Morison, Robert (DNB00)

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

MORISON, ROBERT (1620–1683), botanist, son of John Morison by his wife Anna Gray, was born at Aberdeen in 1620. He was educated at the university of that city, and in 1638 graduated as M.A. and Ph.D. He devoted himself at first to mathematics, and studied Hebrew, being intended by his parents for the ministry; but his attachment to the royalist cause led him to bear arms, and at the battle at the Brigg of Dee, when Middleton, the covenanter, was victorious, he received a dangerous wound in the head. Upon his recovery he, like so many of his royalist countrymen, went to Paris, where he became tutor to the son of a counsellor, named Bizet. Meanwhile he applied himself to the study of anatomy, zoology, botany, mineralogy, and chemistry, studying Theophrastus, Dioscorides, and the best commentators, and in 1648 took the degree of M.D. at Angers. On the recommendation of Vespasian Robin, the French king's botanist, he was received into the household of Gaston, duke of Orleans, in 1649 or 1650, as one of his physicians, and as a colleague of Abel Bruyner and Nicholas Marchant, the keepers of the duke's garden at Blois. This appointment, with a handsome salary, he retained until the duke's death in 1660. He was sent by the duke to Montpellier, Fontainebleau, Burgundy, Poitou, Brittany, Languedoc, and Provence in search of new plants, and seems to have explained to his patron his views on classification. At Blois Morison became known to Charles II, nephew of Gaston, through his mother, and on the Restoration was invited to accompany the king to England. Charles II made him his senior physician, king's botanist and superintendent of all the royal gardens, at a salary of 200l. and a house. On 16 Dec. 1669, he was elected professor of botany at Oxford, being recommended for that post partly by his 'Præludia Botanica,' then just published, and partly, no doubt, by his politics. On the following day he was incorporated as doctor of medicine from University College, but he did not commence his lectures until the following 2 Sept. Subsequently he lectured to considerable audiences three times a week for five weeks, beginning each September and May, at a table covered with specimens in the middle of the physic garden. The rest of his life was occupied, as Anthony a Wood says (Fasti, ii. 315), in 'prosecuting his large design of publishing the universal knowledge of simples,' his 'Historia Plantarum Oxoniensis.' During a visit to London in connection with its publication, he was struck on the chest by the pole of a coach while crossing the Strand between Northumberland House and St. Martin's Lane. Falling to the ground, he fractured his skull on a stone and was carried to his house in Green Street, Leicester Fields, where he died the next day, 10 Nov. 1683, without regaining consciousness. He was buried in St. Martin's-in-the-Fields.

Morison was credited in his own day with a clear intellect, a love of science and the public interest, and a hatred of sordid gain (cf. Life, attributed to Hearne, in Sloane MS. 3198, printed in Plantarum Hist. vol. ii.) 'He was,' wrote one R. Gray, apparently a relative, 'communicative of his knowledge, a true friend, an honest countryman, true to his religion, whom neither the fair promises of the papists nor the threatenings of others would prevail upon to alter' (Sloane MS. 3198). Tournefort said of Morison (Élémens de Botanique, 1694, p. 19) : 'One does not know how to praise this author sufficiently ; but he seems to praise himself over-much, since, not content with the glory of having carried out a part of the grandest scheme ever made in botanical science, he dares to compare his discoveries to those of Christopher Columbus ; and, without mentioning Gesner, Csesalpinus, or Columna, he states in several passages in his writings that he has taken nothing except direct from nature. One might, perhaps, believe this if he had not taken the trouble to copy whole pages from the two authors last named, showing that their works were familiar enough to him.' Though Ray was simultaneously engaged in the study of classification, Morison apparently deserves the eulogy bestowed on him by Franchet (Flore de Loir-et-Cher, p. xiv), who says that his works made an epoch in botanical literature ; that he formed a clear notion of genus and species, and a conception of the family almost identical with that which we now hold ; and that he seems to have been the first to make use of dichotomous keys to specific characters. At the same time, one cannot deny the want of modesty and urbanity, the vanity and boastfulness which Boreau (Flore du Centre de la France, 1840, i. 37) finds in his works.

An oil-painting of Morison is preserved at the Oxford Botanical Garden, and an engraved portrait by R. White, after Sunman, is prefixed to the second volume of the 'Historia Plantarum Oxoniensis.' His name is perpetuated in the West Indian genus Morisonia, among the caper family. Though stated by Wood and Pulteney to have been a member of the Royal College of Physicians, Morison does not appear in Dr. Munk's 'Roll,' so that this statement is probably unfounded.

Morison was doubtless concerned in the compilation of 'Hortus Regius Blesensis' (1653, 2nd edit. 1655), which Morison seemed to describe as the joint work of himself and his colleagues, Abel Brunyer and Nicholas Marchant (ib. ; and cf. letter in Præludia Sot. pt. ii.) ; but to Brunyer alone was the work officially entrusted (Franchet). In 1669 Morison issued his 'Prseludia Botanica' (sm. 8vo). Part i. consists of a third edition of the Blois 'Hortus,' dedicated to Charles II, and contains the rudiments of Morison's system of classification, and a list of 260 plants supposed by him to be new species. Part ii. is styled 'Hallucinationes in Caspari Bauhini Pinace . . . item Animadversiones . . . Historiæ Plantarum Johannis Bauhini.' This work, which Haller calls 'invidiosum opus,' is dedicated to James, duke of York, and concludes with a dialogue asserting that generic characters should be based on the fruit, and denying spontaneous generation.

As a specimen of the great work he meditated, Morison next issued 'Plantarum Umbelliferarum Distributio nova,' Oxford, 1672, fol. pp. 91, with 12 plates, dedicated to the Duke of Ormonde, the chancellor, and the university. In 1674 he issued 'Icones et Descriptiones rariorum Plantarum Sicilian, Melitae, Galliae, et Italiaa . . . auctore Paulo Boccone,' Oxford, 4to, pp. 96, with 52 plates, having 119 figures, a work sent to him at the author's request, by Charles Hatton, second son of Lord Hatton, who, about 1658, had been Morison's pupil in botany at St. Germains. In 1680 he published 'Plantarum Historiæ Universalis Oxoniensis pars secunda; seu Herbarum distributio nova, per tabulas cognationis et affinitatis, ex libro Naturæ observata,' Oxford, fol. pp. 617. The preface is dated 'Ex Musæo riostro in Collegio dicto Universitatis.' In this work, leaving trees, as a smaller subject, for separate treatment, Morison divides herbaceous plants into sixteen classes, but deals only with the first five. He dealt with four more before his death, and the work was completed, at the request of the university, in 1699, by Jacob Bobart the younger [q. v.], who had learnt Morison's system from its author. This second volume (pp. 655) contains numerous copper-plates, representing some 3,384 plants, engraved at the expense of Bishop Fell, Dean Aldrich, and others, the illustrations of the two volumes of the work being almost the earliest copper-plates in England. Speaking of this volume, Wood says: 'After this is done there will come out another volume of trees by the same hand.' This never appeared, but Schelhammer wrote, in 1687, that, eleven years before, he had seen the whole work nearly complete, at the author's house (Hermanni Conringii in universam artem medicam Introductio, Helmestadt, pp. 350-1). In the Botanical Department of the British Museum there is a volume from Sir Hans Sloane'a library containing 128 cancelled pages from the beginning of the second volume. These differ mainly in containing the 'annotations of the eastern names,' mentioned by Wood (Fasti, ii. 315) as the work of 'Dr. Tho. Hyde, chief keeper of the Bodleian Library.' The volume also contains manuscript notes by Bobart.

[Pulteney's Sketches of the Progress of Botany, i. 298-327; Morison's Works; and the works above cited.]

G. S. B.