Ernest Edward Galpin, banker and amateur botanist, was a son of Henry Carter Galpin* and his wife Georgina M. Luck. He grew up in Grahamstown, where he had to leave school at the age of 14 to look after his father's business when the latter became ill. During 1877-1878 he served in the Ninth Frontier War and afterwards was employed as a clerk by the Oriental Banking Corporation (later taken over by the Bank of Africa). In 1881 he was posted to Middelburg, Cape Colony, and subsequently to Bethulie, Aliwal North, and Beaufort West. From the latter place he presented a small collection of fossils to Albany Museum, Grahamstown, in 1887, including a well-developed forelimb of the mammal-like reptile Oudenodon sp. In 1883 he began to study plants, and the limited botanical literature available to him, in his spare time. Early in 1888 he was appointed bank manager in Grahamstown and in March that year started collecting plants for his personal herbarium, mainly in the neighbourhoods of Grahamstown and Port Alfred. He received encouragement from Dr Harry Bolus*, William Tyson* and G.F.S. Elliot* at this time. Early in 1889 he was transferred to Johannesburg as assistant manager of the Bank of Africa, but around June that year became bank manager in Barberton.
Inspired by the rich and little-known flora of the Barberton mountain region Galpin began systematically to collect the plants of the region. His collecting trips took him also into Swaziland, and he is considered to have been the first person to collect plants in that country (Roux, 2003). His specimens were studied at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, England, and yielded many new species. In October 1889 he became a member of the Barberton Scientific and Literary Society and that same month read a paper before its members on "The fertilization of plants". Among others he met the lawyer and amateur scientist Douglas F. Gilfillan*. On 21 March 1892 he married Marie Elizabeth de Jongh, the first woman teacher at Barberton, with whom he had four sons. She had already painted some new plants for him and after their marriage often accompanied him on his collecting expeditions. Her sister married Gilfillan, who therefore became Galpin's brother-in-law. Plants collected by Gilfillan on the Witwatersrand and elsewhere were added to Galpin's herbarium under Gilfillan's name.
Towards the end of 1892 Galpin was transferred to Queenstown, where he remained as manager of the Bank of Africa for the next 25 years. His plant collecting took place mainly during his annual holiday, when he would camp out at a suitable location for about a month and systematically collect all the plants in the vicinity. These sites included several mountainous areas of the Eastern Cape, as well as places such as Port St Johns (April 1899), East London (October 1900), King William's Town (January 1901), and Port Elizabeth (May 1902). During September to November 1897 he collected numerous specimens while travelling slowly from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town. In March 1904 he and his wife undertook a collecting expedition to the high mountains bordering Griqualand East and Lesotho. They spent about three weeks at an altitude around 3000 m and collected at least 250 mountain species. Many of their specimens were donated to the Albany Museum. The results of this expedition were described in a paper presented at the annual congress of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Grahamstown in 1908, and entitled "A contribution to the knowledge of the flora of the Drakensberg". It was the first comprehensive account of the high-altitude flora of South Africa and was published in the association's Report for that year (pp. 209-229).
After the joint local meeting of the British and South African Associations for the Advancement of Science in 1905 Galpin accompanied the delegates to the Transvaal and from there on their excursion to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), collecting plants at the Victoria Falls and in the Matoppo Hills. With Professor H.H.W. Pearson* he travelled to the Border districts to study cycads, and in January 1907 accompanied Pearson on a journey to German South West Africa (now Namibia) to study Welwitschia. During this trip Galpin collected plants at Port Nolloth, Luderitz and the region inland from Swakopmund. In 1910 he and his wife went on a collecting trip to Kenya and Uganda. He was an unselfish collector who sent duplicate specimens to Dr Bolus in Cape Town, John Medley Wood* in Durban, Dr Selmar Schonland* at the Albany Museum, Dr Hans Schinz* in Zurich, Kew Gardens in England, and many other local collectors, receiving specimens from them in return. His plants were carefully preserved and accurately labelled with notes on their locality and habitat, and he kept comprehensive diaries of all his collecting trips. His work was so meticulous that General J.C. Smuts*, statesman and amateur botanist, referred to him as "the prince of collectors".
Galpin was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1890. He became a member of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science in 1903, serving on its council from that same year. In 1905 he became a member also of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He joined the South African Philosophical Society in 1904 and remained a member when it became the Royal Society of South Africa in 1908. With his son E.A. Galpin as co-author he later published "Some biological notes on Boscia Rehmanniana and Olea Verrucosa, Link." in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa (1936, Vol. 23, pp. 255-258).
In 1916 Galpin presented his herbarium of some 16 000 specimens to the National Herbarium in Pretoria. The next year he retired to his farm Mosdene near Naboomspruit (now Mokgoophong) and started a thorough collection of the plants of the neighbourhood. This work led to two important publications, both in the form of Memoirs of the Botanical Survey of South Africa. In Native timber trees of the Springbok flats (Memoir No. 7, 1925, 26p plus plates) he described and illustrated by photographs more than 50 tree species of the Waterberg and Potgietersrus (now Mokopane) districts. In his Botanical survey of the Springbok flats (Memoir No. 12, 1927, 100p plus plates) he described the climate, topography, soils, plant associations, plant succession and economic plant resources of the region, along the lines of the surveys conducted by Professor J.W. Bews* in Natal. He continued collecting to 1939 at numerous places all over southern Africa, including some in Zimbabwe (in 1924 and 1935) and Namibia (1937). His botanical discoveries included more than 200 new species. The genus Galpinia and many species were named after him, including Acacia galpini (Apiesdoring, or Umbrella thorn), and indigenous garden plants such as Bauhinia galpini, Kniphofia galpini and Watsonia galpini. Galpin was an unassuming and modest person with a tremendous capacity for work. He gladly shared his knowledge and experience with others and endeared himself to all with whom he came into contact.