Thiselton-Dyer, William Turner

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(b. Westminster, England, 28 July 1843; d. Witcombe, Gloucestershire, England, 23 December 1928)


Although he made no really signal contribution to scientific knowledge, Thiselton-Dyer played a central role in the botanical life of late Victorian England. Through his participation in T. H. Huxley’s famous summer course in elementary biology, given at South Kensington for school teachers in the science and art department of the government, he helped extend to botanical circles Huxley’s emphasis on evolutionary principles and pioneering efforts in laboratory teaching. As assistant director (1875–1885) and then director (1885–1905) of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, he engineered and oversaw the immense expansion of economic botany throughout the British Empire.

Thiselton-Dyer was the elder son of Catherine Jane Firminger, an accomplished field botanist who introduced him to William Hooker’s British Flora,1 and her husband William George Thiselton-Dyer, a physician from Westminster who established a successful practice in Berkeley Street, London. Young Thiselton-Dyer’s maternal uncle, T.A.C. Firminger, was a chaplain in Bengal and author of a standard manual of gardening for Bengal and Upper India. His maternal grandfather, Thomas Firminger, served as assistant astronomer royal at Greenwich Observatory from 1799 to 1808. Thiselton-Dyer, who was often addressed as “Dyer” and is sometimes so listed in indexes, derived his name from his paternal grandfather, William Matthew Thiselton, a printer and barrister who took the additional name Dyer by royal license in 1840.

Until 1863, Thiselton-Dyer was educated entirely in London, initially at St. Peter’s School in Eaton Square, then at King’s College School, and finally at King’s College itself, which he entered in 1861 as a medical student. In 1863 he transferred to Christ Church, Oxford, where he read mathematics under Henry J. S. Smith and chemistry under Benjamin Collins Brodie, Jr. After taking his Oxford bachelor of arts with honors in 1865, Thiselton-Dyer turned to natural history under the influence of George Rolleston, Henry N. Moseley, and E. Ray Lankester. In 1867 he won first-class honors in the final Natural Sciences School at Oxford.

By 1870, when he graduated as a bachelor of science from the University of London, Thiselton-Dyer had already served for two years as professor of natural history at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester. In 1869 he published (with his friend Henry Trimen) Flora of Middlesex and (with Arthur H. Church, a colleague at Cirencester) an English adaptation of Samuel W. Johnson’s popular American work, How Plants Grow. From 1870 to 1872 he was professor of botany in the Royal College of Science, Dublin. While there he entered into correspondence with Joseph Dalton Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. In 1872, on Hooker’s recommendation, he was appointed professor of botany at the Royal Horticultural Society at South Kensington and Chiswick. During the same year he became private secretary and editorial assistant to Hooker.2

In the summer of 1873, when T. H. Huxley was abroad because of illness, Thiselton-Dyer assumed general direction of the South Kensington course. With the help of M. A. Lawson of Oxford, he particularly developed the botanical side of the teaching and became the leader of the campaign to bring laboratory training and the new physiological approach into British botany. In the summer of 1874, when Huxley resumed the course, Thiselton-Dyer acted as his botanical demonstrator with assistance from Sydney H. Vines, later professor of botany at Oxford. In the summers of 1875 and 1876 Thiselton-Dyer again offered a series of botanical lectures, with Vines again assisting him in the associated laboratory teaching. His direct participation in the course then effectively ceased, although he did give a final series of botanical lectures in 1880.3 As the major botanical force behind the course during its early years, he did much to ensure its immense influence and success and to give a new direction to British botany. Toward the same end, he assisted Alfred W. Bennett in an annotated English translation of Sachs’s pathbreaking T extbook of Botany (1875). He was a natural choice to take charge of the Jodrell Laboratory at Kew upon its completion in 1876. There, under his watchful eye, worked many of the rising stars of the new school of British botany, including Bower, Walter Gardiner, Dukinfield H. Scott, and Marshall Ward.

Overseeing the Jodrell Laboratory was, however, only one aspect of Thiselton-Dyer’s new responsibilities at Kew, for he had been named assistant director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in 1875. Hooker had persuaded the government to reactivate this position, vacant since he had succeeded his father, William Jackson Hooker, as director in 1865, chiefly to handle the growing demands on Kew from the colonial office and individual planters throughout the empire. Thiselton-Dyer resigned his professorship at the Royal Horticultural Society and threw himself into his new duties with enormous energy and immediate success. During his first year in office, for example, he sent some Brazilian hevea plants to Ceylon, where they ultimately gave rise to the immense rubber plantations of Ceylon and the Malay Peninsula. Almost equally spectacular results followed his 1880 dispatch of some West Indian cacao plants to his old friend Henry Trimen, who had become director of the botanical gardens at Peradeniya, Ceylon.

In 1877 Thiselton-Dyer married Hooker’s eldest daughter, Harriet Ann, who survived him and by whom he had one son and one daughter. In 1885 he succeeded his father-in-law as director of the Royal Botanic Gardens. For the next twenty years his individual contributions were often submerged in and indistinguishable from those of the institution over which he kept so tight a rein. Decisive, direct, methodical, and well-organized, as well as more than a little stubborn, insensitive, and autocratic, he intervened in matters as parochial as the uniforms to be worn by the Kew guards and as expansive as colonial economic development. During his directorship, the Jodrell Laboratory enhanced its reputation as a leading center of botanical research, while the gardens, library, herbarium, and several other buildings at Kew were enlarged and improved. He also paid close attention to the landscaping of the gardens, being particularly concerned with creating a sense of open vistas in the sometimes oppressively luxuriant foliage of Kew.

As director of Kew Gardens, Thiselton-Dyer pursued and expanded the efforts he had made as assistant director to develop economic botany and colonial agriculture. He adapted to the purpose a plan used for more than a century by the East India Company. Officers trained at Kew were placed in charge of botanic stations established throughout the empire. These officers then directed the development of local economic botany with guidance from Kew. To facilitate communication with these officers and other colonial botanists and planters, Thiselton-Dyer founded the Kew Bulletin in 1887. In West Africa, by his own account, such efforts increased the value of the rubber export from nothing in 1882 to £500,000 in 1898, while the value of the cocoa export rose from £4 in 1892 to £200,000 in 1904.4 Partly for the contributions he thus made to the British and colonial economies, Thiselton-Dyer was created Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George in 1882, Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire in 1892, and Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George in 1899. He served as botanical adviser to the secretary of state for the colonies from 1902 to 1906.

Thiselton-Dyer inherited the onerous task of supervising the great botanical surveys of British colonial territories that had been launched under the two Hookers who preceded him as director of Kew Gardens. In fact, he had been contributing to these surveys since 1872, when he served as editorial assistant to J. D. Hooker, then just beginning the Flora of British India. In 1873, in connection with this work, Thiselton-Dyer described the Indian species of six families of flowering plants. When he became director, he and his staff devoted much of their time and energy to the Indian Flora, which Hooker continued to edit in retirement and of which the seventh and final volume appeared in 1897. With this project behind them, Thiselton-Dyer and his staff turned to two other major surveys–the flora of South Africa (Flora capensis), begun in 1859 and suspended in 1865, and that of trophical Africa (Flora of Tropical Africa), begun in 1868 and suspended in 1877. Thiselton-Dyer edited the reports of these surveys throughout the period of his directorship and into retirement, turning the Flora capensis over to Sir David Prain in 1913 and completing the Flora of Tropical Africa in 1925. From 1895 to 1906 he also took over from Hooker the editorship of the Icones plantarum and the Index Kewensis, a massive index of the names and bibliographies of all known plants. Eighteen volumes of the Kew Bulletin appeared during his directorship. During 1905–1906 he also edited Curtis’s Botanical Magazine.

Despite the weight of his duties at Kew, Thiselton-Dyer found time to participate in the activities of several botanical and scientific societies. Elected to fellowship in the Linnean Society in 1872, he served on its council from 1874 to 1876 and again from 1884 to 1887, being vice-president from 1885 to 1887. He was also vice-president of the Horticultural Society from 1887 to 1889. At the 1888 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, he was president of section D (biology), while at the 1895 meeting he presided over the new section K (botany), in the founding of which he played a leading role. From 1886 to 1888 he served on the council and during 1896–1897 as vice-president of the Royal Society, to which he had been elected fellow in 1880.

In 1905 Thiselton-Dyer resigned as director of the Royal Botanic Gardens and retired to Witcombe in Gloucestershire, where he took an active part in county affairs and indulged his passion for ancient botany, his favorite sources being Virgil, Pliny, Theophrastus, Galen, and Dioscorides. He revised the vocabulary of Greek plant names for Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon; contributed the botanical chapters to A Companion to Greek Studies, edited by Leonard Whibley (1905), and to A Companion to Latin Studies, edited by John E. Sandys (1910); published three articles covering some thirty especially difficult and obscure ancient plant names for the Journal of Philology; and assisted Sir Arthur Holt in his two-volume edition of Theophrastus’ Historia plantarum (1916).

Thiselton-Dyer’s heavy editorial and administrative responsibilities sharply restricted his opportunities for original research. His detailed study of the cycads, perhaps his most ambitious work, was incorporated into the Flora capensis as a supplement to the fifth volume (1933). His more general scientific papers and addresses reveal him to have been a fervent Darwinian who repeatedly insisted on the utility of specific characters and who defended the principle of natural selection at a time when its sufficiency as an explanation of evolution was under widespread attack.5 Despite his role in the creation of the new physiological school of British botany, he often deplored the growing disdain for the old natural history method of systematic botany. He particularly emphasized the value of studying geographical distribution, to which he traced Darwin’s discovery of the theory of descent, and which was for him still its main support.


1. W. T. Thiselton-Dyer, “Plant Biology in the ’Seventies,’” in Nature, 115 (1925), 70.

2. Mea Allan, The Hookers of Kew, 1785–1911 (London, 1967), 224.

3. See Thiselton-Dyer, op. cit. More generally on the South Kensington course and Thiselton-Dyer’s part in it, see J. Reynolds Green, A History of Botany in the United Kingdom from the Earliest Times to the End of the 19th Century (London, 1914), 528–537; S. H. Vines, “The Beginnings of Instruction in General Biology,” in Nature, 115 (1925), 714–715; and F. O. Bower, Sixty Years of Botany in Britain (1875–1935); Impressions of an Eyewitness (London, 1938), passim.

4. See Kew Bulletin, (1929), 74.

5. See, e.g., W. T. Thiselton-Dyer, “The Utility of Specific Characters,” in Nature, 54 (1896), 293–294, 435–436, 522; and Ethel Romanes, The Life and Letters of George John Romanes (London, 1896), passim. On the more general contemporary debate over natural selection, see John E. Lesch, “The Role of Isolation in Evolution; George J. Romanes and John T. Gulick,” in Isis (in press).


I. Original Works. No complete bibliography of Thiselton-Dyer’s works exists in print. For the period up to 1900, see the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, VII , 588; IX , 767–768; XII , 728; and XIX , 79–80, which lists 86 papers by him alone and five coauthored with others. Among the more interesting of these are “On Spontaneous Generation and Evolution,” in Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science, 10 (1870), 333–354; “The Duke of Argyll and the Neo-Darwinians,” in Nature, 41 (1890), 247–248; “Acquired Characters and Congenital Variation,” ibid., 315–316; “Historical Account of Kew to 1841,” in Kew Bulletin (1891), 279–327; “Variation and Specific Stability,” in Nature, 51 (1895), 459–461; and those cited in note 5 above.

For Thiselton-Dyer’s more general views on Darwinism, the state of British botany, and the value of studying systematic botany and geographical distribution, see Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 58 (1888), 686–701; and ibid., 65 (1895), 836–850. See also the forty-eight-page brochure, Alfred Russel Wallace and Thiselton-Dyer, The Distribution of Life (New York, 1885); and Thiselton-Dyer, “The Geographical Distribution of Plants,” in Darwin and Modern Science, Albert C. Seward, ed. (Cambridge, 1909), 298–318. For access to other works by Thiselton-Dyer, especially several prefaces and introductions, see British Museum Catalogue of Printed Books, LVIII , 354–355.

A wealth of manuscript material relating to Thiselton-Dyer is deposited in the herbarium and library of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Among other items there are a number of his diaries, notebooks, reports, and abstracts of lectures; three bound volumes of letters written by him between 1906 and 1922 (nearly all of them to Sir David Prain); four bound volumes of letters to him; and one bound volume of letters to Lady Thiselton-Dyer in connection with a projected memoir of him, together with her notes on the project and the following draft chapters: F. O. Bower, “The influence of Sir William Thiselton-Dyer Upon the Teaching of Botany in Britain” Sir J. Farmer, “the Chelsea Physic Garden” D. Prain on Thiselton-Dyer’ service to Indian botany; H. W. Ridley on his contribution to the Indian rubber industry; A. C. Seward. “Sir William Thiselton-Dyer’s Contributions to the Study of Fossil Plants”; S. H. Vines, “Some Account of My Relations With the Late Sir W. Thiselton-Dyer”; and W. Dallimore, “Recollections of Sir William Thiselton-Dyer as Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.” Seventeen letters between Thiselton-Dyer and T. H. Huxley are preserved in the Huxley Papers at Imperial College, London. For published versions of several letters from G. J. Romanes to Thiselton-Dyer. see Ethel Romanes (note 5 above).

II. SecondaryLiterature. Despite the rich manuscript material described above, and despite Thiselton-Dyer’s pertinence to topics as important as the introduction of laboratory teaching into English biology or the relationship between botany and imperialism, no adequate study of him exists. For obituary notices, see Kew Bulletin (1929), 67–75; Nature, 123 (1929), 212–215; and Proceedings of the Royal Society, 106B (1930), xxiii–xxix. See also D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, “Sir William Thiselton-Dyer,” in Dictionary of National Biography, 1922–1930, 830–832; and the sources cited in note 3 above.

Gerald L. Geison