Griffith, William

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Griffith, William

(b. Ham Common, Surrey, England, 4 March 1810; d Malacca, India, 9 February 1845)


Griffith, youngest son of Thomas Griffith, a London merchant, was the great-grandson of Jeremiah Meyer, historical painter to George II and a founder of the Royal Academy. He was educated for the medical profession and was apprenticed to a surgeon in the West End of London. In 1829 he began attending classes at the University of London, as one of John Lindley’s students. Here Griffith became acquainted with Nathaniel Wallich, who had collected plants extensively in the Himalayas and Burma. Griffith studied in Paris under the anatomist Charles Mirbel, to whose famed dissertation on Marchantia Polymorpha was appended Griffith’s note on Targionia hypophylla. He also studied medical botany with William Anderson at Sir Hans Sloane’s garden in Chelsea, where he became acquainted with Franz Bauer, the botanical artist at Kew Gardens, whom he admired for his accurate observations.

Griffith went to India in 1832 as an assistant surgeon in the service of the East India Company and remained there until his death. In 1835, with Wallich and John MacClelland, a soil expert, the went to Assam as part of the delegation seeking to establish tea production in India. Afterward, Griffith traveled in India and neighboring countries, collecting plants; he was the first European to enter many of these areas. Griffith’s goal was to write a flora of India. It was not to be an ordinary flora, since he planned to include information on the ecology, physiology, morphology, and anatomy of the native plants as well as a list of them. A fellow of the Linnean Society, Griffith regularly corresponded with J.D. Hooker, George Bentham, and Robert Wight. In 1842, at Hooker’s recommendation, he became director of the Calcutta Botanical Gardens during Wallich’s absence and served as professor of botany at Calcutta Medical College. In 1844, anticipating leave to England, Griffith married Miss Henderson, the sister of his brother’s wife; but in January 1845 he contracted hepatitis (most likely a complication from repeated malaria attacks) and died the following month. His personal papers were willed to the East India Company, and a rough edition compiled by Griffith’s nonbotanical friend MacClelland was published at Calcutta. The papers and a herbarium (estimated at 12,000 species) were shipped to England, where they are in the library of the herbarium at Kew Gardens.

Griffith observed the cryptogams as no earlier worker had, correctly describing the four-tiered antheridia of Anthoceros and the minute perispore elaters of Equisetum. He believed that all land plants reproduced by a sexual system similar to that of the angiosperms, involving pistils, anthers, and seeds. In attempting to make cryptogams and phanerogams conform, he divided the lower land plants into three classes: the “cryptogamic” plants, including ferns, anthocerotes, lycopods, and horsetails, believed to have no obvious sex organs; the “gymnospermous” plants, Azolla, Salvinia, and Chara, bearing naked “ovules” analogous to conifers; and the “pistilligerous” plants, the mosses and liverworts, fully equal to angiosperms because they possessed both pistils (archegonia) and anthers (antheridia).

His theories about seed plants were more accurate; Griffith was the first to observe pollen grains in the pollen chamber of a Cycas ovule. He attempted to explain the angiospermous ovule and established that the embryo sac exists prior to pollination. He also recognized the necessity of pollen-tube penetration into the nucellus for fertilization. His descriptions of ovules in the Loranthaceae and Santalaceae are noteworthy. Unfortunately, Griffith was unable to ascertain the ultimate fate of the pollen tube; he confused the suspensor of the embryo with the tip of the pollen tube, thus giving tentative approval to Matthias Schleiden’s erroneous concept that the embryo comes from the tip of the pollen tube. Griffith’s misunderstanding of fertilization in angiosperms undoubtedly contributed to his confusion about sexuality in cryptogams.

By 1850 Wilhelm Hofmeister had confirmed many of Griffith’s observations, although his conclusions differed. Hofmeister discovered the function of the pollen tube in embryogeny, thus comprehending the true point of fertilization. He was able to extrapolate this knowledge to the cryptogams and thereby discovered alternation of generations in land plants. Griffith was an astute observer who possessed virtually all the data that Hofmeister later used. It is fair to suppose that had Griffith lived, he might have preceded Hofmeister in recognizing alternation of generations. Certainly he would have become a noted botanist of the nineteenth century.


I. Original Works. Griffith’s shorter writings are listed in Royal Society, Catalogue of Scientific Papers, X. 18-19. The following longer works were arranged by J. MacClelland land and published as Posthumous Papers: Journals of Travels in Assam, Burma, Bootan, and the Neighboring Countries (Calcutta, 1847); Icones plantarum asiaticaruṁ, 4 vols. (Calutta, 1847–1854); Notulae ad plantas asiaticas, 4 vols. (Calcutta, 1847–1854); Itinerary Notes of Plants Collected in the Khasyah and Bootan Mountains 1837–1838, in Afghanistan and Neighboring Countries 1839–1841 (Calcutta, 1848); and Palms of British East India (Calcutta, 1850)

II. Secondary Literature. See the unsigned “Obituary of W. Griffith,” Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, 1 (1838–1848), 239–244; “Obituary of W. Griffith,” in London Journal of Botany, 4 (1845), 371–375; I. H. Burkill, Chapters on the History of Botany in India (Nasik, 1965), pp. 37-74; W. Hofmeister, “La formation de l’embryon des phanérogames,” in Annales des Sciences naturelles, 4th ser., 12 (1859), 1-71; W. J. Hooker, ed., “Works of the Late William Griffith, Esq., F. L. S., “in London Journal of Botany, 7 (1848), 446–449; J.M. Lamond, “The Afghanistan Collection of William Griffith,” in Notes from the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, 30 (1970), 159–175; and W.H. Lang, “William Griffith, 1810–1845,” in F.S. Oliver, ed., Makers of British Botany (Cambridge, 1913), 177–191

Ann M. Hirsch-Kirchanski

Stefan J. Kirchanski

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Griffith, William

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