Story: Hooker, Joseph Dalton

Page 1: Biography

Hooker, Joseph Dalton

1817–1911

Botanist, explorer, writer, administrator

This biography, written by K. A. Simpson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 1, 1990.

Joseph Dalton Hooker is said to have been born at Halesworth, Suffolk, England, on 30 June 1817, and was baptised there on 3 July. He was the younger son of Sir William Jackson Hooker and his wife, Maria Sarah Turner. His father was Regius professor of botany at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, and in 1841 became director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London. Hooker was educated at Glasgow Grammar School and went on to the university, where he studied Latin, Greek, mathematics, moral philosophy and medicine. He graduated MD in 1839. On 15 July 1851 at Hitcham, Suffolk, he married Frances Harriet Henslow, whose father was professor of botany at the University of Cambridge; they were to have four sons and three daughters.

With the help of his father's friend Sir James Ross, Hooker became assistant surgeon on the Erebus, which left from Chatham on 29 September 1839 on Ross's Antarctic expedition. He was also naturalist to the expedition, having already an excellent grounding in botany. The expedition's two ships explored much of the Antarctic coastline and called at Tasmania, New Zealand and the Falkland Islands during three southern winters, when Antarctic exploration was impossible. Hooker collected some 400 plant species from the Auckland and Campbell islands in 1840. During a stay in New Zealand from August to November 1841, based at the Bay of Islands, he collected about 300 species on numerous expeditions with William Colenso and Andrew Sinclair. After he had returned to Britain in late 1843, his findings were published, between 1844 and 1860, as two illustrated volumes each on sub-antarctic, New Zealand and Tasmanian flora. Flora Novae-Zelandiae was published in 1853.

Hooker had met Charles Darwin before the expedition, and on his return a lifelong correspondence ensued which was valuable to both men in clarifying their ideas on the origin and geographical distribution of species. In 1844 Darwin told Hooker his theory of natural selection, but did not publish it until 1859, in The origin of species.

In 1845 Hooker applied unsuccessfully for the chair of botany at the University of Edinburgh. He became botanist to the Geological Survey, working on fossil material. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1847 and, funded by the British government, spent part of 1848 and 1849 exploring Sikkim, performing botanical, geological and meteorological work. He also explored part of eastern Nepal and surveyed the passes leading into Tibet. During 1850 he and Thomas Thomson explored eastern Bengal and the Khasia Hills, returning to England the following year. Over 6,000 species were collected, including many newly discovered species of rhododendron. Hooker worked on this material for the next three years and published the Himalayan journals (1854) and Illustrations of Sikkim–Himalayan plants (1855).

He was appointed assistant director of Kew gardens in 1855 and with Thomson published Flora indica. In this work species were considered to be 'definite creations'. However, in his Introductory essay on the flora of Tasmania (1859), Hooker supported the theory of Darwin and Alfred Wallace, 'that species are derivative and mutable'. In the early 1860s he published influential works on the classification of plants, and on the distribution of arctic floras.

Hooker's father died in 1865 and he assumed the directorship of Kew. His wide-ranging administrative duties over the next 20 years allowed him little time for scientific work. He delivered a lecture on insular floras to the British Association in 1866, in which he explained the occurrence of widely spread identical species by postulating trans-oceanic migration. (Alfred Wegener's continental drift hypothesis was not developed until 1912.) In New Zealand Charles Knight had obtained a commission from the government in 1863 for Hooker's Handbook of the New Zealand flora (1864–67). It included descriptions of plants sent to Hooker by Colenso, Sinclair, W. T. L. Travers, Julius Haast and others. The next year Hooker was president of the British Association. In 1869 he attended the International Botanical Congress at St Petersburg (Leningrad), Russia. From April to June 1871 he explored the Atlas Mountains, in Morocco, where no arctic-alpine flora was found. Hooker was president of the Royal Society from 1873 to 1878.

Frances Hooker died in 1874 and on 22 August 1876 in the parish of St Nicholas, Hereford, Hooker married Hyacinth Jardine, formerly Symonds, widow of Sir William Jardine. They were to have two sons.

In failing health, Hooker retired from the directorship of Kew in 1885, but continued to do scientific work there while living at Windlesham, near Sunningdale, on the border of Berkshire and Surrey. In 1896 he edited the Endeavour journal of Sir Joseph Banks, made during James Cook's first voyage. He remained intellectually able until his death at Sunningdale on 10 December 1911, and was interred at Kew Green.

Hooker's speciality was geographical distribution, with an emphasis on arctic and alpine flora, but his work on plant taxonomy was also notable. His worldwide travels resulted in an enormous collection of specimens, and his achievements, which extended beyond botany, were internationally acclaimed. He received honorary degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, Dublin, Edinburgh and Glasgow universities, was created CB in 1869, KCSI in 1877, GCSI in 1897, and was personally presented with the OM on his 90th birthday by Edward VII. He received the Prussian pour le mérite, and commemorative medals from the Royal Society and the Royal Swedish Academy. He was made an honorary member of the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury, New Zealand, in 1863, a silver medallist at the New Zealand Exhibition in Dunedin in 1865, and an honorary member of the New Zealand Institute in 1871. During his brief stay in New Zealand, and in subsequent correspondence, he encouraged many resident botanists. His handbook on New Zealand flora remained a standard text for over 40 years. Several New Zealand plants were named after him, including the pokaka tree ( Elaeocarpus hookerianus ).

How to cite this page:

K. A. Simpson. 'Hooker, Joseph Dalton', first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol. 1, 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/1h33/hooker-joseph-dalton (accessed 29 June 2017)