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George Bentham

George Bentham CMG FRS (22 September 1800 – 10 September 1884) was an English botanist, characterized by Duane Isely as "the premier systematic botanist of the nineteenth century".[1]

Formative years

He was born in Stoke near Portsmouth. His father, Sir Samuel Bentham, was the only brother of Jeremy Bentham. George Bentham had neither a school nor a college education, but at an early age acquired the power of giving sustained and concentrated attention to any subject that occupied him. He also had a remarkable linguistic aptitude. By the age of seven he could speak French, German and Russian, and he learned Swedish during a short residence in Sweden when little older. At the close of the war with France, the Benthams made a long tour through that country, staying two years at Montauban, where Bentham studied Hebrew and mathematics in the Protestant Theological School. They eventually settled in the neighborhood of Montpellier where Sir Samuel purchased a large estate.

George Bentham became attracted to botanical studies by applying to them his uncle's logical methods, and not by any special interest in natural history. While studying at Angoulême he came across a copy of A. P. de Candolle's Flore française, and he became interested in the analytical tables for identifying plants. He immediately proceeded to test their use on the first plant he saw. The result was successful and he continued to apply it to every plant he came across. A visit to London in 1823 brought him into contact with the brilliant circle of English botanists. In 1826, at the pressing invitation of his uncle, he agreed to act as his secretary, at the same time entering at Lincolns Inn and reading for the bar. He was called in due time and in 1832 held his first and last brief. The same year Jeremy Bentham died, leaving his property to his nephew. His father's inheritance had fallen to him the previous year. He was now in a position of modest independence, and able to pursue wholeheartedly his favorite studies. For a time these were divided between botany, jurisprudence and logic, in addition to editing his father's professional papers. He married Sarah Jones (1798–1881), daughter of Sir Harford Jones Brydges, on 11 April 1833 [2].


Views on evolution

Bentham's life spanned the Darwinian revolution and, moreover, his young colleague J.D. Hooker was Darwin's closest friend and one of the first to accept Darwin's ideas. Bentham was until then an unquestioning adherent of the dogma of the constancy of species. In 1863 he had still not converted to the new ideas, but by 1874 he was able to write: "Fifteen years have sufficed to establish a theory, of which the principal ponts, so far as they affect systematic botany... [continues in familiar Darwinian manner, variation, differential survival and heredity producing new varieties and species].[3]

Bentham's conversion to the new line of thought was remarkably complete, and included a change from typology in taxonomy to an appreciation that "We cannot form an idea of a species from a single individual, nor of a genus from a single one of its species. We can no more set up a typical species than a typical individual." [4]


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)[5]. 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[6], 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.

Bentham was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1859, elected FRS in 1862, and 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.
Academic offices

The standard author abbreviation Benth. is used to indicate this individual as the author when citing a botanical name.[7]


1. ^ Isely, Duane. 1994 One hundred and one botanists Iowa State University Press.
2. ^ A Genealogical and Heraldic History of The Landed Gentry of Great Britain, Burke, John Bernard, Sir., London, 1906
3. ^ Green, J. Reynolds 1914. A history of botany in the United Kingdom from the earliest times to the end of the 19th century. Dent, London. p498
4. ^ Reynolds Green, op cit, p499.
5. ^ 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 1855060299
6. ^ G. Bentham and J.D. Hooker, Genera plantarum :ad exemplaria imprimis in Herberiis Kewensibus servata definita, London, (3 volumes, 1862-1883). On line.
7. ^ "Author Query". International Plant Names Index. http://www.ipni.org/ipni/authorsearchpage.do.


* Marion Filipuik ed 1997. George Bentham, autobiography 1800-1843. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0-8020-0791-0
* J. Reynolds Green 1914. A history of botany in the United Kingdom from the earliest times to the end of the 19th century. Dent, London.
* Duane Isely 1994. One hundred and one botanists Iowa State University Press p163-6.
* B. Daydon Jackson 1906. George Bentham.
* This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

External links

* "Bentham, George at Botanicus Missouri Botanical Garden Library
* Bentham, George (1839 - 1857). Plantas Hartwegianas. http://botanicus.org/title/b11997229.
* Googlebooks volume Genera plantarum

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