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Bower, Frederick Orpen

Bower, Frederick Orpen

(b. Ripon, England, 4 November 1855; d. Ripon, 11 April 1948)


Bower came of a prosperous, long-established Yorkshire family and was early introduced to field studies by his naturalist uncle, the Rev. F. A. Morris. In 1868 he went to school at Repton, and although formal instruction in science was lacking, as in most schools of the time, he was much encouraged in natural history by a wise headmaster; he acquired a microscope and even before leaving school for the university in 1874 he had decided to make botany his lifework. Bower entered Trinity College, Cambridge, but it was a matter of deep regret to him that he found only the scantiest teaching in science, save for Michael Foster’s course in elementary biology. It was Bower’s peculiar lot that he should have commenced his academic career when the teaching of science, in the modern sense, at school and university barely existed. He also witnessed and assisted the spread throughout Britain of the new science teaching, remaining an active, and indeed a dominant, figure in the great expansion of all the experimental sciences in the twentieth century.

All this valuable firsthand experience was recorded by Bower in his Sixty Years of Botany in Britain (1875–1935), a book of strongly autobiographical cast that sheds authentic if personal light upon the lives of many distinguished biologists who worked within this period. Bower’s disappointment in his earliest year in Cambridge was tempered by the appearance in 1875 of the English edition of Sachs’s Textbook, which provided a clear prospect of the rejuvenation of botany already apparent in Germany. Soon afterward he began to work with S. H. Vines, who had experience of Huxley’s teaching at South Kensington and had studied with Sachs in Würzburg. Bower obtained a first-class degree and in 1877 went to study under Sachs. Two years later, under de Bary at Strasbourg, he did his first original research, work on the fungi and on the development of conceptacles in the Fucaceae. At this time the German universities were the fountainhead of new botanical thought, and Bower was inspired not only by his eminent teachers but also by the brilliant and aspiring students of all nations whom they attracted. Under these influences Bower turned from the prevalent angiosperm taxonomy so successfully pursued by Kew, the British Museum, and Edinburgh, and moved toward those fields of comparative morphology in which he was to make so distinctive a contribution.

In 1880 Bower became assistant to Daniel Oliver at University College, London, and, later, lecturer under T. H. Huxley. Meanwhile, he worked in the Jodrell Laboratory at Kew, where alongside D. H. Scott and W. Gardiner he made anatomical studies of seedling Welwitschia, of Phylloglossum, and of apospory in Athyrium. He had made so great an impression upon the leaders of British botany that in 1885, at the age of only twenty-nine, he was propelled by them into the Regius chair of botany at the University of Glasgow, a post he held until his retirement in 1925. The professorship gave Bower scope not only for his own research but also for his considerable talents for lecturing and for administration, and he became the source of inspiration for many students and collaborators who conferred distinction upon the Glasgow school. The school was housed from 1901 in new buildings designed to meet Bower’s requirements for a modern scientific subject. His deep interest in teaching is apparent in his constant reversion to this theme in Sixty Years of Botany; in his translation with D. H. Scott of de Bary’s Comparative Anatomy (1884); his Practical Botany for Beginners (1894); the same work, rewritten jointly with D. T. Gwynne Vaughan (1902); and his elementary textbook Botany of the Living Plant (1919).

In the wide range of Bower’s original research the vascular cryptogams were of particular importance, and while in Glasgow he carried out the extensive investigations that were presented and analyzed in his three-volume book The Ferns (1923–1928). This monumental work has been described as “carrying the classification of ferns within the groups arranged on grounds of convenience to the much higher level of coherent evolutionary arrangement” (Lang, 1949). It is noteworthy that the period of Bower’s own development was also that of the great expansion of modern paleobotany. Bower was in close touch with the results of this activity, knew all its leaders, and constantly sought to bring their findings into relation with those of his own theoretical morphology. Bower’s name is particularly associated with his book The Origin of a Land Flora (1908), in which he developed Celakovsky’s theory of the origin of alternation of generations by the interpolation of the sporophyte by division and progressive sterilization of the zygote of a primitive sexually reproducing plant.

Bower saw the development of the sporophytic generation as following from the evolutionary advantage accruing to plants newly colonizing dry land, and his book became the accepted exposition of the “Antithetic,” as opposed to the “Homologous,” theory of alternation of generations. He consciously adopted the view that “A working hypothesis, open like others to refutation, is better than no hypothesis at all”: in retrospect its major value probably lay in the manner in which it facilitated the organization and presentation of massive and detailed work on comparative plant morphology and stimulated research in many directions.

Later in life Bower himself reconsidered the views expressed in the Land Flora, presenting his more mature judgment in Primitive Land Plants (1935), published six years after he had given the Huxley Memorial Lecture entitled “The Origin of a Land Flora, 1908–1929.” He retained the primary concept of the interpolation theory but abandoned his earlier theory of the strobilus. He also gave weight to the vastly increased knowledge of fossil plants provided by the intervening years, more especially as regards the primitive earliest land plants of the Devonian age, which appeared with such unfamiliar undifferentiated forms but nevertheless might be reckoned as belonging to the Pteridophyta. Lang rightly emphasizes Bower’s tendency “always to get further, by the use of his scientific imagination” and adds, “This found its full expression in the two surveys of archegoniate plants in 1908 and 1935, between which a change from a more theoretical to a more inductive method had become evident in his study of the Filicales.”

A distinct facet of Bower’s morphological studies is expressed in his presidential address to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1920, “Size, a Neglected Factor in Stelar Morphology.” In this, and in his book Size and Form (1930), he showed that much morphological evidence pointed to the need in plant tissues to maintain a certain relationship between surface and bulk. Even though the underlying causes, probably physiological and concerned with translocation, might be unknown, the consequence appeared to be that evolutionary increase in bulk of plant organs carried not a mere scaling up in dimensions of the primary conducting elements, but an increase of fluting, lobing, or replication that had the effect of maintaining the original ratio of surface to bulk. This was particularly evident in the steles of ferns, but it seemed that a similar principle might be involved in the vascular tissues of other groups and even in the elaborate flanged chloroplasts of the larger desmids.

Bower was a self-centered although kindly man of brisk and confident bearing, who never married and who derived his greatest pleasures first from his scientific work and second, but scarcely less, from music. He retained his faculties wonderfully well, his Sixty Years of Botany being published when he was eighty-three, thirteen years after he had retired to live in his native town of Ripon. His scientific distinction was acknowledged by many honors: he became a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1891, and received its Royal Medal in 1910 and its Darwin Medal in 1938. He received the Linnean Medal in 1909 and was Hooker Lecturer in 1917 and Huxley Memorial Lecturer in 1929. He presided over the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the British Association, received honorary doctorates from many universities, and was an honorary member of many learned academies and societies outside his own country. Perhaps we may say, however, that Bower’s greatest memorial has been the number, devotion, and distinction of his former students.


I. Original Works. Bower published numerous articles in learned journals over the period 1850 to 1937, many of great distinction: these are cited in the biography by Lang (see below). The major themes and much of the detail of his investigations are, however, summarized in his books: The Origin of a Land Flora: A Theory Based Upon the Facts of Alternation (London, 1908); Plant-life on Land, Considered in Some of Its Biological Aspects (Cambridge, 1911); The Ferns (Filicales), 3 vols.: I, Analytical Examination of the Criteria of Comparison (Cambridge, 1923); II, The Eusporangiatae and Other Relatively Primitive Ferns (Cambridge, 1926); III, The Leptosporangiate Ferns (Cambridge, 1928); Size and Form in Plants: With Special Reference to the Primary Conducting Tracts (London, 1930); Primitive Land Plants, Also Known as the Archegoniatae (London, 1935). The most important of his textbooks were The Botany of the Living Plant (London, 1919); the pioneer book A Course of Practical Instruction in Botany (London, 1885), reprinted several times and rewritten with S. H. Vines (London, 1902); and Practical Botany for Beginners (London, 1894). His last book was Sixty Years of Botany in Britain (1875–1935): Impressions of an Eye-witness (London, 1938).

II. Secondary Literature. A comprehensive and authoritative biography is W. H. Lang, in Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, VI (1949), 753–755. Shorter obituaries by J. Walton, E. J. Salisbury, and L. F. J. Brimble appeared in Nature, 161 (15 May 1948), and a great deal of autobiographical material is in Bower’s Sixty Years of Botany (see above).

Harry Godwin

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