Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ellis, John (1710?-1776)

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ELLIS, JOHN (1710?–1776), naturalist, whom Linnæus termed a 'bright star of natural history' and 'the main support of natural history in England,' was born in Ireland about 1710. This is admitted by Sir J. E. Smith (Linnæan Correspondence, i. 79), in correction of his previous statement in Rees's 'Encyclopædia' that Ellis was a native of London. Ellis was in business as a merchant in London, with, it is stated, but little success, until in 1764 he obtained the appointment of agent for West Florida, to which was added in 1770 the agency for Dominica. This brought him many correspondents, and he used his opportunities to import various American seeds. In 1754 he became a fellow of the Royal Society, and in the following year established his reputation as one of the most acute observers of his time by the publication of 'An Essay towards the Natural History of the Corallines,' London, 4to. This work was translated into French in the following year; and though his views were opposed by Dr. Job Baster and but imperfectly comprehended by Linnæus, he established by it the animal nature of this group of organisms. In 1768 the Copley medal of the Royal Society was awarded to Ellis for these researches. In 1770 he published 'Directions for bringing over Seeds and Plants from the East Indies. … To which is added the figure and description of a new sensitive plant called Dionæa muscipula,' in which he accurately describes the mechanism of what we now know to be an insectivorous plant. In the fifty-first volume of the 'Philosophical Transactions' he described the new genera Halesia and Gardenia, and in the sixtieth volume the genus Gordonia, on which a letter to Linnæus was published, with one to Aiton on a new species of Illicium in 1771. These were followed in 1774 and 1775 by descriptions of the coffee-tree, the mangostan, and the breadfruit, all alike marked by that thoroughness from which it has happened that none of his genera have been superseded. This fate, however, having befallen one dedicated to him by Dr. Patrick Browne, Linnæus named a group of boraginaceous plants Ellisia in his honour. Various papers by him in the 'Philosophical Transactions' are supplementary to his 'Natural History of Corallines,' his first collection of which animals was placed in the British Museum; but much matter which he had collected was published by his friend Solander after his death as 'The Natural History of many uncommon Zoophytes collected by John Ellis, arranged and described by D.C. Solander,' London, 1786. Ellis died in London, 15 Oct. 1776, leaving a daughter, Martha, afterwards Mrs. Alexander Watt, by whom her father's correspondence was entrusted to Sir J. E. Smith.

[Rees; Linnæan Correspondence, i. 79; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. ix. 531; London's Arboretum Britannicum, p. 70.]

G. S. B.