked about his retracing of Hooker’s trip to Tibet (which Joseph did on foot, all 350 km of it) where he (Hooker) discovered 20 species of Rhododendrum and began a world craze for the genus. Hooker was touring the region six years before Mount Everest was measured and named – in his notebook he list the tallest mountains know at the time with Kinchinjunga at number one and an unnamed mountain (Everest) at number two. Hookers sketch of the mountain in 1848 is thought to one of the first recorded views of Mount Everest by a European (and you can see it on display at the moment in a special Hooker exhibition in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art).  Donaldson is editing a film on Hooker which we hope will appear on Channel 4 very soon.

From Paul White I also learned that Hooker's early letters to Darwin were long, detailed and designed to impress. It was to Hooker that Darwin used his famous ‘like confessing to a murder’ line when concluding that species are not immutable – the basis for evolution by natural selection. While Darwin’s letters, like his life, were padded with references to illness and health issues, Hooker’s were heavy on administrative and bureaucracy. Apparently Hooker’s letters give a very good account of what and who annoyed him.

Both Hooker and Darwin had an abiding love of plants, even though they worked with them differently, as White put it. For Hooker, it was all about classification, for Darwin it was plant behaviour and speciation. In 1864, when Darwin was convalescing after a particular severe illness, a twining plant in his room provided the only condolence. Hooker talks about his utter despair at being forced to collect crustaceans when the HMS Erebus was not at shore (Sir Joseph did collect some seaweeds on his travels so life at seas wasn’t all a botanical wasteland!).


Finally we heard from Steve Hopper, Kew’s 14th Director, telling us Hooker was a ‘lumper’ – i.e. he had a very broad species concept. For example, if things could hybridise he would prefer they were in the same species, even if they looked a little bit different. Hookers view was that good taxonomy could only be done by someone with a large herbarium collection from many countries. He had little time for the, usually Colonial, ‘splitters’ who introduced ‘unnecessary detail’.

I particularly liked a quote from one of Hooker’s letters: ‘ The more I study the more vague my conception of a species grows and I've given up caring whether they are pups of one generic type or not’. As Steve said, we’ve all been there.

Hooker didn’t quite appreciate the true floral diversity of south-west Australia but he did think that when better know it would be considered ‘the most peculiar on the Globe and quite distinct from NSW’. Quite, and Steve went on to show how peculiar it is and explore why it might be so.  A fascinating talk, and nice to see our Director talking about his scientific passion rather than Kew’s corporate objectives. Both are essential, of course, as his directorial ancestor Joseph Hooker understood and relayed regularly to his eventual confident and close friend, Charles Darwin.

After a tour of hookeriana in the herbarium and library, Phil Cribb and Jim Endersby finished off the formal part of the day before an event at the Shirley Sherwood exhibition (mentioned above). Phil spoke on...orchids (he's Kew's and perhaps the world's pre-eminent orchid expert). Jim, on his book Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the practices of Victorian science which I can confirm is a hoot of a read - I referenced this book in a couple of postings in 2010. 

From Phil Cribb we heard that Hooker shared with Charles Darwin his observations on orchid pollination and then when Darwin published his major orchid volume reviewed it extremely favourably! Hooker also appointed the first orchid specialist at Kew, Robert Allen, and as throughout the plant world had plenty of orchids named after him - most strikingly, Sirhookera lanceolata. Hooker was a talent spotter, collector, networker, scientist, expeditioner, and great believer in long-term projects.

Jim Endersby's asked 'Why should we care about Hooker?', then answered his question: Hooker is more typical of a Victorian man of science than many of his out spoken contemporaries (such as Thomas Huxley) and not keen on government funded positions. Hooker himself takes advantage of opportunities as compensation in the absence of an independent fortune. He wasn't keen to toe the government line - he wanted to employ whoever he wanted and to pick the tradesman he liked (not big on 'due process' I gather). Kew was effectively a 'snug little place' for the Hooker family. 

My final picture below is some of the current Hooker family, warmly welcomed by everyone at the conference.


Images: My version of Sir Joseph by proxy: the cake today, Crinodendron hookeri (Eleocarpaceae), the Hooker-ornamented mantle-piece topped by one of his paintings in the Kew Director's residence (with current Director) and a blue-stained freshwater red algal species Batrachospermum antipodites  (a representative of which Hooker collected from New Zealand in 1855). In the final picture, three of Joseph Hooker's granddaughters are cutting the proxy cake.

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