DARWIN AND BOTANY
|DARWIN AND BOTANY|
By Dr. NATHANIEL LORD BRITTON
NEW YORK BOTANICAL GARDEN
CONSIDERING the fact that Charles Darwin disclaimed the title of botanist, his contributions to the knowledge of plant life and its phenomena were certainly extraordinary. His investigations extended over a great range of topics, at one time or another practically covering the whole field of botanical research. In repeatedly stating that he was not a botanist, he evidently meant to imply that he was not a systematist, and it is true that his knowledge of plant taxonomy was the least of his scientific acquirements. In his first letter to Dr. Asa Gray, written in 1855, which was the commencement of a long correspondence, he almost apologized for asking questions! During that year he became keenly interested, however, in knowing more about the kinds of plants growing wild in the vicinity of his home, and in a letter to Dr. Hooker he complains about the dreadful difficulty of naming plants, though he apparently became quite enthusiastic in this pursuit and advised Dr. Hooker, "If ever you catch quite a beginner and want to give him a taste of botany tell him to make a perfect list of some little field or wood." The facts just stated seem to indicate the extent of his taxonomic studies. He accepted, for the most part, the names of plants which he studied from the determinations of others.
Darwin was attracted to observations of natural objects as a young boy and he early considered plants; his juvenile collections were entomological, and his earlier investigations were mainly zoological and geological. As a pupil of Professor Henslow at Cambridge University he attended botanical lectures and took part in field excursions; he greatly enjoyed the field work, and from it his inspiration for investigation was doubtless derived.
As naturalist of the voyage around the world of the ship Beagle (1831-1836) his collections of plants made in South America and on the islands of the Pacific Ocean, and his observations upon the botanical features of the countries visited, contributed greatly to the knowledge of the flora of those regions. They were extensively utilized by Dr. Hooker in his "Flora Antarctica" and in his "Flora of the Galapagos Archipelago," as well as by other authors in various contributions. Darwin's valuable herbarium is preserved in the museum of Cambridge
- An address given at the American Museum of Natural History on February 12.