Monday 19 September 2016

The Lord Treasurer of Botany; Sir James Edward Smith and the Linnaean Collections, Tom Kennett

The Lord Treasurer of Botany is the first full-length biography of Sir James Edward Smith, something of an unsung hero in the world of botany. Born the son of a Norwich textile merchant he was on the path to becoming a physician when he made the fortuitous acquisition of the collection of Carl Linnaeus, an influential eighteenth century botanist, physician, and zoologist. For appearances’ sake he continued with his studies but botany had won his heart and he had every intention of making it his life’s work. He founded the Linnaean Society in 1788, an institution still in existence today, and one that was central to scientific study in the nineteenth century.

Smith was often unwell and had a weak constitution but could be intrepid and determined when the need arose. He did not suffer fools lightly and had a number of very public disagreements with other prominent figures. His defining legacy is described as his binomial system and standardization of terminology, which proved to be a great contribution to botanical study. He published a number of works, most notably his mammoth set of volumes, English Botany, produced over a twenty-year period with James Sowerby. Smith’s concise descriptions paired with Sowerby’s hand-coloured plates opened the subject to a broader audience than previously.

This biography reveals not just the scientific contributions made by Smith but also the colourful life he led. He lived during such pivotal moments in history as the French Revolution, and this wider historical context is woven neatly through the narrative. The book is firmly rooted in documentary evidence, despite the lamentable fact that his wife Pleasance destroyed most of his personal correspondence after his death. Overcoming this loss, Kennett succeeds in illuminating the character of this determined, influential figure.

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