Image capture and photograph of Kew Gardens by the author. Photograph of Joseph Hooker's memorial plaque by Stephen Craven, originally posted on Geograph, and kindly made available for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. It has been cropped, and its perspective corrected, for this website. [You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer or source and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. Click on the images to enlarge them.]

An early account of Joseph Hooker's achievements describes him "as a Traveller and Geographer, as a Geologist, as a Morphologist, as an Administrator, as a Scientific Systematist, and above all as a Philosophical Biologist" (Bower 304). But the word "Botanist" sums him up best. Indeed, both his father and his maternal grandfather were botanists, and we might say now that botany was in his very genes.

Hooker was born in Suffolk in 1817, as the younger son of Sir William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865), who was appointed Regius Professor of Botany at Glasgow in 1820. As a result, the boy grew up mainly in Scotland, and received his education there. He soon developed an interest in his father's newly expanding subject. Indeed, he was a prodigy in this respect, evincing a precocious enthusiasm and aptitude for the study of mosses and other forms of plant life.

Students of botany at that time routinely took their degrees in medicine, the subjects being linked by the potentially medicinal properties of plants (see Huxley I: 18). Hooker was no exception. He graduated from Glasgow University as a doctor in 1839, and then spent four years as an assistant ship's surgeon. But his object was to study the distribution of plants during the voyage, which took him to the southern hemisphere on the ship's circumnavigation of Antarctica. Such a voyage certainly qualified him to be called a "Traveller and Geographer": he travelled much further afield than his father had done. He first made his name by his discovery of new species: "a rising botanist when he set out," he was "a botanist of higher repute when he returned" (Huxley I: 143). Later he would undertake an equally or even more adventurous and not much less protracted expedition to India and Nepal (1847-51), and later still made field-trips to Syria and Palestine (1860), Morocco (1871) and the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevada, and California (1877).

Kew Gardens: flowerbeds beside Decimus Burton's Palm House of 1844-48, engineered by Richard Turner. Joseph Hooker's father William was an expert on palms and ferns, and his work encouraged the crazes for them in Victorian homes.

In I841, William Hooker was appointed first full-time Director the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew; the Hooker family was now based in the south again. After several years working on his publications, travelling, and helping with the Geological Survey (hence his description as a geologist), Joseph Hooker joined his father at Kew as his assistant and deputy. By the time of his later visits to Morocco and America, he had succeeded his father in the top position. It was one that he held for twenty years: "The efficiency of his rule was shown by the increasing estimation in which the Garden was held by all who were able to judge" (Bower 310). Such was his standing and reputation now, and the importance accorded to his subject as a science, that in 1873 he was elected President of the Royal Society. He held that office until 1878. From 1876 he was also Manager and Vice-President of the Royal Institution, and in 1877, despite the scant official support he had previously received for his Himalayan work, became a Knight Commander of the Most Exalted Order of the Star of India (KCSI). Reluctant as he was to accept more general honours, he told Charles Darwin that it pleased him to have an honour never "given by favor or on personal considerations," one which, moreover, smacked of "of hard work under difficulties, of obstacles overcome, and of brilliant deeds." He added, "Assuredly I would rather go down to posterity as one of the 'Star of India' than as of any other dignity whatever that the Crown can offer" (qtd. in Huxley II: 150). He was later made a Knight Grand Commander of the same order (GCSI).

Left: "The Botanist in Sikkim." From the picture by William Taylor, showing native plant-collectors offering specimens to Hooker, seated, in native costume (Huxley I: facing p. 286). He was the first westerner to explore the region, and found himself in prison at one point. Right: "Encamped in the Rocky Mountains" (Huxley II: facing p. 208). Towards the left, the now sixty-year-old Hooker is sitting on a chair, with the distinguished American botanist Asa Gray sitting on the ground beside him with a plant press.

Hooker is now seen most often in connection with Darwin. The two were certainly close friends, and it was a very significant relationship:

In perhaps his most famous letter of all, Darwin wrote to Hooker in January 1844 of his growing conviction that species "are not ... immutable" — an admission he likened, half jokingly, to "confessing a murder." When Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) sent Darwin a letter in 1858 outlining an almost identical theory to his own, it was Hooker, together with Charles Lyell, who engineered the simultaneous publication of papers by both men, and secured Darwin's claim to the theory of "modification through descent" by means of the mechanism Darwin called "natural selection." ["Darwin-Hooker Letters"]

Having been close to Darwin, and having encouraged him to publish his Origin of Species in 1859, Hooker then had the distinction of being "the first man of science to defend natural selection in print" (Endersby, Imperial Nature, 5). Naturally, this aspect of his life has drawn much attention:

In him we see the foremost student of the broader aspects of Plant-Life at the time when evolutionary belief was nascent. His influence at that stirring period, though quiet, was far-reaching and deep. His work was both critical and constructive. His wide knowledge, his keen insight, his fearless judgment were invaluable in advancing that intellectual revolution which found its pivot in the mutability of species. The share he took in promoting it was second only to that of his life-long friend Charles Darwin. [Bower 326]

Yet, as Endersby so convincingly argues, Hooker's relationship with Darwinism was by no means straightforward, nor should he stand in Darwin's shadow (see Imperial Nature, 316ff.). His own works, such as those on Arctic, British and Indian plants, made a signal and distinguished contribution to the study of botany – his distinctions here being in plant distribution and taxonomy. Classification was his life's work, his many travels and huge quantity of specimens making him "a taxonomic 'lumper,' a proponent of large, broadly defined species that encompassed many varieties that others classified as separate species" ("Hooker, Sir James Dalton"). Despite being engaged in controversies, for example with those more inclined to split varieties into separate species, he received widespread international recognition at the time, and numerous honours at home, in addition to the few mentioned above. These were crowned by the OM in 1907, to which he was appointed in the same year as Florence Nightingale (for the full list of his many honours see Huxley II: Appendix, 507-17).

Left to right: (a) Hooker, Illustrations of Himalayan Plants, title page. (b) Hooker, The Rhododendrons of Sikkim-Himalaya, frontispiece. (c) Memorial plaque in St Anne's Church, Kew, modified from a photograph by Stephen Craven.

Never one for "gaieties of life," as his father put it in Hooker's earlier days (qtd. in Huxley I: 162), Sir Joseph perhaps inevitably developed an "autocratic manner and sensitivity to the dignity of science" later on (Endersby, Imperial Nature (278). But, with his great stocks of energy, his vast breadth of knowledge, and his boundless commitment to his speciality, he was still an appealing character, and he certainly had his softer side. As a young man, he was close to his family, and grief-stricken at the loss of his elder brother William in 1840, followed in 1841 by that of Mary, the youngest of his three sisters. Later, he was a loving father, with four children by his first wife Frances and two by his second, the aptly named Hyacinth. He was devastated (as Darwin had been) by the death of a favourite child. Nor was he at all greedy for all those honours, accepting them mainly on behalf of his science, and telling another close friend, T. H. Huxley, "It is clear now that I cannot go on refusing to accept recognition of services for ever" (qtd. in Huxley II: 149). Perhaps there was some pretence here, but he had in fact turned down a knighthood in 1869 because it was not one that indicated those "special services" (Huxley II: 146).

In so many ways an earnest Victorian, Hooker lived on through the Edwardian period. He died in 1911 and is buried at St Anne's, Kew, like his father. There is a large marble medallion of him in the north aisle of the nave of Westminster Abbey by Frank Bowcher. But Hooker loved and collected Wedgwood, and particularly Wedgwood portraits of famous men: "These cameos, with their historic significance, their memorial to genius as well as their artistic perfection, appealed to him beyond all" (Huxley II: 486). His father's memorial plaque in St Anne's features a Wedgwood portrait medallion with ferns, whilst his own has a portrait medallion from Bowcher's model (like the 1897 one featured at the top of this page), surrounded by five different botanical specimens. These delicate flowers were designed by Hooker's second cousin Matilda Smith, for many years the botanical artist at Kew (see Huxley I: 18-19). It is a very personal tribute, one that reminds us that botany, perhaps paradoxically, and more than any other branch of the sciences, owed its increased professionalisation during the Victorian period to the services of one family.

"Vase ornamented chiefly with Ferns," from Hassard 53. The fern craze continued not just after William Hooker's death but even after his son's.

Related Material


Bower, F. O. "Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker." Makers of British Botany: A Collection of Biographies by Living Botanists. Ed. F. W. Oliver. Biodiversity Heritage Library. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1913. 302-323. Web. 13 April 2015.

"Darwin-Hooker Letters." Cambridge Digital Library. Web. 13 April 2015.

Endersby, Jim. "Hooker, Sir Joseph Dalton (1817–1911), botanist." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 13 April 2015.

_____. Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science. London: University of Chicago Press, 2008 (essential reading).

Hassard, Annie. Floral Decorations for the Dwelling House: A Practical Guide to the Home Arrangement of Plants and Flowers. London: Macmillan, 1875. Internet Archive. Contributed by the California Digital Library. Web. 13 April 2015.

Hooker, J. D. Illustrations of Himalayan Plants, Chiefly Selected from Drawings Made for the Late J.F. Cathcart, of the Bengal Civil Service. The Descriptions and Analyses by J.D. Hooker; the Plates Executed by W.H. Fitch. London: L. Reeve, 1855. Internet Archive. Contributed by Missouri Botanical Garden. Web. 13 April 2015.

_____. The Rhododendrons of Sikkim-Himalaya; Being an Account, Botanical and Geographical, of the Rhododendrons Recently Discovered in the Mountains of Eastern Himalaya, from Drawings and Descriptions Made on the Spot, during a Government Botanical Mission to that Country. Ed. Sir W. J. Hooker. London: Reeve, Benham, and Reeve, 1849. Internet Archive. Contributed by Missouri Botanical Garden. Web. 13 April 2015.

Huxley, Leonard. Life and Letters of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, Vol. I . London: John Murray, 1918. Internet Archive. Contributed by University of California Libraries. Web. 13 April 2015.

_____. Life and Letters of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, Vol. II . London: John Murray, 1918. Internet Archive. Contributed by University of California Libraries. Web. 13 April 2015.

Created 13 April 2015.