George Bentham

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George Bentham : biography

22 September 1800 – 10 September 1884

Publications

Bentham’s first publication was his Catalogue des plantes indigènes des Pyrénées et du Bas Languedoc (Paris 1826), the result of a careful exploration of the Pyrenees in company with G. A. Walker Arnott (1799–1868), afterwards professor of botany in the University of Glasgow. It is interesting to notice that in it Bentham adopted the principle from which he never deviated, of citing nothing at second-hand. This was followed by articles on various legal subjects: on codification, in which he disagreed with his uncle, on the laws affecting larceny and on the law of real property. But the most remarkable production of this period was the Outline of a new system of logic, with a critical examination of Dr Whately’s Elements of Logic (1827).George Bentham, Outline of a new system of logic: with a critical examination of Dr. Whately’s Elements of Logic (1827); Thoemmes; Facsimile edition (1990) ISBN 1-85506-029-9 In this the principle of the quantification of the predicate was first explicitly stated. This Stanley Jevons declared to be undoubtedly the most fruitful discovery made in abstract logical science since the time of Aristotle. Before sixty copies had been sold the publisher became bankrupt and the stock went for wastepaper. The book passed into oblivion, and it was not till 1873 that Bentham’s claims to priority were finally vindicated against those of Sir William Hamilton by Herbert Spencer.

In 1836 he published his Labiatarum genera et species. In preparing this work he visited, between 1830–1834, every European herbarium, several more than once. The following winter was passed in Vienna, where he produced his Commentationes de Leguminosarum generibus, published in the annals of the Vienna Museum. In 1842 he moved to Pontrilas in Herefordshire. His chief occupation for the next few years was his contributions to the Prodromus Systematis Naturalis Regni Vegetabilis, which was being carried on by his friend, A. P. de Candolle. In all these dealt with some 4,730 species.

In 1854 he found the maintenance of a herbarium and library too expensive. He therefore offered them to the government on the understanding that they should form the foundation of such necessary aids to research in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. At the same time he contemplated the abandonment of botanical work. However, he yielded to the persuasion of Sir William Jackson Hooker, John Lindley and other scientific friends. In 1855 he took up his residence in London, and worked at Kew for five days a week, with a brief summer holiday, from this time onwards till the end of his life.

In 1857 the government sanctioned a scheme for the preparation of a series of Floras or descriptions in the English language of the indigenous plants of British colonies and possessions. Bentham began with the Flora Hongkongensis in 1861, which was the first comprehensive work on any part of the little-known flora of China and Hong Kong, including Hong Kong Croton. This was followed by the Flora Australiensis, in seven volumes (1863–1878), the first flora of any large continental area that had ever been finished. His greatest work was the Genera Plantarum,G. Bentham and J.D. Hooker, Genera plantarum :ad exemplaria imprimis in Herberiis Kewensibus servata definita, London, (3 volumes, 1862-1883). begun in 1862, and concluded in 1883 in collaboration with Joseph Dalton Hooker. His most famous work, however, was the Handbook of the British flora, begun in 1853 and first published in 1858. This was used by students for over a century, running into many editions. After his death it was edited by Hooker, and was known simply as Bentham & Hooker.

Plants named in his honour

Genera

  • Benthamia A.Rich.

Species

  • Acanthocephalus benthamianus Regel
  • Andropogon benthamianus Steud.
  • Gardenia benthamianus F.Muell.
  • Croton benthamianus Müll.Arg.
  • Distemonanthus benthamianus Baill.
  • Nicotiana benthamiana Domin
  • Pinus ponderosa ssp. benthamiana Hartw.

Honours and Awards

Bentham was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1859 and elected a Fellow in 1862. He served as president of the Linnean Society of London from 1861 to 1874. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1866.

He was appointed CMG (Companion of St Michael & St George) in 1878. His foreign awards included the Clarke Medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1879.

R.K. Brummitt & C.E. Powell, "Authors of Plant Names", Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. p.59.