Makers of British botany/A sketch of the Professors of Botany in Edinburgh from 1670 until 1887
A SKETCH OF THE PROFESSORS OF BOTANY IN EDINBURGH FROM 1670 UNTIL 1887
Medicine and Botany—James Sutherland—enforced retirement—the Prestons—Charles Alston—his career—John Hope—Physiological leanings—Daniel Rutherford—Robert Graham—John Hutton Balfour—characteristics—Botanic Society of Edinburgh founded—appointed to Glasgow—transfer to Edinburgh—his numerous activities—laboratory teaching—established field excursions—Ecology—attitude to Darwinism—Alexander Dickson—work in Organography—his versatility.
My task in the warring against oblivion typified in these addresses is to speak about John Hutton Balfour of Edinburgh, one of the botanical teachers of the middle of last century, whose pupils were numbered by thousands, and whose active life bridged the period of the passing of the old and the birth of the new outlook upon science through Darwin's work; and in relation to what I have to say of him I propose to sketch briefly the stages and development of botanical teaching in Edinburgh from the date when systematised attention was first given to it.
Of the well-recognised fact that the study of Botany as a science has been, to begin with, dependent on Medicine my story furnishes an excellent illustration.
Only towards the end of the seventeenth century had the advance in practice of Medicine in Edinburgh reached a stage which gave urgency to a movement for the improvement in the training of the medical man, and the protection of the public from the attentions of inefficient votaries of the healing art. The foundation of the Royal College of Physicians in 1681 gave expression to the co-operative principle in the control of those who would profess Medicine; the creation of a Botanic Garden for the purpose of the cultivation of medicinal plants was the response in the direction of safeguarding the practitioner against the herbalist, and of giving him the advantage of a correct knowledge of the plants which were the source of the drugs he himself was to compound. Before this time, whilst many practitioners could grow drug-plants for themselves, and did so, the majority were at the mercy of the herbalist.
Two Edinburgh physicians—(Sir) Robert Sibbald and (Sir) Andrew Balfour—conspicuous among their fellows for their activity in promoting the cause of medical education and in the planning of the Royal College of Physicians, were the pioneers of the study of Botany as a science. Determined that the apprentices in Medicine should have adequate opportunity of learning the sources of many of the drugs in use, they acquired a lease of a small area of land in the neighbourhood of Holyrood Palace in which they arranged to cultivate medicinal plants, stocking it from their own gardens and from those of friends. They secured the services of James Sutherland—described as "knowing" in these matters—and placed their small garden under his care, with the obligation that he should instruct the apprentices and lieges in Botany. Sutherland cultivated his plants so well, and the instruction which he gave was so satisfactory, that ere long—no doubt through Sibbald's influence at Court—a portion of the Royal Flower Garden at Holyrood Palace was assigned for the cultivation of medicinal plants, and thither was transferred the collection already made in the hired area. Thus was founded, with the title of Physick Garden, a Royal Botanic Garden in Scotland, and the first Profession of Botany was set up therein by James Sutherland.
Of the earlier years of Sutherland we have no record. His success as a teacher induced the Town Council of Edinburgh—the body in which was vested at the time all the patronage of the University—to institute a Chair of Botany in the University, and to provide for practical teaching in another Botanic Garden belonging to the town. Sutherland was appointed to the Professorship and also to take charge of this new Town Garden, which, it may interest those who at the present day pass through the Waverley Railway Station to know, occupied a portion of the site of that station. Both these gardens were at some distance from the University, and apparently to save the time of the University students, perhaps also to create a teaching garden entirely within the jurisdiction of the College authorities, another portion of ground occupying a part of the Kirk o' Field, notorious as the place of Darnley's murder, was transformed into a herb-garden. Thus within a few years from the beginning of the movement for the providing of adequate facilities to students for learning about plants, three Botanic Gardens were made available.
During Sutherland's tenure of the Professorship teaching was given by him in these different gardens. It would appear, however, that Sutherland was at heart a numismatist, and whilst during the early period of his incumbency of office he had corresponded with many botanical institutions abroad, had introduced to the gardens new species of plants—many of them now established in the flora—and had published in 1683 a Catalogue of the plants in the Physical Garden, in later years his interest was centred in coins and medals. So great was the obsession that the patrons of the University, dissatisfied with his botany, compelled him to resign his Chair in 1706, to which they appointed Charles Preston, but Sutherland retained, until he retired in 1715, charge of the Royal Botanic Garden at Holyrood, of which by Royal Warrant he had been made Keeper with the additional personal recognition of Botanist to the King in Scotland. Thus the increase in number of gardens extended to the Professors, and from 1706 onwards to 1739 there were two rival Botanical Schools in Edinburgh—that of the Royal Garden, and that of the University.
Sutherland's place in relation to the development of scientific Botany in Scotland is that of pioneer in the teaching of systematic Botany from the living plants in relation to Materia Medica, and of first custodian and cultivator of plants for instruction in a public garden. His Catalogue is now a book of some rarity—of great rarity in complete state owing to the number of cancel pages—and its reproduction at the present time would have interest alike scientific and historic. It is the first published record of a collection of cultivated plants in Scotland. It tells us the plants which were recognised as indigenous at its date, and from its record we can by correlation with information otherwise obtainable discover the time of introduction to Scotland of alien plants, and thus obtain a basis for gauging their influence on the native Flora as we know it now.
Charles Preston who stepped into the University Chair of Botany vacated in 1706 by Sutherland, was a medical man, an active correspondent of Sloan, Pettiver, and other scientific men in the south. On his death in 1712, after a short tenure of office, George Preston his brother succeeded him and filled the chair until 1739. Both of the Prestons seem to have been chiefly interested in the Materia Medica side of Botany and their teaching was on the lines of it. They are referred to by their contemporaries as men of botanical knowledge and of critical judgment, and their correspondence indicates that they were in touch with the botanical life of their time. Their work in teaching was always in rivalry with that at the Royal Physick Garden. At first no doubt it was effective and useful owing to Sutherland's neglect of his garden, but when a capable active scientific Professor was placed in charge of this Garden the case for such rivalry and duplication of effort ceased, and it is no surprise therefore to find that when a vacancy occurred in 1739 the University Chair was filled by the appointment of the King's Botanist in Charge of the Royal Physick Garden, who was then Dr Charles Alston. And this combination continues to our own time by mutual consent of the Crown and the University.
Sutherland's retirement in 1715 from the Royal Physick Garden four years before his death, which took place in 1719 when he was over 80 years of age, may have been determined by his incapacity for the duties, but it is probable other influences were effective especially as the office of King's Botanist was a Household Appointment and only during pleasure. Were I merely to tell of incidents in the history of Botany in Edinburgh I would here introduce the story of Dr William Arthur, Sutherland's successor at the Royal Garden. Arthur has no botanical claims, but had influential political friends whose zeal on his behalf he ill requited by becoming one of the leaders in the Jacobite plot to capture the Castle of Edinburgh in 1715. Having failed in the attempt he escaped to Italy, where in 1716 he died from a surfeit of figs! Ignoble fate for a King's Botanist!
A man of real distinction now comes into our botanical history in Charles Alston—a clear observer and experimenter.
Charles Alston, born 24th October, 1685, was the third son of Thomas Alston, M.A. of Edinburgh and M.D. of Caen, one of an old Lanarkshire family settled at Thrinacre Milne and connected with the house of Hamilton. After boyhood at Hamilton, Alston went to the University of Glasgow, but before the period for graduation his father died leaving a widow and large family poorly provided for and young Alston's University career was stopped. Through the intervention of the Duchess of Hamilton Alston was then apprenticed in 1703 to a lawyer with a view to his entering the Estates Office of the Hamilton family. But "anatomy and the shops were more agreeable to him than Style Books or the Parliament House" and his "genius inclined more to Medicine," and in 1709 when the Duchess took him into her service as her "Principal Servant," in which position "he had aboundance of spare time," "he ply'd close the Mathematics and whatever else he thought of use to a student of Medicine, particularly Botany." With this training Alston, through the influence of the Hamilton family, was made King's Botanist, Professor of Botany, and Keeper of the Royal Physick Garden in 1716 after the disappearance of Dr Arthur.
He adopted a wise course on succession. Having put the Garden in such order as he could he hied himself to Leyden in 1718 to study under Boerhaave, and returning thence in August 1719 he graduated in Medicine at the University of Glasgow, became Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, and in June 1720 was able to begin his botanical lectures in the Garden, followed in November by a course on Materia Medica. These courses he carried on until 1739 when he was given the University Chair of Botany and Materia Medica, and the two Botany Schools were thus merged in one. Alston was now colleague of Munro, Rutherford, Sinclair, and other famous men who at this time were increasing the reputation of the University as a Medical School, and he continued to teach Botany and Materia Medica until his death in 1760.
Alston's teaching was mainly directed to the Materia Medica. His full course of lectures on the subject prepared for publication by himself appeared only as a posthumous work edited by his successor Dr Hope, and they reflect the best knowledge of the time, showing rational scepticism of the efficacy of many simples which experiment had not tested. Essays "On Opium," and "On tin as anthelmintic," and an "Index of Simples" published by him tell of his pharmacological investigations, to which his correspondence with Fothergill and others is also witness. The subject in this line to which he gave most attention and on which he wrote three dissertations based on experiments is that of Quicklime and Water—its efficacy in Calculus and also as an agent for keeping water sweet. From Alston, Stephen Hales, then in touch with the Admiralty upon questions of ventilation and other matters of sanitation, obtained early suggestions, and a long correspondence followed.
Alston, who had to earn his livelihood by medical practice, gave much time to the administration of the Botanic Gardens under his charge, and the elaborate lists which he prepared showing the disposition of plants in the Gardens, witness to his interest in their cultivation. His predilection in systematic arrangement was Tournefortian, and on the promulgation by Linnaeus of his "sexual system" in 1736, no writer was more trenchant than Alston in opposition to it, and by this he became widely known. His criticism was directed against it, not as a method of arranging plants by readily recognised characters, but from the standpoint of denial of the existence of sex. By various experiments as well as by argument, Alston endeavoured to disprove the necessity of the stamens for the development of fertile seed, citing cases of seed-production where no application of the "dust" from the stamens was possible—thus early recognising conditions which puzzled botanists for many generations afterwards and until the explanation of apogamy was supplied. One is tempted to wonder whether if the Linnaean system had not received the appellation "sexual" it would have roused the same condemnation from him as it did.
From his published work, notably the Dissertation on Botany (1754) a translation of a portion of his earlier Tirocinium Botanicum Edinburgense (1740), as also from some MS. of his lectures which still exist, we recognise the clearness and vigour of mind of Alston, and the precision of the man is made abundantly evident in the beautiful copper-plate writing in old script of his MS. Page after page is filled without blot or correction, and the whole systematised and arranged without flaw. Anatomical questions were dealt with by him in consonance with the knowledge of the time, mainly resting on Malpighi; but there is no rational treatment of physiological subjects, and this is the more surprising inasmuch as he was in intimate correspondence with Hales, and ought to have been acquainted with the fundamental experimental work of that physiologist. It may be that the fragments of record from which we have to judge are insufficient for correct appraisement, but on all the evidence we possess we must conclude that the two volumes of his Materia Medica give us a picture of the direction of his teaching, and that Botany in the hands of its leading expositor in Edinburgh was at this period only a handmaid to Medicine.
The advent of Alston's successor, John Hope, was the dawn of new things. The influence of the work of Hales had reached Edinburgh. Comparatively few botanists of to-day have heard the name of John Hope otherwise than as that of a correspondent of Linnaeus and protagonist in this country of his system of classification, for these are the claims to distinction assigned to him by the historians of British Botany; and if one reckons the value of a man's life-work in science by his published writings alone, that of John Hope would be a minimum; for only such papers as those "On Rheum palmatum," "On Ferula Assafoetida," "On Eriocaulon septangulare in Scotland," are extant from his pen. Yet John Hope was a botanist inspired by the spirit of research who obtained by scientific experimental work and explained to his pupils facts of plant physiology some of which the botanical world learned from other workers only a hundred years afterwards. It is difficult to account for Hope's reticence. It may be that he intended to give his work to the world in the book upon Botany which had engaged his attention for many years and of which the MS. was in great part ready at the time of his unexpected death in 1786—if so, the botanical world has been the poorer through the want of Hope's book.
But if Hope did not give cause by published contributions to natural knowledge for his recognition in promoting the advance of Botany, he has always been remembered with gratitude for services of administration which he was peculiarly fitted to render and which profoundly affected the study of Botany in Edinburgh.
John Hope was born 10th May, 1725. The son of Robert Hope, a surgeon in Edinburgh, whose father had become one of the Senators of the College of Justice with the title of Lord Rankeillour. Educated at a famous school in Dalkeith, John Hope, who early showed a liking for Botany, entered the University of Edinburgh as a medical student and became a pupil of Alston. His botanical inclinations tempted him to break the course of his medical studies in Edinburgh to study Botany under Bernard de Jussieu in Paris. Returning to Scotland he graduated in Medicine from the University of Glasgow in 1750, joined the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh and began medical practice, giving to Botany such time as could be spared from the many ties of a successful practice. In 1760 Alston died, and John Hope became his successor, first of all in 1761 as King's Botanist at Holyrood and subsequently as Professor of Botany and Materia Medica in the University.
Soon after appointment Hope recognised that to continue to hold "colleges" in Materia Medica meant spoliation of his botanical work. The time had come for a separation of the two subjects of Botany and Materia Medica. Problems of the former now pressing were not those specially relating to medicinal plants. He therefore managed to carry through an arrangement by which he retained a chair as Professor of Medicine and Botany, and a new Professorship of Materia Medica was created. The importance of this step for botanical progress was great—it was not merely a question of time occupied but of scientific outlook.
Another movement in the direction of concentration of effort in the cause of Botany was initiated by Hope early in his official career—that for the creation of a new Botanic Garden in a locality outside the immediate influence of town atmosphere, in which the collections distributed over the Holyrood and Town Gardens could be combined. He accomplished his design, and not only this, but obtained from the Crown a permanent endowment for the new Garden. This was no small achievement—but the omens were favourable, for those patrons of science the Earl of Bute and, later, the Duke of Portland, were in power when the Professor made use of the great influence which his family possessed to secure his ends. A spreading city in time made the location of Hope's new Garden unsuitable, and it was transferred to the present site; but it was the effort by Hope which gave the Botanic Garden, and through it Botany, a status among institutions requiring subsidy and maintenance by Government in Scotland, and the obligation so imposed has been upheld notwithstanding—an attempt in later years on the part of the Government to get rid of it—an attempt which the short-sighted policy of the University nearly allowed to succeed.
Hope's duties in his University Chair required of him, in addition to his botanical work, clinical teaching in the Hospital, and he also engaged in practice—this for a livelihood—and took active share in the affairs of the Royal College of Physicians, of which he was President at the time of his death, which occurred in 1786. Botany could therefore claim but a portion of his time.
Having established the new Garden, he laboured with assiduity to lay it out effectively, and then to enrich it with plants. His own ardour and enthusiasm impressed others, and his pupils in all parts of the world contributed to making the Garden a renowned collection of the rarest plants. Here Hope met his students, and here he carried out his many physiological experiments which gave them instruction.
His teaching was comprehensive. Although no longer tied by the calls of his Materia Medica, Hope did not ignore the subject entirely, but plants in this relation were not the groundwork of his instruction. Systematic and descriptive Botany, recognition of herbs, still found a place in it. In Alston the most strenuous opponent of the Linnaean method had gone; it found in Hope a no less strenuous advocate, to whose influence its rapid adoption in this country owed much. To what extent Hope made excursions with his pupils, there is no evidence. His Hortus Siccus and lists of plants with localities show that he was a field-botanist, and in correspondence with, if not more intimately acquainted with, the botanists who were working out the Scottish Flora at the period—such men, for instance, as Lightfoot, Stuart, Robertson. This we do know, that he encouraged his pupils to investigate the Flora of Scotland, giving yearly a gold medal for the best Herbarium, and Hope's "peripatetic pupils" is a designation met with in literature of the time. This aspect of Hope's teaching, consonant with the features of the botanical literature of the period, is that which has been commonly known. It is not however a complete picture. In Hope Scotland had a physiologist of originality and skill—who was not only informed upon the work of Hales, Duhamel, Mariotte and others, but who made his own experiments, clearly devised and effective, and whose catholicity is attested by his dealing with such problems as growth in length and thickness, effect of light and gravity, movement of water, healing of wounds, and the like. This physiology was an essential element of his teaching, and the effect upon students of contact with such direct wresting of truth from Nature must have been immense. Our knowledge of all this, only recently acquired, throws a new light upon Hope's character, and upon the influence which he appears to have exercised on the education of the time. The pity is that he left no published records, and that this bright period of brilliant research should have become obscured by the scholasticism inherent in the method of classification which he himself did so much to popularise.
In accordance with tradition, the Chair vacated by Hope was filled by the election of another medical practitioner in Edinburgh. Daniel Rutherford was born in Edinburgh 3rd November, 1749, the son of Dr John Rutherford, who as Professor was associated with Alston and others in the reformation of the Edinburgh Medical School. He was distinguished both as a classical scholar and as a mathematician, and after graduating M.A. at the University of Edinburgh, he entered on the medical curriculum, obtaining his diploma of M.D. in 1772. His thesis, when applying for the degree, was "De aero fixo dicto aut Mephitico," and by this he became famous through the distinction he established in it between carbonic acid gas and nitrogen, though he did not give nitrogen its name. The exposition he gave of his precise experimental work has been allowed to entitle him to be regarded as the discoverer of nitrogen, although shortly before the appearance of his thesis Priestley had practically, if less methodically, covered the ground. After graduation, Rutherford travelled in France and Italy, returning to Edinburgh in 1775 to begin the practice of Medicine, becoming Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, of which he was afterwards President.
Rutherford was a chemist, and I have not discovered in any references to him expressions that would show he was at this period of his life interested in plants otherwise than as objects for his experiments in relation to the chemistry of the atmosphere. In seeking for a reason to explain his selection as Hope's successor in the Chair of Medicine and Botany, one may suggest either the general one of recognition of his scientific ability, or the more special one that in experimenting with plants he had been following on the lines of work so conspicuously developed by Hope. And of course at that time some general knowledge of Botany had to be the possession of every successful physician.
Like his predecessors, Rutherford had to undertake clinical teaching in the Hospital; he maintained also his private practice, and was keenly interested in the active literary world of his day in which his nephew (Sir) Walter Scott was a brilliant star. The Botanic Garden continued to hold its place as a scientific institution, and from the advent of William McNab as Principal Gardener in 1810, developed into one of the best known in the world. The recording of the plants of Scotland also proceeded apace; two of the Principal Gardeners of the Edinburgh Garden during Rutherford's Keepership—John Mackay from 1800–1802, and George Don from 1802–1806—being foremost in making known its floristic features, and their work Rutherford must have encouraged. From MS. notes of his lectures, I gather that the biological did not attract Rutherford, nor does it appear in the scanty records available that any special development of teaching equipment or of method took place during his tenure of office.
For some years before his death in 1819 Rutherford had been infirm; and speculation as to his successor had been rife. Robert Brown and Sir James Edward Smith were both spoken of. When the vacancy came Robert Brown refused it and Robert Graham, then Professor in the University of Glasgow, was appointed.
Robert Graham was born at Stirling 3rd December, 1786, the third son of Dr Robert Graham of Stirling (afterwards Moir of Leckie). After early education at Stirling, Graham was apprenticed in 1804 to Mr Andrew Wood, Surgeon in Edinburgh, and entered on the study of Medicine at the University, graduating M.D. in 1808. Thereafter he studied at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London for a year before settling in Glasgow, where he was also Lecturer in Clinical Medicine. During this period he published a dissertation "On continued Fever."
Botany in the University of Glasgow at this time had not reeched the dignity of having a Professorship. It was attached to the Chair of Anatomy, but a separate lecturer undertook its teaching. To this lectureship Graham was appointed in succession to Dr Brown. This appointment was the prelude to his election as Professor in 1818 when the Chair of Botany was founded—a foundation which owed much to him through his influence with the Duke of Montrose, then Chancellor of the University, of whose house he was a cadet. One of the first efforts of Graham in his new position was directed to the completion of a scheme that was making for the formation of a Botanic Garden. In this he succeeded, and botanical teaching in Glasgow was thus equipped in 1819.
From this sphere in which he had initiated so much. Graham came to Edinburgh in 1820 as Professor of Medicine and Botany and was forced again to take up medical practice and clinical teaching in the Hospital, and in consequence to interest himself in the affairs of the Royal College of Physicians, of which he became President—all this, as in the case of his predecessors, in addition to his botanical work.
His first labour in relation to Botany was to transfer the Botanic Garden which Hope had made to a new site—that which it now occupies. Nearly two years were required to carry out the removal, to the success of which the skill of William McNab, the Principal Gardener, contributed greatly.
During the whole tenure of his offices Graham devoted himself to the affairs of this Garden, and often in the very practical way of supplying funds from his own resources to supplement the inadequate grants obtained from Government. It gave him the material for the description of many new species which were figured in the Botanical Magazine and other like periodicals. This systematic botanical work was that which Graham cared for most, it was the backbone of his teaching, and all of his scattered papers deal with this aspect of the subject.
In connection with his teaching Graham developed specially the botanical excursion for the study of Field Botany, making it an integral part of his courses, and in furtherance of its aims travelling far through Scotland—a business of a much more arduous nature in days when railways and motors had not annihilated distance and provided all the comforts of civilisation within easy reach of every district. Graham had intended to publish a Flora of Scotland as the result of his practical study of its plants, but it was uncompleted at the time of his death in 1845 after an illness of some duration during which (Sir) Joseph Dalton Hooker acted as locum tenens.
Another new method in his teaching was that of encouraging students to write essays upon subjects either practical or theoretical. In this he stimulated investigation. Students in these days had more time than they have now to devote to such things, and of their efforts some were sound pieces of research—the Botanical Geography of Hewitt C. Watson first took form in one of these essays.
John Hutton Balfour, who succeeded Graham, was born in Edinburgh 15th September, 1808. The eldest son of Andrew Balfour, surgeon in the Army, who afterwards settled in Edinburgh as printer and publisher, in which business his enterprise was adequate to the venture of the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia under the editorship of (Sir) David Brewster. Andrew Balfour was a grim old presbyterian of the stuff covenanters were made, and in the strict home environment which he created young Balfour early came into touch with theological dogma. The echo of these early impressions remained with him throughout life.
Educated at the High School of Edinburgh where he laid the foundation of sound classical scholarship—always his unobtrusive distinction—Balfour entered the curriculum for the Arts degree at the University. Before completing this he migrated to St Andrews in order to be under the influence of Professor Thomas Chalmers—the famous Divine, afterwards leader in the disruption that founded the Free Church of Scotland—in conformity with the desire of his father that he should become a minister in the Church of Scotland. But Divinity did not claim him and he returned to Edinburgh to begin the study of Medicine—a decision in face of family pressure which is tribute to the strength of purpose which characterised him and found expression frequently in after life.
At the beginning of this renewed Edinburgh curriculum Balfour attended the Botany course of Professor Graham in 1825, and obtained his first scientific instruction in Botany—a subject for which he had always shown fondness. Robert Dickson, afterwards Lecturer on Botany at St George's Hospital, London, was a fellow-student, and together they, in this and following years, made many botanical excursions about Edinburgh. With his fellows Balfour seems to have been bon camarade, acquired all the ephemeral distinction attaching to a facile writer of rhymed couplets for occasions, and as an inveterate maker of puns was in demand for the office of punster at the convivial clubs of the period. A mark of more serious attainment—he was President of the Royal Medical Society in two years. After graduation as M.D., when he also became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh—his thesis for the former being "De Strychnia," for the latter "On Purulent Wounds"—Balfour went in 1832 to Paris to continue his medical education, studying there under Dupuytren, Lisfranc, and Manec. Returning, he settled in Edinburgh in 1834 and entered on practice, becoming assistant within and without the University to Sir George Ballingall, Professor of Military Surgery. Amongst his patients he numbered De Quincey and his family. De Quincey's eldest son died from a cerebral complaint, and the autopsy revealed an interesting pathological condition which formed the subject of Balfour's investigation, and an account of it his first published scientific paper.
From the claims of Medicine Balfour could wrest little time for botanical pursuits, but his holiday always meant the botanical exploration of some area, preferably alpine, and his home became a centre for men of kindred tastes. There in co-operation with his old teacher Graham, and with Greville, Forbes, Falconer, Parnell, Munby and others, was instituted in 1836 the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, with wide aims for the promotion of Botany—amongst them the creation of a botanical library and a herbarium. This has proved a signal service to science. It was the pegging out of a claim which has been made effective. The Society after a life—as with all such societies—of fluctuating periods of greater and lesser activity, flourishes still, and its library and herbarium, transferred to the Crown when the space demand of their bulk became urgent, have been the foundation for the large botanical library and herbarium now maintained and subsidised by Government in the Royal Botanic Garden.
Plants gradually drew Balfour away from patients and in 1840 he carried the divorce so far as to establish himself as a teacher of Botany in the Extra-mural Medical School in Edinburgh—that exemplar of free-trade in teaching—from which so many of the famous occupants of Chairs in the University have entered its portals. But only in 1842, when Sir William Hooker moved to Kew and a vacancy was then caused in the Glasgow Chair of Botany to which Balfour was elected, was he able to give up medical practice entirely.
In Glasgow the first years of Balfour's botanical career were spent, but they were few. On the death of Graham he returned to Edinburgh as Professor of Medicine and Botany and Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden—the electors passing over Joseph Dalton Hooker also a candidate. In the sphere of these offices the rest of his active life was passed until his retirement in 1879. He came to the University of Edinburgh at a time when the reputation of its medical school was upheld by a remarkable band of teachers in the Medical Faculty—Allen Thomson, Alison, Christison, Goodsir, Gregory, Jameson, Simpson, Syme—and when the struggle of the University after a revised constitution was approaching the climax reached in 1858, when with other Scottish Universities Edinburgh obtained autonomy, and science was enfranchised. Of this Faculty he became Dean, and held office until close upon the time when he became Emeritus. In all the discussions and controversies, destructive and constructive, that attached to so weighty a crisis, Balfour's influence and outlook for science were used with effect, and no less influential were his action and advice in subsequent years when the specific question of medical reform was raised, as it so often was.
Absorbing administrative work of this kind, to which were soon added the duties of a Secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh—(and he remained in the Secretariat to the end of his active life)—as well as those of an editor of the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal—(afterwards merged in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History)—of Secretary of the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society and of other offices, made inroad alike upon time and energy of a man who had also the administration of the Royal Botanic Garden in his hands, as well as the calls of his Professorship of Botany to attend to. But Balfour was untiring in industry, prompt and precise in method, and administrative work appealed to him.
Though liable like his predecessors to undertake clinical medical teaching, Balfour, save for occasionally acting as locum tenens, took no share in it, and his energies in teaching were devoted to Botany. On the lines he followed he was pioneer. We have seen that Field Botany had been for several decades a characteristic of the Edinburgh Botanic School. Whilst maintaining this feature, Balfour added laboratory work. The word "laboratory" was not then in vogue, and "microscopical room" was the designation of the new domain in which the "guillotine," not the "microtome," was used. In the sphere of practical teaching this was a notable advance, and the more so when the technical difficulties that had to be overcome are remembered—the days of cheap microscopes were but beginning, aniline dyes were not yet. Nevertheless the student of the time had opportunity were he so minded of examining plant-form and plant-structure for himself under direction, and if the equipment for work were not so perfect mechanically as modern methods now permit of, the training in minute observation was no less excellent than that of to-day, and the educational effect of the teaching no less valuable. The scheme of work was that of the text-books—passing progressively from tissues to organs vegetative and reproductive both phanerogamic and cryptogamic. The specialisation of the type system had not come.
Before he was able to establish, as he did in the early fifties, practical laboratory classes, Balfour had introduced a system of demonstrations of microscopic objects and of physiological experiments in illustration daily of the subject of his lecture, and it is testimony to his power of infusing zeal in pupils that there was always a contingent of them ready to come to the Botanic Garden at six o'clock in the morning to give voluntary aid in the arranging of these demonstrations for the lecture at eight o'clock. Many of those who came have recorded that they found that period and its work one of the most inspiring in their student history.
This new departure in teaching did not interfere with the continuation and extension of field-work, which up to this time had been the form of practical study cultivated in Edinburgh. On the contrary the Botanical Excursion gave Balfour an outlet for energy and favourable opportunity for the exercise of those gifts of personal magnetism and intellectual stimulus through which he influenced and guided many generations of students. Every Saturday during the summer session an excursion was made, and one of some days' duration usually brought the session to a close. Through these excursions the greater part of Scotland was traversed—on one occasion the terminal excursion of the session was to Switzerland—and the features of flora and vegetation were brought to the attention of many hundreds of students.
The aim and result of the excursion were not solely the acquisition of plants and their identification. The stimulating effect on many of this side of Botany is evidenced even in our day by the zeal with which search after rare plants is pursued, and in the eagerness displayed in the race after micro-forms. But the enticement of acquisition and discovery of novelty whilst there were not the governing influences in Balfour's excursion. In touch as he was with the problems of organography in its fullest sense, a man of wide reading familiar with the botanical work of his time, and associated as he had been in the field with men like Edward Forbes and Hewett Cottrell Watson, Balfour could and did look at plants from the standpoint of their place in vegetation, and in relation to the conditions of growth, and as having a history in their habitat. His teaching reflected this. It was never classification, diagnosis, and nomenclature as the end-all of Botany. The details emphasised changed as the progress of botanical discovery gave new clues to explanation of form and relation, and it was the solvings and attempts at solvings of observed phenomena that gave that fascination to his excursions, the remembrance of which seems to have clung to those who had the fortune to join them. The succession of plants and plant-form from base to summit of a highland hill; contrasts of vegetation of stream-course, mountain pasture, alpine rock; high mountain forms of shore plants; intrusion and extirpation; factors of distribution and their influence;—those and other problems of what we now term Ecological Botany were themes on which the Professor discoursed in his rambles, filling the pupil with information and forcing him to think out to such conclusion as he might on the evidence before him. And then the whole occasion was so enlivened by the outgo of good humour and mirth in joke and pun and story, that fatigue and weariness, which the physical exercise might evoke in those less attuned than the wiry Professor, were drowned in the sunny current of humanity.
I mention this practical teaching first, for it was the characteristic feature, but the idea of practical illustration pervaded all Balfour's effort. His lecture table became a synopsis of the lecture—living plants, herbarium material, museum specimens, all were pressed into service to elucidate the points of the discourse, whilst the walls were tapestried by diagrams. Never did teacher more sedulously absorb the new for presentation to his pupils. He was a lucid expositor, and, apart from his University lectures, during many years was sought after for more popular discourses to non-academic audiences.
The period of Balfour's teaching included the momentous year 1860. The impulse of the new spirit introduced by Darwin did not stimulate Balfour as it might have done a younger man. His religious beliefs—always in evidence—were showing then the influence of his early environment, and whilst Darwin's work was incorporated in his teaching, the acceptance of Darwin's theory appeared too near the negation of faith. On Balfour indeed, as on others with like views, the immediate effect of the Origin was the opposite of vivifying. It gave a shock. And this, I conceive, not so much a consequence of Darwin's own statement of his theory as of the forceful uncompromising attitude of the chief protagonist of his cause. Arrogance there was on the religious side, but no less also on the scientific side in the discussion. Perhaps it was well that the contest was sharp and bitter. It ended sooner, but its course was strewn with misconceptions and with confusion of cause and effect. In our days of complete reconciliation, when every tyro lisps in phyletic numbers as the outcome of Darwin's work, it is not amiss to recall the struggle at its inception—lest we forget.
The system of Essays which formed so important a part of Graham's teaching remained as prominent and was even developed further in Balfour's course in a way which had the inestimable merit of making the student feel that his study of plants had a living relationship with the everyday concerns of life. Thus when Simpson was engaged in his epoch-making investigations on anaesthetics, the subject for an essay was the effect of anaesthetics on sensitive plants, and by way of emphasis, the prize awarded was a gift by Simpson himself. Similarly Balfour enlisted the sympathy of Messrs Lawson, the prominent agricultural nurserymen of the day, and their prizes for dissection of grasses, for kinds of cereals, and like subjects, were constant reminders of the relations of botanical study to agriculture. The subjects of essays covered a wide field. The titles—influence of narcotic and irritant gases, changes which have taken place in the Flora of Britain during the historical era, cytogenesis and cell development, phanerogamous embryology, cryptogamous reproduction, teratology—may serve to indicate this, and an essential was always the practical illustration, microscopic or other.
For the use of the students Balfour compiled text-books which, like his lectures, are comprehensive in the field they cover, and encyclopaedic in the information they convey. His facile pen found expression too in numberless articles in encyclopaedias and magazines, and his activity as an expositor of botanical topics of the time was unbounded.
In the Botanic Garden Balfour obtained the material for the definite contributions he made to natural knowledge which are in the domain of Systematic Botany. No work in which Balfour engaged gave him more genuine pleasure than the administration of the Botanic Garden. Entering on the responsibility of its care when its repute was high, he left it on laying down office in even higher reputation, for in the McNabs—William and James—father and son—he had lieutenants of the first rank in gardening. During his regime the equipment for laboratory teaching to which reference has been made was installed, a museum to which old pupils all over the world contributed was instituted, and the Garden itself trebled in size, the latest addition, made just before his retirement, being an area to be cultivated as an arboretum for students of Forestry—a subject then beginning to claim attention.
With Balfour's retirement in 1879 the link of Botany with Medicine in the University was still further weakened. Medicine was left out of the title of the Chair to which Alexander Dickson succeeded.
Alexander Dickson of Hartree and Kilbucho was born at Edinburgh, 21st July, 1836. He was the second son of David Dickson of Hartree in Peeblesshire, and the representative of a family for long lairds of the estates of which, by the early death of his elder brother, he became proprietor. Educated privately, he entered the University of Edinburgh as a student of Medicine, graduating in 1860. Before graduation he had studied in Wüirzburg and in Berlin, particularly under Kölliker and Virchow, and after it he embarked on the stream of medical practice in Edinburgh. But that was convention—a demonstration of brass plate. His means placed him beyond the necessity of such professional work. His instinct lay in the direction of discovery of method more than in its application. During his student days he had shown a keen interest in Botany. Before graduation he had written on botanical subjects, and his thesis on graduation "The development of the flower in Caryophyllaceae" witnesses to his obsession. Whilst waiting for patients, he had continued work on embryogeny in plants, and when in 1862 the ill health of Professor Dickie at Aberdeen required the appointment of a substitute, the selection of Dickson set seal to his claims as a professed Botanist. In 1866 he succeeded Harvey as Professor in Dublin. Thence in 1868 he was translated to Glasgow as successor to Walker Arnott, and in 1879 became Professor of Botany and Queen's Botanist in Edinburgh on the retirement of Balfour, and, holding these positions, he died in 1887.
Dickson's passion was not teaching, and his success is testimony to the quality of the man. He was adored by his students, as could not well be otherwise with a man of his geniality and kindliness; he took immense pains over his lectures, spending hours daily over the making of fresh drawings on the blackboard for his classes, holding that a student would copy a temporary sketch although he would not copy a permanent wall-diagram; the lecture itself was a model of scientific presentment; at excursions he was untiring in demonstration and in fruitful suggestion, and he was always ready to give of his best to his pupils; but his real love was for research and he carried out many organographical investigations which have added to the sum of natural knowledge. His record in published papers far exceeds that of any of his predecessors, and the quality of his work recalls that of Irmisch. Flower-morphology, embryogeny, teratology, were the subjects to which he gave most attention in research, and in them he obtained results of solid and permanent value. For a time the subject of phyllotaxy occupied him, but it is not a fruitful theme although it gave him opportunity for showing his power of clear analysis; much more interesting was his subsequent work on pitcher plants of kinds.
Dickson possessed great skill in manipulation, and was strikingly effective in the use of his pencil in artistic delineation of the objects of his investigation. Careful in his work he took endless pains to secure that accuracy which it always shows. Further, his subject is always illumined by the comparative method of treatment which his wide knowledge and sound critical faculty enabled him to bring to bear upon it.
The duties of his lairdship were no light ones to Dickson who had set himself to build up again what had come to him in an impoverished condition, and affairs of Church and State were a very real interest to him. Amidst all these ties, to which has to be added the administration of the Botanic Garden, in which during his tenure a new and enlarged Lecture Hall was built, he found time to cultivate the musical faculty for which he was distinguished; not only was he a pianist of mark, but he found absorbing zest in the collecting of national airs sung by the peasants of Scotland.
In the line of Professors of Botany in Edinburgh no one ranked higher in distinction than Alexander Dickson, with whose name I conclude this sketch.
- His portrait forms the frontispiece of this book.