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Joseph Dalton Hooker was born 200 years ago on June 30th 1817 at Halesworth, Suffolk. When he was five years old, he would visit the botanical lectures of his father, Sir William Jackson Hooker, who was then Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow. Tutored at home with his brother, Joseph eventually studied botany as part of a medical degree.

In 1839 his father's friend, Sir James Clark Ross, offered Joseph a wonderful opportunity to be assistant surgeon on his expedition to the Antarctic with the Government’s discovery ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. This was the beginning of an extraordinary botanical career spanning the entire Victorian era.

As a result of his many voyages , Hooker wrote seminal works on the floras of many distant lands, including The Botany of the Antarctic Voyage Ships Erebus and Terror in 1839–43 (1844 – 1860), Handbook of the New Zealand Flora (1864) and The Flora of British India (1872 – 1897). But perhaps his best known flora is The Rhododendrons of Sikkim-Himalaya (1849), which was lavishly illustrated by the eminent Scottish lithographer Walter Hood Fitch (1817 – 1892) and is said to have sparked-off the Victorian craze for Rhododendrons; Amgueddfa Cymru holds 34 lithographs from this classic work in its Botanical Illustrations Collection, two of which we show here.

Joseph Hooker became one of the most important botanists of the 19th century. Together with George Bentham he wrote the seminal book Genera Plantarum (1862 – 1883) which is still one of the most important contributions to plant taxonomy. He was also interested in the geographical distribution of plants, giving birth to the science of phytogeography. He became a close friend of Charles Darwin, whose ideas about the evolution of species and natural selection he heavily promoted. Previously, botany had been regarded as a “gentleman’s pursuit”, but Darwinism opened the door to applying rigorous scientific laws to the subject, and helped raise its status in the eyes of the world.

Joseph Hooker became President of the Royal Society and Director of the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, and in 1877 was knighted for scientific services to the British Empire. He is now widely regarded as having been instrumental in the birth of the modern science of botany.
 

Dr Christopher Cleal

Head of Botany
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