Spruce, Richard

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(b. Ganthorpe, near Malton, England, 10 September 1817; d. Coneysthorpe, Castle Howard, near Malton, 28 December 1893), botony.

Spruce, the only child of Richard and Etty Spruce, emulated his father by becoming a school-master, first at Haxby and then at the Collegiate School of York. His principal recreation was the study of the local flora, particularly Bryophyta, on which he published several papers. Upon the closing of the school at York in 1844, he resolved to make botany his career.

From April 1845 to April 1846 Spruce collected plants in the Pyrenees, where he discovered bryophytes previously unrecorded in the region. The results of this expedition were published in 1849–1850. In June 1849 he sailed to South America, where he spent the next fifteen years in botanical exploration.

Undeterred by constant ill health and incredible hardships, Spruce studied the rich vegetation of the Amazon valley with characteristic thoroughness, dispatching to England specimens of more than 7,000 species, many of them previously unknown. A commission from the British government sent him to Andean Ecuador in 1860 to collect cinchona plants suitable for cultivation in India. He procured 100,000 seeds and many young plants, which were sent to India for the production of quinine to alleviate malaria. He spent his remaining years in South America exploring the coastal regions of Ecuador and Peru.

On his return to England in 1864, Spruce acquired a modest cottage in Coneysthorpe, in his native Yorkshire. Despite comparative poverty and constant ill health brought about by his years in South America, he worked hard on his immense plant collections, “Palmae Amazonicae” (1869) is a scholarly elucidation of the geographical distribution of the palms of the Amazon, with a new classification of the genera. “Hepaticae Amazonicae et Andinae” (1884) convinced Sir Joseph Hooker that this would be Spruce’s enduring monument.

Spruce’s sound botanical judgment, his accuracy, and his meticulous detail were widely recognized. The Royal Geographical Society acknowledged his skill as a cartographer by electing him an honorary fellow in 1866, and in the year of his death the Linnean Society of London made him an associate.


I. Original Works. Spruce’s writings include “The Musci and Hepaticae of the Pyrenees,” in Transactions and Proceedings of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, 3 (1850), 103–216; ,“Palmae Amazonicae …” in Journal of the Linnean Society. Botany, 11 (1869), 65–183; “Hepaticae Amazonicae et Andinae....” in Transactions and Proceedings of the Botanical Society of Edibburgh, 15 (1884), 1–588; and Notes of a Bostanist in the Amazon, A. R. Wallace, ed., 2 vols. (London, 1908).

II. Secondary Literature. See V. W. von Hagen, South America Called Them (London, 1949), 291–374; C. Sandeman, “Richard Spruce, Portrait of a Great Englishman.” in Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, 74 (1949), 531–544; and R. E. Schultes, “Richard Spruce Still Lives,” in Northern Gardener, 7 (20–27, 55–61, 87–93, 121– 125.

R. G. C. Desmond