Makers of British botany/Miles Joseph Berkeley 1803—1889

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Plate XVIII


Makers of British botany, Plate 18 (Miles Joseph Berkeley).png




Narrative—early interest in Natural History—Zoological publications—Algae—Fungi—character and magnitude of Berkeley's work in systematic Mycology—exotic fungi—co-operation with Broome—morphology of Basidiomycetes—Introduction to Cryptogamic Botany—pioneer work in plant pathology—the potato disease—personal characteristics.


Miles Joseph Berkeley was born at Biggin Hall, near Oundle, Northamptonshire, on the 1st April, 1803. He was the second son of Charles Berkeley, whose wife was a sister of P. G. Munn, the well-known water-colour artist. His family belonged to the Spetchley branch of the Berkeleys, and had been resident for several generations in Northamptonshire. Berkeley received his preliminary education at the Oundle Grammar School and afterwards at Rugby, entered Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1821, and graduated as 5th Senior Optime in 1825. He was ordained in 1826, and his first clerical duty was the curacy of St John's, Margate. In 1833 he became Perpetual Curate of Apethorpe and Wood Newton, Northamptonshire, and resided at the neighbouring village of King's Cliffe, a name familiar to every mycologist as being the habitat of numerous species of fungi, first recorded as members of the British Flora. In 1868 he was appointed Vicar of Sibbertoft, near Market Harborough, where he died on the 30th July, 1889, at the age of 86 years.

As a boy Berkeley was much devoted to the study of nature, paying special attention to the structure and habits of animals; he also at an early age made a somewhat extensive conchological collection. This tendency was to some extent fostered at Rugby, but the influence exercised by Professor Henslow during Berkeley's time at Cambridge, and the opportunities of studying the progress of research made in the various branches of Natural History, were the chief factors that determined Berkeley to enter seriously on the study of what at the time was styled Natural History.

His first published paper was "On new species of Modiola and Serpula" (Zoological Journal, 1828). It was followed by "On the internal structure of Helicolimax Lamarckii"; "On Dentalium subulatum"; "On the animals of Voluta and Assiminia" (idem 1832-34); and "On British Serpulae" and "Dreissenia polymorpha" (Magazine of Natural History, 1834–36).

A series of beautifully executed coloured drawings and dissections, illustrating Berkeley's zoological studies, may be seen at the Herbarium, Kew. Although all Berkeley's publications up to this time dealt with zoological subjects, yet the study of Botany had been by no means neglected, and about this time having made the acquaintance of Dr Harvey of Dublin, Dr Greville of Edinburgh, the author of Scottish Cryptogamic Flora, and of Captain Carmichael of Appin, N.B., a trio of the most celebrated cryptogamists of the age, Berkeley forsook the serious study of zoological subjects, and devoted the whole of his leisure time to the lower forms of plant life. Living at Margate, the marine algae naturally attracted Berkeley's attention, and in 1833 he published his Gleanings of British Algae, consisting of a series of detailed investigations on the structure of the minute and obscure forms of marine and freshwater species. This work, illustrated by twenty coloured plates, was originally intended to be included in the supplement to Dr Greville's Scottish Cryptogamic Flora, but in consequence of the discontinuance of that most excellent work, was issued as an independent booklet.

From the first Berkeley was deeply interested in the fungi, and practically all his subsequent work was devoted to this group of plants, and although well versed in general Cryptogamic Botany, it was in the field of Mycology that his laurels were won. A review of the work done can be most conveniently discussed under three separate headings—Systematic Mycology, Morphology and Literature, and Plant Pathology, respectively.


Systematic Mycology.

Under the title British Fungi, four fascicles of dried and well-prepared specimens, numbering in all 350 species, were issued between 1836 and 1843. In those days exsiccatæ were not issued from a commercial standpoint, as is too frequently the case at the present day, but represented the outcome of careful investigation on the part of the author, hence Berkeley's exsiccatæ are at a premium at the present day.

In 1828 Berkeley first corresponded with Sir W. J. Hooker on matters dealing with cryptogams, and in one of his early letters stated that he had devoted much time to the study of fungi, more especially to the extensive genus Agaricus which at that period included all the gill-bearing fungi. At this time, Sir William was engaged in preparing the volumes dealing with cryptogams, as supplementary to The English Flora of Sir James Edward Smith, and approached Berkeley on the subject of undertaking the section dealing with Agarics, in the volume devoted to the fungi. Berkeley agreed to this arrangement, and was finally induced to describe the whole of the fungi. A footnote at the commencement of the volume by Sir W. J. Hooker is as follows:

"When the printing of the species of this, the 2nd Part of the Class Cryptogamia, was commenced, I thought myself highly fortunate to have obtained the assistance of my valued friend, the Rev. M. J. Berkeley, in preparing the first Tribe, Pileati. I have now to express my cordial acknowledgements (in which I am satisfied I shall be joined by every Botanist in the country) to that gentleman for having kindly undertaken to prepare the whole of this vast family for the press: and it is certain that the task could not have fallen into better hands."

The volume contains detailed descriptions of all British fungi known at the time, amounting to 1360 species, included in 155 genera, the great majority of which had been studied by the author in a living condition, and also compared with specimens contained in various exsiccatæ and with the very extensive collection owned by Sir W. J. Hooker. The appearance of this book at once placed Berkeley in the front rank of Mycologists, and it was universally admitted as the most complete Mycologic Flora of any country extant; and furthermore, so far as accurate information, and a true sense of the conception of species are concerned, the same statement holds good at the present day. At this date our knowledge of extra-European fungi was almost nil, with the exception of a few woody cosmopolitan species collected by various travellers, more as matters of curiosity than for the advancement of our knowledge of the fungus-flora of the world.

Opportunity alone was required by Berkeley, and such opportunity was readily afforded by Sir W. J. Hooker, who placed unreservedly in Berkeley's hands the various collections of exotic fungi received at Kew from time to time. This practice was continued by the two succeeding Directors at Kew, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker and Sir William Thiselton-Dyer. Such unrivalled opportunities were utilised to the fullest extent by Berkeley, who soon manifested by his treatment of the material placed in his hands a thorough grasp of the subject, and for nearly half a century practically all collections of exotic fungi passed through Berkeley's hands. During this period 6000 new species were described, and in numerous instances illustrated, including many new genera from all parts of the world, arctic, antarctic, tropical and temperate. Botanists were now enabled, for the first time, to grasp the true significance of the fungus-flora of the world, which numerically ranks next to Phanerogams, and which was shown to exercise an influence on life on the globe in general, not realised before Berkeley's time. The better known European genera of fungi, many of which appeared to be sharply defined, and by some mycologists considered to be of ordinal importance, could now be estimated at their true value and relegated to their true position in the scheme of classification rendered possible by a good knowledge of the range of structure presented by the fungi of the world at large. As regards geographical distribution, Berkeley repeatedly emphasized the fact that the fungi are more cosmopolitan than any other known group of plants, and that their abundance at any place during a given period was almost entirely dependent on conditions favouring the development of the higher forms of plant life, fungi only following in the wake of such, and never posing as pioneers, on account of the nature of their food. Amongst the numerous novel types of extra-European fungi described by Berkeley, it is somewhat difficult to indicate briefly even a few of the most striking forms. Perhaps his genus Broomeia stands out pre-eminent. It belongs to the puffball group of fungi, and is unique in that family—the Gasteromycetaceae—in having numerous individuals springing from, and imbedded in a common sterile base or stroma. It is a native of the Cape of Good Hope. The following is Berkeley's dedication of this genus to his friend and co-worker, C. E. Broome, M.A., of Bath. "Nomen dedi in honorem amicissimi, C. E. Broome, armigeri, Tuberacearum Anglicarum accuratissimi indagatoris, cujus pene solius laboribus extant hodie viginti species indigenae fungorum hypogaeorum." Broomeia congregata Berk., is described and figured in Hooker's London Journal of Botany, 1844. Certain club-shaped fungi parasitic on caterpillars, belonging to the genus Cordyceps, occurring on buried caterpillars in New Zealand, are the giants of their tribe, measuring up to eighteen inches in length. Finally, Berkeley first introduced to our notice many of those quaint fungi belonging to the group including our well known "stinkhorn"—Phallus impudicus L.—and cleared up many points in their structure previously unknown. Fries, the most distinguished mycologist of his time, writes as follows in his Preface to Hymenomycetes Europaei; "Desideratissima vero Synopsis Hymenomycetum extra-europearum, qualem solus praestere valebit Rev. Berkeley."

Notwithstanding Berkeley's researches on exotic fungi, a task in itself too comprehensive for most men to grapple with, he continued to study the British fungi, and, mostly in collaboration with his friend, Mr C. E. Broome, published a long series of articles in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History, from 1837 down to the year 1883. In these articles 2027 species of fungi are enumerated, mostly new, or species new to Britain, and consist mainly of critical notes on the morphology and affinities of the fungi under consideration, and will compel the attention of mycologists for all time.

From the above brief account it may perhaps be concluded that Berkeley was essentially a systematist and founder of new species. Owing to the vast amount of material that passed through his hands, he was so perforce, but his leaning was always rather towards the biological and morphological side of the subject.


Morphology and Literature.

The first important paper dealing with the morphology of the hymenial structure in Fungi, is entitled, "On the Fructification of the Pileate and Clavate Tribes of the Hymenomycetous Fungi," Annals of Nat. Hist., 1838. Here is clearly demonstrated for the first time, the universal occurrence of basidia bearing spores at their summit, throughout the entire group of fungi known to-day as the Hymenomycetes, including Agaricaceae, Thelephoraceae, Clavariaceae, etc. This important discovery rendered possible the basis of a classification on morphological grounds, which holds good at the present day. A careful study of the text and illustrations demonstrates the fact that Berkeley was perfectly well acquainted with all the essential details of the hymenium, many of which have been repeatedly rediscovered and described under new names, in ignorance of the fact that such structures had previously been equally well described.

Berkeley continued his investigations on the structure of the hymenium, and his next paper, entitled "Sur la fructification des genres Lycoperdon, Phallus et de quelques autres genres voisins," in Annal. Sci. Nat. Ser. 2, vol. XII. (1839), demonstrated the universal presence of basidia bearing spores at their summit in the family now known as the Gasteromycetes. This research on the part of Berkeley led to the universal adoption of the two primary divisions of the Fungi; Basidiomycetes, having the spores borne at the apex of a basidium; and Ascomycetes, having the spores produced within specialised sacs, or asci.

In 1857 the Introduction to Cryptogamic Botany appeared, which remained for many years the standard work on the subject. This was followed in 1860 by Outlines of British Mycology, a book profusely illustrated with coloured plates, and intended more especially for the beginner in the study of Mycology.

Just over 400 separate papers dealing with fungi are listed under Berkeley's name alone, in addition to numerous others, where he worked in collaboration with C. E. Broome, Dr M. C. Cooke, Rev. M. A. Curtis, and others.


Plant Pathology.

At the present day Berkeley is best known as a systematist, which of itself alone is sufficient to retain his name for all time in the front rank of mycologists, but when the history of Plant Pathology is elaborated, Berkeley's name will undoubtedly stand out more prominently than that of any other individual. In fact, it is not saying too much to pronounce Berkeley as the originator and founder of Plant Pathology. He was not the first to investigate plant diseases caused by fungi, but he was undoubtedly the first to recognise the significance of the subject, and its great importance from an economic standpoint. His investigation of the potato murrain, written in 1846, cleared the air of all kinds of wild theories as to its origin, and showed it to be undoubtedly caused by the fungus now known as Phytophthora infestans, whose life-history he carefully worked out. Then followed a similar investigation of the vine-mildew, and a series of researches on diseases of plants published in the Gardeners' Chronicle dating from 1854 to 1880. It was in these numerous communications that the science of Plant Pathology was firmly established and propounded. The article "On the Diseases of Plants" was contributed to the Cyclopaedia of Agriculture by Berkeley.

In 1879 he unconditionally presented his mycological herbarium to Kew. This collection contained 10,000 species, of which 5000 were types of Berkeley's own species, in addition to numerous co-types from Montagne, Schweinitz, Fries, Cooke and other contemporaneous mycologists. Hence Kew is, and must for ever remain, the Mecca of mycologists from all parts of the world.

Berkeley was a man of great refinement, and an excellent classical scholar. His tall commanding figure and grand head with flowing white hair, as I knew him late in life, could not fail to arrest attention. Unobtrusive and by no means ambitious, and too enthusiastic to be self-seeking, Berkeley was tardily promoted to the Honorary Fellowship of his College, and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at the age of 76. In 1876 a Civil List Pension of £100 per annum was awarded, for his services to botany with especial reference to his investigations on the diseases of plants.