(b. Stoke, near Plymouth, England, 22 September 1800; d. London, England, 10 September 1884)
George Bentham was the third child and second son of Samuel Bentham and Maria Sophia Fordyce. His father, inspector-general of naval works, was ennobled in 1809; his mother was the eldest daughter of Dr. George Fordyee, F.R.S., a noted physician. Jeremy Bentham, the well-known authority on jurisprudence and ethics, was his uncle.
Bentham’s early education was rather sporadic, largely because of the peripatetic family life, and was provided mainly by private tutors. During his father’s tour of duty in St. Petersburg from 1805 to 1807, his precocity was evidenced in the ease with which he acquired conversational proficiency in Russian, French, and German and a knowledge of Latin, Later, in France, Bentham attended the faculty of theology at Montauban, where he studied French and Latin literature, natural philosophy, mathematics, and Hebrew, while indulging his tastes for music and drawing. Later in life he was able to read botanical works in fourteen languages, and it is a tribute to his industry, concentration, and high powers of reception that he did so largely by his own efforts.
He first became interested in botany at the age of seventeen, during travels in France, where he and his parents lived for eleven years. It was the encouragement of his mother, who was an accomplished gardener and a knowledgeable botanist, and access to her copy of Alphonse de Candolle’s Flore française, whose analytical keys for the identification of plants appealed to his orderly mind, that fostered a penchant for systematic botany which became his consuming interest for over fifty years and to which he made outstanding contributions.
It was at Montauban that Bentham made his first dried specimens and thus began a herbarium which through his own collecting, purchase, and gift amounted to over 100,000 specimens when he gave it to Kew in 1854. Throughout the course of his studies he consistently worked at botany during his limited leisure time. He made his debut as a botanical author in November 1826, with publication in Paris of his Catalogue des plantes indigènes des Pyrénées et du bas Languedo. As further testimony to his precocity and breadth of intellectual achievement, in 1827 he published Outlines of a New System of Logic, of which only about sixty copies were sold. The rest, owing to a financial crisis at the publisher, were disposed of for wastepaper.
Bentham studied law at Lincoln’s Inn, and in November 1831, was called to the bar. However, in 1833, possessed of adequate wealth inherited from his father and his uncle, he determined to give up the legal profession for botany.
On 11 April 1833 Bentham married Sarah, daughter of Harford Brydges, onetime British envoy to Persia. They had no children. Bentham received many honors in recognition of his scientific achievements. In 1828 he was admitted as a fellow of the Linnean Society, of which he became president in 1861; in 1863 he was elected F.R.S., having been awarded the Society’s Royal Medal in 1859. He received the L.L.D. from Cambridge in 1874, and five years later was admitted to the Companionship of the Order of St. Michael and St. George. From 1829 to 1840 he was an extremely energetic and conscientious honorary secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society and, with John Lindley, steered its affairs through a very critical period.
Bentham corresponded with most of the leading botanists of the day and gave unstinting help to the many who requested it. His first major work, which appeared between 1832 and 1836, was Labiatarum genera et species, a masterly treatment of a very important family; and in 1848, at the request of Candolle, he contributed a revision of the group for the classic Prodromus. Subsequently he made additional contributions to this fundamental work.
Once his collections and library were amalgamated, by a generous gift in 1854, with those of the Hookers at Kew, Bentham was given special facilities to continue his research; in the years of intense effort which followed, some of his greatest taxonomic publications were produced. The Genera plantarum (1862–1883), in every respect the fulfillment of complete collaboration with Joseph D. Hooker, was the culmination of his scientific career. This monumental synthesis was based on critical analysis of the material in the Kew Herbarium and Gardens and is a masterly and meticulous extension of Candolle’s system.
Bentham was one of the most unassuming of men, always regarding himself as an amateur and reluctant to accept any honor, yet a man who in his lucid, concise, and accurate writing did immense service to systematic botany.
1. Original Works. Bentham’s works include Catalogue des plantes indigènes des Pyrénées et du bas Languedoc (Paris, 1826); Outlines of a New System of Logic (London, 1827); Labiatarum genera et species (London, 1832–1836); Handbook of the British Flora (London, 1858); Flora Hongkongensis (London, 1861); Genera plantarum (London, 1862–1883); Flora Australiensis (London, 1863-1878); “On the Recent Progress and Present State of Systematic Botany,” in Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1875), pp. 27–54.