Farmer, John Bretland

views updated

Farmer, John Bretland

(b. Atherstone, Warwickshire, England, 5 April 1865; d. Exmouth, Devon, England, 26 January 1944)


Farmer was the only son of John Henry and Elizabeth Farmer. After education at grammar school and private tutoring, he went to Oxford in 1883 and took a first-class degree in natural sciences in 1887. He was then appointed demonstrator in botany and was elected to a fellowship in 1889. In 1892 Farmer became assistant professor of botany at the Royal College of Science (which later became the Imperial College of Science and Technology); from 1895 until his retirement in 1929 he was a full professor, playing an active part in the development of the college as one of its governors.

His visit to India and Ceylon in 1892–1893 so impressed Farmer with the need for applied biologists to work in underdeveloped countries that he set about encouraging both instruction and research that would be useful in the tropics: his students worked all over the world, and he was active in advisory work on colonial administration and in setting up research institutes.

Farmer’s own research was wide-ranging in pure botany and cytology. His early papers were on morphology and physiology, and it was not until 1893 that he published his first cytological work on nuclear division in the spore mother cells of Lilium martagon. It was followed by several other papers, mostly on spore formation, including a demonstration in 1894 that chromosome reduction was an essential preliminary to fertilization in Hepaticae, which provided material for many later studies. With the zoologist J. E. S. Moore, Farmer showed many features in common between reduction division in plant and animal cells, and in 1903 he went on to demonstrate similarities in cell division of malignant and normal growths. Their paper of 1904 introduced the term “meiotic phase” (later changed to “meiotic phase”) and illustrated reduction division in species as diverse as a lily, a cockroach, and a fish, discussing its occurrence at different points in the life histories of organisms. Later Farmer worked on the centrosphere and kinoplasm, the dimensions of chromosomes, and water utilization in plants.

He also found time to write a textbook on practical botany and a popular introduction to botany, and to translate, with A. D. Darbishire, de Vries’s Mutationstheorie. He edited a six-volume work on nature study and, for shorter or longer periods, the journals Annals of Botany, Science Progress, and Gardeners’ Chronicle.

In 1892 he married Edith Mary Pritchard, and they had one daughter. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1900 and knighted in 1926.


I. Original Works. Papers referred to in the text are “On Nuclear Division in the Pollen-Mother-Cells of Lilium martagon,” in Annals of Botany, 7 (1893), 392–396; “Studies in Hepaticae: On Pallavicinia decipiens,” ibid., 8 (1894), 35–52; “On the Resemblance Between the Cells of Malignant Growths in Man and Those of Normal Reproductive Tissues,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 72 (1903), 499–504, written with J. E. S. Moore and C. E. Walker; and “On the Maiotic Phase (Reduction Division) in Animals and Plants,” in Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science, 48 (1904), 489–557, written with J. E. S. Moore.

II. Secondary Literature. The most important evaluation of Farmer’s scientific work is V. H. Blackman’s article in Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society of London, 5 (1945–1948), 17–31. The bibliography is comprehensive for papers but omits the 2nd ed. of A Practical Introduction to the Study of Botany: Flowering Plants (London, 1902); “The Structure of Animal and Vegetable Cells,” in E. Ray Lankester, ed., A Treatise on Zoology, I (London, 1903), 1–46; and his popular introduction to botany, Plant Life (London, 1913). Blackman also wrote the entry on Farmer in Dictionary of National Biography, Supplement, 1941–1950, pp. 245–246.

Other obituaries are an unsigned one in Gardeners’ Chronicle, 3rd ser., 115 (1944), 64; and R. J. Tabor, in North Western Naturalist, 19 (1944), 310–311.

Diana M. Simpkins

About this article

Farmer, John Bretland

Updated About content Print Article