Sir joseph dalton hooker's bicentenary and early career

As with the many events in 2009 celebrating Charles Darwin’s birth, 2017 has seen a flurry of exhibits and conferences marking the bicentenary of Darwin’s close friend and colleague, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817–1911). Hooker was Britain’s preeminent botanist in the 19th century, an intrepid explorer, an early student of geographical botany, and the greatly esteemed director of London’s Kew Gardens for twenty years.

In March, a six-month exhibition, “Joseph Hooker: Putting plants in their place”, opened at The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at Kew Gardens. The exhibit included items from Kew’s Joseph Hooker Collection—maps, photographs, letters, artifacts, sketches, journals, and his published works with the original artwork by Walter Hood Fitch. The Hooker exhibit was accompanied by works of 80 contemporary British botanical artists.

In June, Kew also hosted “The Making of Modern Botany”, a conference exploring Hooker’s contributions to science and modern botany. Hooker’s birthplace of Halesworth, Suffolk, held an exhibit in July of art by contemporary botanical artists. “Joseph Dalton Hooker: A Legacy of Beauty” featured artworks portraying plants discovered by and named for Hooker.

Kew has also been engaged in the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project, a joint effort with Sussex University, to transcribe and digitize his letters, both scientific and personal. These can be read online as they become available. The Biodiversity Heritage Library has several of Hooker’s publications available online. They also have a Flickr collection of the art that illustrated Hooker’s works. (Links to these online resources can be found here.)



Joseph Hooker was the son of William Jackson Hooker (1785–1865), a professor of botany at Glasgow University and director of Kew Gardens. From a very early age, the younger Hooker regularly attended his father's botany lectures, and, in 1839, he completed a medical degree at Glasgow University. With qualifications in hand, he promptly set off on a 4-year scientific exploratory voyage to the Antarctic as assistant surgeon and botanist aboard the HMS Erebus1 under the command of Captain Sir James Clark Ross.2

The primary objective of the Antarctic expedition was to locate the South Magnetic Pole. To that effort, the ships traveled further south than any previous expedition. During periods of heavy ice in the sea, the ships traveled to various islands off the coast of Antarctica where Hooker was able to collect plants, and when the ice was clear, he collected plants, including a great variety of mosses and seaweed, from the continent itself.

While he had ample paper for pressing his collections and two Wardian cases3 for transporting live specimens, he recalled many years later that he was lacking other crucial supplies for preserving his specimens.

"... it is a fact, that not a single glass bottle was supplied for collecting purposes, empty pickle bottles were all we had, and rum as preservative from the ships's stores."4

Hooker’s spent his spare time during the Antarctic voyage reading a proof of Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle given to him by a friend before sailing. Upon his return, the young botanist was asked by Darwin to classify the plants he had collected in South America and the Galapagos. They became close friends and supportive colleagues. In December of 1859, one month after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Hooker published Flora Tasmaniae, the final volume of his Botany of the Antarctic. In the book’s introductory essay, Hooker endorsed Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, becoming the first scientist to do so publicly.

As director of Kew Gardens, Hooker’s father obtained funding for the publication of illustrated floras of the plants from the Antarctic voyage. The 6-volume work was the first to describe plants from Antarctica, New Zealand, and Tasmania. It was accompanied by superb hand-colored lithographs by noted illustrator Walter Hood Fitch.

William Hooker also made it possible for his son to travel to India to obtain plants for the gardens at Kew. Hooker was the first European to collect plants in the Himalayas and the first to sketch Mt. Everest, although its significance at the time was not known.5 His 2-volume Himalayan Journals was dedicated to Charles Darwin. Subsequent publications from this trip were Flora Indica, the 7-volume Flora of British India, and Rhododendrons of Sikkim-Himalaya, beautifully illustrated by Fitch.

In 1865, William Hooker died of a throat infection. The younger Hooker succeeded his father as director of Kew, a position he retained for 20 years. He continued his travels abroad to obtain specimens for the Gardens, visiting Palestine, Morocco, and the United States. Perhaps his most important work during this time was Genera plantarum, a 7-volume taxonomic system based on plants in Kew’s collection, a project on which he labored for 23 years with George Bentham, a noted botanical systematist at Kew.

One of the most beautiful works produced by Hooker and Fitch is Illustrations of Himalayan Plants. The original drawings for the book were done by a group of Indian artists for James F. Cathcart, an Englishman who lived in the Himalayas for many years. He requested Hooker’s assistance in getting them published in a manner similar to Rhododendrons of Sikkim-Himalaya. Cathcart gave his drawings to Hooker but died before the project could begin. Fitch redrew some of them and added drawings from Hooker’s sketches of plants that Cathcart had not included.

The illustration shown on the lower right is Fitch’s lithograph of Rheum nobile, the alpine Sikkim rhubarb, prepared from a sketch by Hooker. The plant grows at elevations of 13,000–15,000 feet and can grow to 6’ in height. Hooker notes in his description that he could easily see the plant from a mile away. The plant’s unique adaptation is its tower of translucent bracts that create a protected environment for the flowers, shielding them from the altitude’s UV radiation and freezing temperatures. Note in the lower left the depiction of the plant in its habitat.

Hooker’s travels in the United States, in 1877, with Asa Gray and John Muir will be covered in the December Desert Breeze.— Cindy Hartwell



1The two ships of the Ross Expedition, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, were powerfuly-built bomb vessels that had been converted to polar exploratory vessels with heavily reinforced hulls that could withstand the ice. The Terror was one of the British ships that bombarded several U.S. locations along the Atlantic Coast, including Fort McHenry, during the War of 1812. After later sustaining damage near Portugal, it was refitted as an exploratory vessel. In 1843, after Captain Ross's return to Britain, the two ships were fitted with steam engines for a planned expedition to find the much sought-after Northwest Passage. Under Captain Sir John Franklin, the ships left England in May of 1845. They eventually became ice-bound in the Canadian Arctic, and all 129 men aboard the ships were lost. In 2014, Parks Canada located the wreck of the Erebus, and, in 2016, the wreck of the Terror.


2Before leading the 1839 Antarctic expedition, James Clark Ross (1800–1862) had sailed with several Arctic expeditions. In 1831, he became the first British naval officer to reach the North Magnetic Pole. During his Antarctic expedition, he discovered the Ross Sea, the Ross Ice Shelf, the Transantarctic Mountains, and the volcanoes of Ross Island, which he named after his two ships, the Erebus (active) and Terror (dormant). In 1848, Ross commanded the first expedition to the Canadian Arctic to find the Sir John Franklin's two lost ships (again, Erebus and Terror). He returned to England late in the following year having found no trace of Franklin.


3Wardian cases were small sealed glass-covered cases that were used to transport living plant specimens over great distances. Similar to terrariums, the cases retained moisture needed by the plants and also allowed sunlight to enter. Hooker is said to be the first to use them on a scientific expedition. Plants that he collected in Tasmania were successfully transported back to England using the cases. This brief article in the Atlantic, "How a Glass Terrarium Changed the World", explores the many ways that the simple Wardian cases profoundly affected our culture.


4Huxley, L. Life and Letters of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, O.M., G.C.S.I.: based on materials collected and arranged by Lady Hooker, 1918, Vol. I, pp. 47-48.


5This brief video, “Finding the First Sketch of Mt. Everest”, by Australian filmmaker Peter Donaldson, compares Hooker's sketches of the Himalayas with actual field footage to determine that Hooker was the first European to see Mt. Everest.




An abbrievated version of this piece appeared in the November 2017 issue of The Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.