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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Monday, 2 December 2013

On This Day, 2 December; James Smith's birthday

Sir James Edward Smith was a very influential and enthusiastic botanist indeed, who used his family wealth - his father was a successful Norwich wool merchant - for the considerable betterment of the science. 

Born in 1759 he was the star botany student in the Edinburgh Uni medical course, but there are suggestions that his primary interest in the subject was its botany component. Either way his passions increasingly tended towards botany and away from medicine. At a young age he founded the Natural History Society of Edinburgh. 

It's often on seemingly unlikely combinations of events that history makes its turns, changing lives and the course of science itself in a given place. So it was with young Smith. When Carl Linnaeus the younger died in 1783, his widow wrote to Sir Joseph Banks, doyen of British botany at the time, asking him to buy his library and specimens – 9000 plants and some 3500 animals - for the enormous sum of a thousand guineas. Smith just happened to be breakfasting with Banks when the letter arrived (this was not an unusual occurrence, as Banks was a great encourager of young up-and-comers). Banks was unwilling or unable to raise the funds, but certainly recognised the immense value of the collection. He persuaded the young Smith, just 24 at the time, to find the money, presumably having a pretty fair idea of the Smith family fortunes. Smith in turn persuaded his father to advance him a loan. It took time, but he came round (just in time to pip the Empress of Russia who also fancied the trove) and the 26 cases arrived in England the following year – to the frustration of Swedish science. One story, which appears in a book written after Smith's death by his wife Pleasance, claims that the King of Sweden, who was in France at the time and heard about it too late, tried to fetch them back via the navy, but they failed to catch up to the ship.

On receipt of the vast, and vastly significant, array of scientific riches, Smith abandoned his medical studies, hired rooms overlooking the Chelsea physic garden to house the collection, and sorted them with the help of Banks and Jonas Dryander, Banks' librarian. 
Acmena smithii, family Myrtaceae, Lilly Pilly.
This rainforest small tree from coastal New South Wales was named by French botanist, Jean Louis Marie Poiret, Smith's contemporary, in his honour.
The berries make excellent jam - and I hasten to say I collect mine from my in-laws' garden, not the wild!
He did the Grand Tour of Europe and in the process began to amass the 18,000 specimens he was to personally add to the Linnaeus collection. 

He moved to bigger premises and founded the very influential Linnaean Society in 1788 around the collection, dedicating it to public good. Indeed, his enthusiasm and easy communication skills are said to have done much to popularise botany in Britain at the time. He was the Society's President for the next 40 years, the rest of his life in fact; it is now the world’s oldest natural history society.  
Eucalyptus smithii, Gully Gum, Bowral, New South Wales.
These trees were in fact presiding over a most memorable outdoor Leonard Cohen concert; not sure what Sir James would have made of it...
And I must acknowledge that while I had believed until now that the tree was named for Sir James, extra research I've done for this posting suggests that in fact Australian botanist and eucalypt chemist Richard Baker named it for his colleague Henry Smith. I'm not totally sure though, so I'll let the picture stand, with that proviso.
He wrote the huge 36 volume British Botany over 24 years from 1790 (it was this that earned him his knighthood) and the English Flora in the 1820s. When he died the Society bought the Linnaeus collection for £3000 - a debt that it took them over 30 years to pay off.

Very few Australian plants seem to have been named for Smith, though he himself named very many of them for his fellow British and European botanists. Keep an eye out for the cryptic little 'Sm.' that follows the name of many Australian plants - it indicates that Smith was their author.
Sowerbaea juncea Sm., Rush Lily, family Anthericaceae, Ulladulla, coastal New South Wales.
Named by Smith for botanical artist James Sowerby, with whom he often collaborated.
I wonder how the course of British botany and the scientific institutions of the early nineteenth century might have been different if James Smith had breakfasted elsewhere on that fateful morning in 1783?



Susan said...

I was never lucky enough to get into the Linnaean Society rooms, although I've been to the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries a number of times. One of my former bosses was the president of the Ants, as they were always referred to. Great story about Smith and Banks and the Linnaean archive. I remember reading about it a while ago. I hadn't realised that Smith's interest started because he was training to be a doctor. Certainly here in France pharmacists were expected to be botanists and we have a herbarium at the University of Tours that is a legacy of one of the most active pharmacist botanists of the 19thC.

Susan said...

PS the Linnaean Soc, RS and the Ants are all in Burlington House in London.

Ian Fraser said...

Again, my thanks for your interest Susan. Something I've read - but can't confirm - is that at the time in Britain you could only study botany as part of a medical degree. Certainly it was an essential part of medical training. I wonder if we've actually lost anything of value by ignoring herbal knowledge these days? Nothing loaded in the question, I really don't know. Have you seen the UT herbarium? It must be fascinating.

Flabmeister said...

My first comment is to note the importance of the period in 'Sm.' if searching the International Plant Names Index (IPNI) for a standard abbreviation. Without the period it returns nothing, with the asterisk 'wildcard' it gives 44 matches!

When I was finishing High School in the UK the basic matric mix for entry to medicine was Maths Physics and Chemistry. Very few unis accepted Botany, Zoology and Chemistry (my course) as a valid mix. Very strange - as it the fact that with that collection I ended up working in official statistics!

WRT to herbalism I recall some of the very strange looking concoctions being sold on the pavement outside the hospital in Dar es Salaam. I couldn't ID most of them to the Phylum level!


Susan said...

I've never seen the collection itself, but I know a number of people involved in its conservation, which was a benchmark project in France, leading the way for the preservation and protection of other herbariums. I've no doubt my local botanical club will organise a visit sometime and I'll most definitely try to go on that.

Duncan McCaskill said...

I was at that Leonard Cohen concert in Bowral! (1/2/2009 - I presume there has only ever been the one). The best concert I've ever been to and most likely the best I ever will attend. Leonard Cohen at Bowral

I must confess to not having identified the trees.

Re Martin's comment uni entry: When I was finishing school in SA, even the uni biologists preferred high schoolers to do Maths+Maths+Physics+Chem rather than high school Biology. (I did that high school combo and ended up with a degree in pure maths and then working as a programmer in official statistics.)

Ian Fraser said...

Hi Duncan - yes, totally agree re that great concert!
I too did Mathsx2, Physics and Chem at high school in SA; even though I only ever really wanted to do biology, that was then regarded as for the 'lower streams'... Hard to imagine now. At uni I knew I wanted to do zoology, and assumed (correctly I now think) that botany was an obvious combination, but the course advisor reckoned I should do physics (in case I wanted to physiology!). It turned out to be the only subject I ever failed, and I always regretted not doing botany.

HelenHelen Brierton said...


I am working for Red Dog Film and we are attempting to make a period drama about the life of Sir Joseph Banks. I am writing to you to ask if you would be interested in this period drama and being part of an international community who follows our efforts. We want to make a film that will tell the little known tale of a Lincolnshire man who transformed our understanding of the natural world, travelled with Captain Cook and helped start Kew Gardens.

We have a great deal of support, in the UK, Australia and beyond. We have got a number of leading organisations and scientists wanting to see such a period drama made, such as Kew gardens in the UK, the Macquarie University in Sydney Australia.

One of our partners is David Attenborough. He worked with us to create a short documentary to help us with our fundraising.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PXFH6pNVNuY (Preview) (Preview)

If you would like to know more, please reply and we will add you to our list of potential supporters. I look forward to hearing from you soon.. Thank you.



Helen Brierton