William Herbert

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Herbert, William

(b. Highclere, Hampshire, England, 12 January 1778; d. London, England, 28 May 1847)

natural history.

The third son of the first earl of Carnarvon and of the daughter of the earl of Egremont, Herbert was educated at Eton and at Oxford University. He received the B.A. in 1798, the M.A. in 1802, the bachelor and doctorate in civil law in 1808, and the B.D. in 1840. In 1806 he married Letitia Dorothea, daughter of the fifth viscount Allen. The couple had two daughters and two sons. Herbert served in the House of Commons in 1806–1807 and in 1811–1812. In 1814 he left politics and entered the Anglican ministry when the earl of Egremont sponsored him for a living at Spofforth, Yorkshire, a post which he held until his death. Herbert also served as head of the Collegiate Church at Manchester from 1840 to 1847.

Herbert’s interests were varied and included a love of, and familiarity with, nature. He became well known for his knowledge of local birds and provided extensive notes for two editions of Gilbert White’s classic Natural History and Antiquities of Setborne.

Plant life held the greatest attraction for Herbert. He was a member of the Horticultural Society of London and a contributor to its publications, as well as to other journals. Herbert was a good draftsman and often did his own illustrations. Although greatly interested in plant classification, he did not propose a comprehensive system beyond the monocots. His general theory of classification had no noticeable impact during his lifetime nor afterward; but his arrangements of the Amaryllidaceae, published in 1837, established his reputation as a botanist. One hundred years later Arthur Hill of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew stated that before Herbert’s work, the arrangements in this family were in “a state bordering on chaos” (Herbertia, 4 [1937], 3–4).

Herbert aimed at a “natural” classification which would reflect kinship, as contrasted with the artificial system of Linnaeus. He was more advanced in his views than was generally the case at the time, in that to him kinship meant descent from a common ancestor. He was also quite modern in his belief that development or variation had not proceeded in straight lines or at the same rate and that therefore the taxa of botanists were basically arbitrary and the result of individual judgments. Some of his recommendations for the methods of naming varieties, hybrids, and cultivated plants resemble those used in modern times.

Herbert was among the earliest in Britain to study hybridization on a large scale; and while he was particularly interested in the Amaryllidaceae, he did not limit his experiments to these or to bulbous plants. He considered hybridization a factor in evolution and provided some solid evidence in support of such a view. Charles Darwin knew Herbert and made numerous references to the latter’s findings in his own works, especially in the discussion on hybridism in his “Natural Selection.” Herbert specifically stated that new forms which maintain themselves in the same way as do species are produced through hybridization; and he gave backing for this assertion with his findings on some Narcissus and with forms of the Primulaceae. He was a pioneer in undermining the view that sterility of offspring was a valid criterion in delimiting “true” species. In addition he presented proofs that hybrids were highly variable with regard to fertility and sterility, ranging from sterility to fertility greater than parent forms. He also emphasized the role of the environment in bringing about differentiation of plant forms.

Since he worked and wrote before the thesis of natural selection was stated and before the development of Mendelian genetics, it is not surprising that some of Herbert’s explanations were vague or inaccurate: but his contributions to the historv of science are deserving of recognition. Indeed, Herbert provided, as C. D. Darlington so aptly phrased it, “the thin edge of the wedge which Darwin drove home” (Herbertia, 4 [1937], 65).


I. Original Works. Only the more significant works are included here; a more complete list is in Guimond (see below). An Appendix to the Botanical Register (London, 1821) is in a sense the precursor of the Amaryllidaceae and lists plants that Herbert actually had in his extensive garden at Spofforth; details on this work are in Stearn (see below). “Instructions for the Treatment of the Amaryllis longifolia...,” in Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London, 3 (1822), 187–196, is important in illustrating Herbert’s early views on species varieties. “On the Production of Hybrid Vegetables...,” ibid., 4 (1822), 15–50, presents Herbert’s early views and work. Amaryllidaceae: Preceded by an Attempt to Arrange the Monocotyledonous Orders, and Followed by a Treatise on Cross-Bred Vegetables and Supplement (London, 1837) is invaluable for his work in classification and important for his views on hybridization; it also furnishes examples of Herbert’s ability as an artist. “Local Habitation and Wants of Plants,” in Journal of the Horticultural Society of London, 1 (1846), 44–49, is the best reference for Herbert’s views on competition between plants. “On Hybridization Amongst Vegetables,” ibid., 2 (1847), 81–107, is a good presentation of Herbert’s views on hybridization.

Works of the Hon. and Very Rev. William Herbert, Dean of Manchester..., 2 vols. (London, 1842) does not contain his writings on botany and natural history but does refer to his scattered literary works and contains some of his sermons; a supplement is The Christian (London, 1846). Herbert’s letters can be found in the correspondence of John Lindley, John Sims, and William Jackson Hooker at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

II. Secondary Literature. This list is limited to those works referred to in the text or which contain useful bibliographical data. See C. D. Darlington, “The Early Hybridizers and the Origins of Genetics,” in Herbertia, 4 (1937), 63–69. Charles Darwin, “Natural Selection,” repro. of MS of the third (long) version of Origin of Species, in Darwin Scientific Papers, University Library, Cambridge, is the most valuable of all of Darwin’s works containing references to Herbert, in indicating possible influences or uses of Herbert’s work and views in Darwin. Alice A. Guimond, “The Honorable and Very Reverend William Herbert, Amaryllis Hybridizer and Amateur Biologist” (unpublished thesis, Univ. of Wis., 1966; order no. 66–9145, University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, Mich.), deals with Herbert’s career in general but emphasizes his work in biology and has an extensive bibliography of Herbert’s works. Arthur Hill, “Introduction,” in Herbertia, 4 (1937), 3–4, is an evaluation of Herbert by a botanist. Herbert F. Roberts, Plant Hybridization Before Mendel (Princeton, 1929), is a review of early hybridizers with a short but good account of Herbert’s role, pp. 94–102. Sec also William T. Stearn, “William Herbert’s ‘Appendix’ and ‘Amarylidaceac,’” in Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, 2 (Nov. 1952), 375–377. Gilbert White, the Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, James Rennie, ed. (London, n.d. [1832]), also edited by Edward Turner Bennett (London, 1837), is difficult to locate in the United States in the Rennie ed. but is a very good reference for Herbert’s work in ornithology.

Alice A. Guimond

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