Masson, Francis (DNB00)

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MASSON, FRANCIS (1741-1805), gardener and botanist, was born at Aberdeen in August 1741. Making his way to London he seems to have obtained some appointment at the Royal Gardens, Kew, for in 1771 or 1772 he was selected by Aiton, the superintendent, as the fittest person to undertake a journey to the Cape for the purpose of collecting plants and bulbs. Masson was the first collector thus sent out by the authorities at Kew.

Making Cape Town his headquarters, he undertook at least three separate journeys into the interior, the first extending from 10 Dec. 1772 to 18 Jan. 1773 ; the second, in company with Thunberg, the Swedish naturalist, lasted from 11 Sept. 1773 to 29 Jan. 1774 ; while the third was begun 26 Sept. and brought to an end on 28 Dec. 1774. Having for the time thoroughly supplied the wants of the gardens from that locality. Masson was sent on a like errand in 1776 to the Canaries, Azores, Madeira, and the West Indies, more especially to St. Christopher. He returned to England in 1781, and remained at home till 1783, when he was despatched to Portugal and Madeira. In 1786, when once more sent out to the Cape, he confined his botanical excursions, by the advice of Sir Joseph Banks, to a circuit of forty miles round Cape Town. He remained there till 1795, when the anticipation of political disturbances drove him home.

Masson spent some two years in England with his friends, and prepared and published in 1796 his well-known book, 'Stapeliæ Novæ, or … new Species of that Genus discovered in the Interior Parts of Africa.' The work was issued in four fasciculi (imp. fol.), and contains many charming coloured plates. In 1798 he set out for North America, where he died at Montreal, about Christmas 1805.

Many plants now common in conservatories were first brought to this country by Masson. The genus Massonia was named after him by Linnæus.

In addition to his work already mentioned, two papers by Masson appeared in the 'Philosophical Transactions:'

  1. 'An Account of three Journeys from Cape Town to the Southern Parts of Africa,' 1776.
  2. 'An Account of the Island of St. Miguel,' 1778. Two papers standing under his name in the Royal Society's list are descriptions of orchidaceous plants sent home by him, which were written by J. Bellenden Ker [q. v.] A collection of his plants and drawings is preserved in the botanical department of the British Museum (Natural History).

A portrait of Masson in oils hangs in the Linnean Society's rooms at Burlington House.

[Rees's Cyclop.; Chalmers's Biog. Dict.; Journ. of Bot.]

B. B. W.