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Bentham, George (1800–1884)

by N. T. Burbidge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

George Bentham (1800-1884), botanist, was born on 22 September 1800 at Stoke, Hampshire, England, the second son of (Sir) Samuel Bentham, naval architect, and Mary Sophia, eldest daughter of Dr George Fordyce, F.R.S. In 1805-07 the family lived at St Petersburg, then moved to England and in 1814 began a leisurely tour of France. At Angoulême Bentham first became acquainted with botany when he successfully identified a plant by using his mother's copy of de Candolle's Flore française. At Montauban he was enrolled in the Faculté de Theologie but his interests included Spanish, music, drawing and dancing and natural history. For some years he managed his father's estate near Montpellier and in 1825 went to London, where he met several important botanists including Robert Brown then busy with the collections bequeathed to him by Sir Joseph Banks. There Bentham had probably his first sight of Australian plants, and particularly admired Brown's Drosera specimens. In Glasgow he met Sir William Hooker and George William Arnott with whom he later visited the Pyrenees. Bentham's Catalogue des Plantes Indigènes des Pyrénées was published in 1826.

After the French estate was sold the family returned to England. Bentham assisted his uncle, Jeremy Bentham, edited his father's papers on naval administration and then entered Lincoln's Inn; he was called to the Bar in 1831 but never practised. In 1826 he had been elected a fellow of the Linnean Society. He became its president in 1861, but grew autocratic in the chair and in 1874 vacated it in resentment when a ruling was outvoted. In 1829-40 he was secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society. In July 1830 Brown proposed his name to the Royal Society but Bentham withdrew in November in support of scientific members who resented the election of the Duke of Sussex as president instead of Herschel; he did not come forward again for election until 1862.

Bentham's first major botanical work, Labiatarum Genera et Species, appeared between 1832 and 1836. On 11 April 1833 he married Sarah, the youngest daughter of Sir Halford Brydges and his wife Sarah, née Gott, widow of Richard Whitcombe; they lived in London for two years before moving to Pontrilas in Herefordshire. By 1854 the growing cost of his herbarium and library led him to offer them to the government on condition they were housed at Kew and made available for consultation by visiting botanists. When this was arranged he was persuaded by Sir William Hooker not to abandon his own work. Bentham moved with his wife to London and worked at Kew, writing up his notes each evening in a form ready for the printer.

Apart from numerous contributions to botanical literature, Bentham was particularly associated with the preparation of the first of the famous Kew series of colonial floras: Flora Hongkongensis (1861) and Flora Australiensis, 7 vols (1863-1878), the manuscript of which was completed in 1870. The original plan to bring Ferdinand Mueller to London to prepare the Australian Flora won no support from the Colonial Office and Bentham undertook the task. He later wrote, 'with the assistance, indeed, but not the cooperation of Baron von Mueller, this assistance being of precisely the same description as that which I derived from the herbarium and notes of A. Cunningham, from the rich herbaria of Kew, from the … published works of the Hookers … and others who had worked in the herbarium. In the case of Baron von Mueller, however, the extreme liberality with which he gave up in my favour his own projects for a general Flora of Australia, and the great value for my purposes of the very numerous specimens of each species which he had collected into the Melbourne herbarium, the whole of which he unreservedly lent to me, seemed to me to demand a special recognition in the title-page of the Flora, which has thus been misconstrued into an indication of cooperation'. Mueller's side of the story is told in M. Willis, By Their Fruits; a Life of Ferdinand von Mueller (Sydney, 1949).

Flora Australiensis, still a classic, was the first to cover any large continental area and one of the very few entirely written by one author. It represents a prodigious intellectual effort never equalled. Taken with his other major work, Genera Plantarum, 3 vols (1862-83), done in collaboration with Joseph Dalton Hooker, it is all the more remarkable because of Bentham's age. It was his last work; in lonely retirement he returned to the autobiography he had begun years before to read aloud to his wife until just before she died in 1880. It was based on his unpublished diaries in 1830-83, with a final entry: 'my pen here came to grief after more than 28 years of constant and exclusive use'. With that pen he had written the entire manuscripts of his major works. He died on 10 September 1884, childless.

Bentham lived through the great change from domination by the private botanist with his own financial resources to acceptance by the government of responsibility for national scientific collections. The Banksian and Brownian herbaria remained the property of Robert Brown until his death in 1858 when they were bequeathed to James Bennett, though they remained at the British Museum. Sir William Hooker's library and herbarium at Kew remained his private property but eleven years after his death in 1865 the government prevented its dispersal through sale by auction. The question of a national herbarium financed by the government came to a head with the erection of new British Museum buildings in South Kensington, when the rival claims of Kew and the British Museum to be the main repository were widely canvassed. Bentham strongly supported the claims of Kew before a royal commission in 1871 and in January 1873 was a signatory to a memorial to W. E. Gladstone; his own diaries, autobiography and papers remained at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Bentham was tall and of slender build. Known to his friends as a delightful companion he grew increasingly reserved in later years and younger botanists came to regard him as cold and autocratic. His comments could be scathing on work or views which he did not approve. Among his honours were an honorary LL.D. (Cantab, 1874), a royal medal in 1859, the C.M.G. in 1878 for services to colonial science after the publication of Flora Australiensis and the Clarke medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1879. Portraits at the Linnean Society include one by Lowes Dickinson, painted in 1870 and presented in February 1871, and a half-length water-colour when Bentham was 10 and a full-length water-colour at 34 by Leblanc, both presented by J. D. Hooker.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Hutchinson, The Genera of Fowering Plants, vol 1 (Oxford, 1964)
  • G. Bentham, ‘Our National Herbarium’, Nature (London), 14 Nov 1872, p 26
  • W. Carruthers and J. D. Hooker, ‘The National Herbarium’, Nature (London), 12 Dec 1872, p 103
  • ‘The National Herbaria’, Nature (London), 16 Jan 1873, pp 212-13
  • W. Law, ‘The National Herbaria Memorial’, Nature (London), 30 Jan 1873, p 243
  • ‘George Bentham’, Nature (London), 2 Oct 1884, pp 539-43
  • B. D. Jackson, ‘Obituary and bibliography’, Linnean Society (London), Proceedings, 1884-85, p 90
  • W. T. T. Dyer, ‘Eulogium’, Linnean Society (London), Proceedings, 1887-88, p 71
  • J. D. Hooker, ‘George Bentham, F.R.S.’, Annals of Botany, 12 (1898)
  • J. D. Hooker, ‘Review of “George Bentham”,’ Kew Bulletin, 1906, p 187
  • J. Britten, ‘Review of “George Bentham” by B. D. Jackson’, Journal of Botany, British and Foreign, 44 (1906)
  • F. A. Stafleu, ‘The Flora Australiensis’, Taxon, 16 (1967).

Citation details

N. T. Burbidge, 'Bentham, George (1800–1884)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bentham-george-2979/text4345, published in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 1 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Birth

22 September 1800
Stoke, Hampshire, England

Death

10 September 1884

Cultural Heritage
Occupation