(b. Avondale, Lanarkshire, Scotland, 1731; d. Kew, Surrey, England, 2 February 1793)
According to the parish baptismal roll, Aiton was the eldest of eleven children of William Aiton of Wailsely, whose occupation is not revealed. The son was a trained gardener when he left in 1754 for London, where in the following year he became an assistant to Philip Miller, curator of Chelsea Physic Garden, who was the most eminent gardener of his time and author of the celebrated and immensely important Gardener’s Dictionary. Miller’s influence on young Aiton greatly enlarged the latter’s botanical knowledge and to a very large extent determined his future career.
Aiton’s aptitude and proficiency led to his engagement in 1759 by Princess Augusta to plant a botanical garden at Kew House, under the supervision of John Haverfield; this was the inauguration of the presentday Royal Botanic Gardens. The princess also engaged Sir William Chambers as landscape architect to lay out the grounds in the fashionable mode; he is responsible for the orangery, the pagoda, and several temples.
At this time the princess depended for scientific direction on John Stuart, third earl of Bute, a most accomplished and knowledgeable botanist, who introduced many new species to Kew. chambers has recorded Bute’s assiduity in the assembling of plants from many parts of the globe to make the collection at Kew the largest in Europe, so Aiton’s responsibility for its care was indeed a heavy one. A generous patron of botanical science, Bute encouraged Aiton in every possible way.
Upon the death of Princess Augusta in 1772, the gardens came into the possession of George III, and Bute was replaced by Sir Joseph Banks as the royal adviser on Kew. Banks was undoubtedly the greatest scientific impresario of the day and spared no effort in building up the collection at Kew. He used his connections with naval officers, merchants, doctors, and travelers to obtain plants; these specimens were entrusted to Aiton, who assumed control of the garden in 1783. Like Bute, Banks befriended Aiton; and the two men, together with Daniel Carl Solander and Jonas Dryander, Banks’s librarian, enabled Aiton to publish his Hortus Kewensis in 1789. This threevolume work is of fundamental importance as a catalog of some 5,500 plants under cultivation at the time, and records their provenance and the date of their introduction. It also contains descriptions of new species. It is unlikely that Aiton, who was a gardener rather than a botanist, had the scholarship required to produce, entirely by himself, a work of this nature. Indeed, in the Preaface he acknowledges in general terms the assistance form those more learned than himself, without mentioning them by name. For the strictly botanical content, especially the Latin descriptions, Aiton depended heavily on Solander, but even more on Dryander, who was largely responsible for editing the work and seeing it through the press. The Hortus was well received and was sold out in two years.
Aiton is commemorated by the interesting monotypic South African genus Aitonia, which was described by Carl Peter Thunberg in 1780. The plant was introduced into cultivation by Aiton’s fellow Scot; Francis Masson, whom he had trained as a gardener before Masson went in 1772, on behalf of Kew, to the Cape of Good Hope. The species was featured in The Botanical Magazine in 1791 by William Curtis, who remarked:
The great length of time Mr. Aiton has been engaged in the cultivation of plants, the immense numbers which have been the constant objects of his care through every period of their growth, joined to his superior discernment, give him a decided superiority in the prima facie knowledge of living plants over most Botanists of his day his abilities in the other line of his profession, are displayed in the eulogies of all who have seen the royal collections at Kew, which he has the honour to superintend.
There is little evidence available of his personal affairs. His wife was named Elizabeth, and she lies in the family tomb in Kew churchyard with her husband, four daughters, and two sons. A measure of the high esteem in which Aiton was held is shown by the presence as pallbearers at his funeral of Sir Joseph Banks, Bishop Goodenough, Jonas Dryander, and the famous artist John Zoffany, who lived in nearby Strand-on-the-Green.
Aiton’s only work is Hortus Kewensis; or, a Catalogue of the Plants Cultivated in the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, 3 vols, (London, 1789), with color illustrations.
There is a good deal of minor referance to Asian to various journals. The most significant sources are under the pseodonym Kewensis in The Gentleman’s Magazine, 63 (1793), 389–391; James Brittan and Edumund G. Baker. Journal of Botany, 35 (1897), 481–485; J. Britten, ibid., 50 , supp. 3 (1912), 1–16; and W. Botting Hemsley, Journal of the Kew Guild, 2 , no. 10 (1902), 87–90.