Thursday, May 30, 2013

Dr. John Lindley

A life dedicated to plants


A picture may paint a thousand words but sometimes those words may be misleading or just plain wrong. Every available picture of John Lindley, probably the most influential botanist the world has ever seen, shows a slight, bespectacled man with a dour, introspective expression and decidedly unkempt look. It is hard to imagine the depth and breadth of the knowledge held in such an unlikely vessel. It is also hard to understand how this man of letters could come from such an impoverished and unlikely beginning.  

John Lindley's life is a story of a highly individualistic man, a restless man, an ambitious man. Endowed with an unbridled intellect, he was aggressive and outspoken with a capacity to focus intently on the matter at hand and simultaneously retain a wide variety of interests. He dedicated his time and prodigious energy to what was the love of his life, The Plant Kingdom and more specifically to the plant family we now call the Orchidaceae.


Growing up Lindley

John Lindley was born in the small village of Catton, just north of the town of Norwich, England on the 5th of February 1799. Johns parents, George and Mary Lindley, had a total of four children, although it is not clear where John occurred in the birth order. George Lindley ran a nursery and orchard and was variously referred to as a horticulturalist, pomologist or seedsman. By all accounts, George was a very skilled nurseryman but a less than successful businessman. He is recorded as living in 'indebtedness' until he became foreman to Messrs. Miller and Sweet of Bristol Nursery. Unlike his contemporaries, George could not afford to send his son John to University or to a commission in the army.

Very little information exists concerning the childhood of John Lindley, which in many respects is not surprising for a nurseryman's son. What we do know is that John attended Norwich Grammar School, helped his father in his endeavours and collected wildflowers in the surrounding countryside. All very unremarkable for a young lad from a family of 'modest' means. Indeed, in a description from The London Cottage Gardener, John Lindley's childhood is described as. 'not distinguished by any remarkable occurrence'.  After grammar school, John was sent to France to obtain further education but what exactly he 'obtained' whilst in France is not recorded. He never obtained an undergraduate degree. Upon his return to England and with his father's 'reversal of fortunes', John was given over to his own resources. Apparently, John's resources were considerable and consisted of 'a well-stored mind, great self-reliance and a ready perception of the art of rising'. In other words, young John Lindley was a smart, independent, ambitious upstart.


The start of a spectacular career.

Lindley started his adult professional life at the tender age of 16 when he became an agent for a British seed merchant and was based in Belgium. It would appear that his career as a seedsman did not last long. Soon after his return from the continent he befriended William John Hooker who allowed him to use his library. It was through Lindley's relationship with Hooker the he caught the notice of Sir Joseph Banks. Again, it was John's 'considerable resources' that alerted Sir Joseph to John's worth. Sir Joseph witnessed a 'controversy' between the young John Lindley and the president of the Linnean Society. So enamoured was Sir Joseph with the opinions and ability of this 'young controversialist'  that he took him under his patronage. Sir Joseph employed John Lindley as an assistant in his herbarium/library, where John started on his first publication, a translation of Analyse du fruit by L. C. M. Richard, published in 1819 (when he was 20 years old). In 1820, the first original work by Lindley was published, Monographia Rosarium, which contained descriptions and drawings of Roses by Lindley himself. This was followed in 1821 by  Monographia Digitalium, and Observations on Pomaceae. By 22 years of age young John Lindley was well on his way to being a botanist of note.


Whilst he may have started out as a herbarium/library assistant and understudy to Sir Joseph Banks, it was Banks' connections with the Horticultural Society that would forever change the trajectory of this young would-be botanist. In 1822 it was formally announced that a Mr. John Lindley would take on the role of an officer of the society, Assistant Secretary of the Garden. As holder of that office he would maintain the plant collections, keep all accounts and minutes of reports addressed to the Society's Council and other business in relation to the Horticultural Societies garden as Chiswick.


Making his mark

Lindley's rise and rise was undoubtedly aided by this connection with the Horticultural society and the skills he obtained under the patronage of Sir Joseph Banks. By 1826 Lindley had assumed the role of editor of The Botanical Register. It is his accomplishments as editor of The Botanical Register, his previous publication record and his involvement with the Horticultural Society that he was, in 1929 and at just 30 years of age, appointed Chair of Botany at the University of London. Professor John Lindley gave his 'Introductory Lecture' in April 1829. In keeping with his controversialist nature Lindley challenged the Linnaean orthodoxy of the time, labelling it 'Artificial Botany', one based on sexual morphology alone. Lindley made an impassioned stand for the Natural System of Botany which considered a full range of plant characteristics.  Lindley vowed to make the Natural System of Botany the basis for his course of instruction. To emphasise his point, Lindley published the Introduction to the Natural System of Botany.  By all accounts his lecturing style and the quality of his teachings were 'superior'. A review by a contemporary described his 'style' as 'Free and conversational in his manner, his matter was excellent, and methodically arranged. I entered his class with little knowledge of, and less liking for, Botany, and left it with the results that I have mentioned, having amongst my competitors Dr. _______". Lindley attracted large crowds, who would come from far and wide to hear his wise words and hear of the new plants that he was describing at an ever increasing rate. Indeed, Lindley himself encouraged public discourse of all things botanical and initiated 'flower shows' as a means of furthering knowledge of plants.


Never one to stand on his laurels, Professor Lindley obtained a Doctor of Philosophy from a German University in 1832, despite not having an undergraduate degree, after which he used the title Dr. Lindley. His title at the Horticultural Society was raised to Vice Secretary in 1838, a post he held for all but the last three years of his life. It would appear that he took his writing very seriously after 1833 and became somewhat of an activist for horticultural causes. Always in need of an outlet for his incredible knowledge, He was appointed as Lecturer in Botany to the Apothecaries' Company. His now famous Nixus Plantarium was published in 1933 followed in 1938 by the equally ground-breaking Flora Mediea and Sertum Orchidaceum. Of particular note in 1838 is his report on the shortcomings of the then fledgling Kew Gardens. Kew Gardens was in such a state, that it was slated for closure. It was due to one scathing but surprisingly supportive deposition by Dr. Lindley that a total reorganisation of the gardens was initiated and the gardens set on the trajectory towards its present day incarnation.


Without hardly missing a breath, Dr. Lindley produced the textbooks, Ladies' Botany and School Botany in 1839 quickly followed by the monumental Theory of Horticulture in 1840. In 1841, Elements of Botany hit the bookshelves. Not content with just books, Dr. Lindley, in conjunction with a Mr. Paxton and Mr. Dilcke founded the Gardener's Chronicle which was edited by Dr. Lindley until his death. The year 1841 was obviously reaching a crescendo when Dr. Lindley became Professor of Botany at the Royal Institution and published The Fossil Flora of Great Britain with a Mr. Hutton. The world had to wait until 1846 for Dr. Lindley's largest and arguably his most valuable work, entitled The Vegetable Kingdom. This latest book was barely off the presses when he was appointed as editor of the Journal of the Horticultural Society. By 1853 he was corresponding member of the Institut de France. This prodigious output is remarkable even in our day of word processors and computers!

Lindley and his orchids

Just as Lindley was hitting his straps as a botanist, the great plant expeditions to the far flung regions of the world were becoming big business. Paid explorers were bringing back an ever increasing number and diversity of new and unusual plants. The apparently never-ending influx of unnamed species would prove to be a boon to the young Lindley. Amongst all the groups of plant that found their way to the rooms of Lindley, the most interesting were the Orchids. The Orchidacea were especially prized by the aristocracy due to their curious beauty, strange growth habits and singular mystique. The men of wealth and influence in Europe made vast collections of the orchids and needed botanists to assist in the naming of these exotic beauties. Lindley more than adequately fulfilled the role of botanist. His position in society, as botanist for one of the most influential and wealthy patrons of the era and then as assistant secretary of the Horticultural Society and Professor/Chair of Botany at the University of London, earned him the respect of, and allowed him contact with, the greatest of the European collectors.


The orchid family would become the lifelong passion of Lindley and indeed, he became the leading authority on all things orchidaceous. By the time of his death he had named over 120 genera of Orchids, including many of the most popular genera to this day: Ansellia. Bifrenaria, Cattleya, Cirrhopetalum, Coelogyne, Laelia, Lycaste and Sophronitis. It boggles the mind, that just in the Orchidaceae, Lindley put his pen to a staggering 6,479 names. Whist not all of these names have stood the test of time, many have. Sophronitis Lindl. may have been subsumed into other genera but other names he proposed, such as Cymbidium haemetodes, have recently been resurrected. Interestingly, from a Cymbidium lovers point of view, Lindley was responsible for the naming of 12 Cymbidium species including the Australian C. madidum.


The majority of Lindley's orchid work was produced in three books: Genera and Species of Orchidaceous Plants (1830-1840), Sertum orchidaceum (1838), and Folia orchidacea (1852-1855), supplemented by innumerable articles in periodicals and journals.


A legacy of names

Lindley left a personal legacy through his naming of many thousands of plants in hundreds of genera. It is testimony to the man, that so many genera and species have been named in his honour. Lindleya, a monotypic genus in the Rose family from Mexico, was named to honour Lindley by Kunth, shortly after Lindley wrote and illustrated his Monographia Rosarium in 1920. In 2004, Carlyle Luer took a small section of the genus Pleurothallis and renamed it Lindleyalis. This new genus of just 7 species, is best viewed how Lindley himself viewed most plant species, through a microscope or hand lens. Some authorities do not recognise Lindleyalis at the genus level but keep the group at the subgenus level. Unfortunately, the orchid name Lindleyella proposed by Schlecter is considered illegitimate and has been replace with the name Rudolfiella. There is one obsolete, artificial, intergeneric genus called Lindleyara (Euanthe x Renanthera x Vanda x Vandopsis). There remains a large number of plant species that still contain the name Lindley! There are in fact 189 plant species that are named after John Lindley.

Figure 1. Lindleya mespiloides (habitat)
Figure 2 Lindleya mespiloides - Closeup of flowers.
* Photos by Carlos Velazco, Taken near Garcia, Nuevo Leon, Mexico. This plant of the Rose family, named after John Lindley, grows throughout the rocky hills of the Chihuahua Desert.


It is not only plant names where Lindley is remembered. Most famous of all are probably the Lindley Libraries of the Royal Horticultural Society in England. There are 4 of them in total. These house some of the works of Lindley. The full collections of Lindley's herbarium and library were split between various institutions including the RHS, Cambridge University and Kew Gardens. Kew bought the orchid herbarium collection whilst Cambridge bought the remainder of the speciments, 58,000 in all. Interestingly, Lindley's private collection was originally offered to Baron Ferdinand von Mueller at the Melbourne Botanic Gardens but that arrangement was never followed through.


Lindley Hall, the main display hall of the Royal Horticultural Society, was named in recognition of the contribution Lindley made to popularising horticulture and encouraging public displays of plants for educational purposes. Indeed, The Royal Horticultural Society Great Spring Show (Chelsea Flower Show) can trace its history back to the original spring shows initiated by John Lindley when he was Assistant Secretary of the Horticultural Society Garden at Chiswick. The Royal Horticultural Society, to this day, awards the Lindley Medal to exhibits of 'special scientific or educational merit'.


A living legacy

Although rarely mentioned in his biographies or other writings, John Lindley did actually have a home life after leaving his childhood home. In 1923, shortly after the publication of his first few books, Lindley married the daughter of Anthony Freestone of Southelmham, Suffolk and with her had three children. Although his daughters are never acknowledged in a meaningful way, it is widely recognised that they contributed significantly to his illustrations, especially in the later parts of his life. His son Nathaniel, later to become Sir Nathaniel and Lord Lindley, was a very well known judge. John Lindley either through necessity or genuine love of his father, took on his father's debts and no doubt increased the degree of stress in his own life.
There is a curious ntry in the journal The London Cottage Gardener from the 1850's that may fill out a bit of the history of this man with the meteoric career. It states that: 'Very recently we recorded a living example of a country gardener's son deservedly elevated for his deeds of noble daring and honourable conduct, to be the associate and the admired of our country's nobility. It is noble and animating to see such examples of the gifted son of the poor man elevated upon the pinnacle to which he has buffeted his way - "rough'd to his point against the adven stream;" and we have this day to place before our readers another such example in Dr. John Lindley.'. These comments are indeed high praise and what one would imagine is the very rare if not unprecedented acceptance and elevation of the son of a poor man, a 'gardener's son', into the nobility. It is difficult to imagine how outstanding John Lindley must have been that his contemporaries were bestowing such honours on him, and at a relatively young age. Honours such as this, when they do happen, are usually reserved for someone once they have retired from their career.

Lindley's work with plants tends to overshadow every other aspect of his life. We don't really get much of an idea of what he was actually like. We can assess from his work that he was probably a genius, restless, meticulous and very focused. There are undoubtedly various contemporary 'conditions' that could be ascribed to this type of behaviour but in his time he was seen as a diligent and hard-working man with a wide range of interest. What is fascinating is that here is a man that spent the vast majority of his life staring down a microscope or using a hand lens to identify and name plants yet he only had vision in one eye! He was blinded in infancy but managed in some way not to let this fact stop him becoming someone who made a profession out of using his sight. We also know that despite a long career of desk-based, sedentary work, he was noted for his upright bearing and good posture.


Lest a picture of a wholly virtuous man be painted by the above writing, Lindley did have his detractors. In the suitably understated language of the time he was considered 'hot-tempered and brusque in manner' but that same description goes on to say, 'he was very kind to young men, and incapable of a mean action.'. Maybe he just didn't tolerate fools and supported young men as he had been supported in his youth? The above description belies the photographic and artistic portraits of the man that show a kindly, studious man with a someone dreamy/detached/sad look. From the two dimensional portraits, one can actually imagine him sitting alone, late at night, intently studying the anatomical features of some exotic orchid. Maybe portraits do not tell the whole story.


As with all life, John Lindley's life came to an end. From 1863 until his death, he suffered from what was termed 'gradual softening of the brain'. On November 1st 1865, John Lindley, arguably the greatest botanist of all time, suffered a stroke. He passed in his own bed, in the house he had occupied for much of his adult life at Turnham/Acton Green. He is buried in the nearby Acton Cemetery.


A life lived

The story of John Lindley is at once awe inspiring and on a personal level motivational. The sheer volume and scope of the work carried out during his lifetime is hard to comprehend. His observational skills were and remain legendary, this despite the fact that he was blind in one eye. Lindley was the first Chair of Botany at The University of London and wrote the first botany textbooks. He classified many thousands of plants and helped to redefine the present method of plant classification. He popularised 'plant journals' by publishing lavishly illustrated descriptive texts. He popularised horticulture by getting out and speaking to the masses about the wonders of the plant kingdom. He encouraged the exhibition of plants and indeed initiated a flower show that has morphed into the most famous flower show of all time, the Chelsea Flower Show. He took a small 'society' garden in the countryside and turned it into a major society that we now call the Royal Horticultural Society. Surely, this man deserves to be much better know, not only amongst present day plant enthusiasts but the general public as well. How we live our lives in relation to plants, the beauty in our lives as expressed in our gardens and our very concept of the relationships of plants with each other can all trace back to how this man 'saw' the world with his one good eye and interpreted with his brilliant mind.

1 comment:

archibear said...

What a wonderful, illuminating tale of a fascinating man, with a remarkable life. I can see a PBS documentary in the making!