Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Nicholson, George

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NICHOLSON, GEORGE (1847–1908), botanist, born at Ripon, Yorkshire, on 4 Dec. 1847, was son of a nurseryman, and was brought up to his father's calling. After spending some time in the gardens of Messrs. Fisher Holmes at Sheffield, he went for two years to the municipal nurseries of La Muette, Paris, and then to those of Messrs. Low at Clapton. In 1873 he was appointed, after competitive examination, clerk to John Smith, the curator at Kew; in 1886 he succeeded Smith as curator. He retired owing to ill-health in 1901, but continued his botanical researches at Kew as far as his strength allowed.

A fluent speaker in French and German, Nicholson paid holiday visits to France and Switzerland, and travelled in Germany, Northern Italy, and Spain. Impressed with the value of a knowledge of foreign languages to young gardeners, he devoted much of his leisure to teaching some of them French. In 1893 he went officially to the Chicago Exhibition, as one of the judges in the horticultural section; and he took the opportunity to study the forest trees of the United States. In 1902, the year after his retirement, he visited New York as delegate of the Royal Horticultural Society to the Plant-Breeding Conference.

Until 1886 Nicholson devoted much attention to the critical study of British flowering plants. His first published work, 'Wild Flora of Kew Gardens,' appeared in the 'Journal of Botany' for 1875. In the same year he joined the Botanical Exchange Club, and to its 'Reports' and to the 'Journal of Botany' he contributed notes on such segregates as those of Rosa and of Cardamine pratensis. The 'Wild Fauna and Flora of Kew Gardens,' issued in the 'Kew Bulletin' in 1906, which expanded his paper of 1875, was largely his work. Out of 2000 fungi enumerated, 500 were found by Nicholson. His herbarium of British plants was presented, towards the close of his life, to the University of Aberdeen, through his friend James Trail, professor of botany there.

When Sir Joseph Hooker [q. v. Suppl. II] was reorganising and extending the arboretum at Kew, he found an able coadjutor in Nicholson, who wrote monographs on the genera Acer and Quercus and twenty articles on the Kew Arboretum in the 'Gardeners' Chronicle,' during 1881-3. A valuable herbarium which he formed of trees and shrubs was purchased by the trustees of the Bentham fund in 1889 and presented to Kew. His 'Hand-list of Trees and Shrubs grown at Kew' (anon. 2 pts. 1894-6) attested the fulness of his knowledge of this class of plants. Nicholson's magnum opus was 'The Dictionary of Gardening' (4 vols. 1885-9; enlarged edit. in French, by his friend M. Mottet, 1892-9; two supplementary vols, to the English edition, 1900-1). This standard work of reference, most of which was not only edited but written by Nicholson, did for the extended horticulture of the nineteenth century what Philip Miller's Dictionary did for that of the eighteenth.

Of gentle, unselfish character, he was chosen first president on the foundation of the Kew Guild in 1894. Elected an associate of the Linnean Society in 1886, Nicholson became a fellow in 1898, and he was awarded the Veitchian medal of the Royal Horticultural Society in 1894, and the Victoria medal in 1897. To him was dedicated in 1895 the 48th volume of the 'Garden,' a paper to which he was a large contributor. Dr. Udo Dammer in 1901 named a Central American palm Neonicholsonia Georgei. Fond of athletic exercises, he brought on, by his devotion to mountaineering, heart trouble, of which he died at Richmond, on 20 Sept. 1908. His remains were cremated. He married in 1875 Elizabeth Naylor Bell; but she died soon after, leaving a son, James Bell Nicholson, now a lieutenant in the navy.

[Gardeners' Chron. 1908, ii. 239 (with portrait); Journal of Botany, 1908, p. 337 (with the same portrait); Proc. Linnean Soc. 1908-9, pp. 48-9; Journal of the Kew Guild.]

G. S. B.