Balfour, Isaac Bayley

views updated

Balfour, Isaac Bayley

(b. Edinburgh, Scotland, 31 March 1853; d. Haslemere, England, 30 November 1922)


Balfour possessed a distinguished academic pedigreel his father, John Hutton Balfour, was professor of botany at Edinburgh University and his mother Marion Spottiswood Bayley, was the daughter of Isaac Bayley, writer to the signet; his ancestry also included George H. Baird, principal of Edinburgh University, and geologist James Hutton.

At Edinburgh University he obtained his B.S. in 1873 and M.B, in 1877, then continued his botanical studies, particularly morphology and physiology, at the universities of Würzburg and Strasbourg. He accompanied the transit of Venus expedition to Rodriguez Island in 1874 as botanist and geologist. The botanical results of this expedition, published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1879, clearly indicated that Balfour was a taxonomist of considerable promise. In 1879-1880 he collected plants on the island of Socotra, and in 1888 published his description of the island’s flora, which included many new species. He observed that the flora had affinities with that of the African mainland and argued that Socotra had once formed part of that continent.

After his appointment to the chair of botany at Glasgow University in 1879, Balfour revealed his capacity for organization. In his five years there he rebuilt the principal range of greenhouses, saved the herbarium from imminent destruction, and improved the laboratory facilities for students. In 1884 he was elected Sherardian professor of botany at Oxford, where his energy and administrative skill revitalized the ancient but neglected botanic garden. The herbaceous beds were remodeled, and the valuable herbarium and library thoroughly reorganized. Having established good relations with the Clarendon Press in Oxford, he persuaded them to undertake, under his editorship, the publication of translations of standard German botanical texts. The press also launched the Annals ofBotany in 1887, with Balfour as joint editor with S. H. Vines and W. G. Farlow until 1912.

He moved to Edinburgh in 1888 as professor of botany, queen’s botanist in Scotland, and Regius keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden, holding these offices, as did his father before him, for thirty-four years. During this time Balfour gradually accomplished many of his desired reforms: a massive wall that obstructed the redesigning of the botanic garden was removed; the plant collections were enriched, particularly with alpines, for which a splendid new rock garden was created; and the greenhouses were rebuilt. Under his direction Edinburgh became an exemplar of horticultural practice.

A capacity for unrelenting work brought Balfour distinction in several fields of activity: taxonomy, teaching, horticulture, and administration. The pressures of a full life never hindered his botanical research, in which he concentrated on Rhododendron and Primula. His taxonomic papers on these two genera appeared in Notes From the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, which he founded in 1900. He was an authority on the vegetation of the Himalayas and western China, and successfully grew at Edinburgh many of the new plants introduced by George Forrest from that region. A gifted lecturer, Balfour modernized the teaching methods of three universities, and for a generation Edinburgh was the main center for the teaching of taxonomy. In short, he was that rara avis, and all-round botanist with an aptitude for organization.

Balfour was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1884; awarded the Victoria Medal of Honour of the Royal Horticultural Society in 1897, and the Linnean Medal in 1919; and created 1920 for services rendered during World War I. He married Agnes Boyd in 1884, and had one son and one daughter.


1. Original Works. Among Balfour’s writings are “Botany [of Rodriguez],” in Philosophical Transactions of theRoyal Society of London, 168 (1879, 302-387; and “Botany of Socotra,” which constitutes Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 31 (1888).

II. Secondary Literature. Obituaries include F. O. Bower, in Proceedings of the Royal Socity of Edinbutgh, 43 no. 3(1923), 230-236; J. B. Farmer, in Annals of Botany, 37 no. 146(1923), 335-339; Kew Bulletin (1923), 30-35; Sir David Prain, in Proceedings of the Royal Socitey of London, 96B , no. 678 (1924), i-xvii;and W. Wright Smith, in Transactions and Proceedings of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, 28 , no. 4 (1923), 192-196.

R. G. C. Desmond