S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Hutchinson, Mr John (botany)

Born: 7 April 1884, Wark-on-Tyne, Northumberland, United Kingdom.
Died: 2 September 1972, London, United Kingdom.

John Hutchinson, a distinguished British botanist, left school at the age of 16 and received training as a gardener, first from his father for a year and thereafter on two estates. He also took some evening classes in botany and water-colour drawing. In 1904 he became a trainee gardener at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, near London. The next year he was appointed as a temporary assistant in the herbarium, on the basis of his talent for drawing and his scientific interests. In 1907 he was promoted to assistant in the Indian section of the herbarium and two years later transferred to the section for tropical Africa. After another period in the Indian section from 1916 to 1919 he was put in charge of the African section until 1936, when he was appointed keeper of the Kew botanical museums. He held this post until his retirement in 1948. Afterwards he continued his research in the herbarium on the phylogeny of flowering plants until his death.

Hutchinson was a leading taxonomist, renowned for his extensive publications on the classification of the families and genera of flowering plants and on the flora of Africa. His publications included numerous articles on African botany in the Kew Bulletin and other journals. His monumental books Families of flowering plants (1926, 1934, 1958), The genera of flowering plants (2 vols, 1963, 1967) and Evolution and phylogeny of flowering plants (1969), all illustrated by himself, earned him a world-wide reputation. Of special interest to southern Africa were his revisions of the Myricaceae and Moraceae, as well as contributions to several other families, in the Flora Capensis; "A review of the genus Pieronia" (with E.P. Phillips*, Annals of the South African Museum, 1917); "A revision of the African species of Sesbania" (as co-author of E.P. Phillips, Bothalia, 1921); and three contributions to the Flowering plants of South Africa (1922, 1923).

Hutchinson visited southern Africa twice on collecting expeditions, the first time from August 1928 to April 1929. After some weeks collecting in the Western Cape he undertook a tour of Namaqualand and Bushmanland from 8 to 20 October 1928, in the company of N.S. Pillans*. Next he collected along the south and east coasts of the sub-continent, reaching Durban on 7 December, accompanied at first by Jan Gillett (to Port Elizabeth) and then by R.A. Dyer. He then travelled to Pretoria and with General J.C. Smuts* undertook a trip to the northern Transvaal (now Limpopo). After further excursions in the Transvaal in the company of I.B. Pole Evans* and A.O.D. Mogg* he travelled to the eastern highveld and then to the western Transvaal and northern Cape in the company of E.P. Phillips*. He started his return journey to Cape Town on 14 February, travelling a circuitous route and collecting in numerous places. He left Cape Town on 12 April, having travelled over 11 000 km and collecting some 3 000 species.

His second visit brought him to South Africa in June 1930 to accompany General Smuts on an expedition to Lake Tanganyika. Also included in the party were the British botanist Mrs Margaret Gillett*, her sons Jan and Anthony, and I.B. Pole Evans. They travelled through Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) via Gweru and the Victoria Falls and on through Zambia to reach the lake on 20 July. On the return journey Hutchinson briefly travelled into the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and spent a few days collecting in the Matopo Hills in Zimbabwe. Upon his return to Pretoria he visited the Soutpansberg with Jan Gillett and spent a week in the Drakensberg with Miss I.C. Verdoorn and Miss H.M.L. Forbes. After collecting also at Durban and Port Elizabeth he returned to England towards the end of September 1930. Both his expeditions were described in his book A botanist in southern Africa (London, 1946). This work also includes a review of South African botanical literature with special reference to the taxonomy of flowering plants, and notes on the history of botanical exploration in South Africa.

Hutchinson was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) degree by the University of St Andrews in 1934. He was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1918 and of the Royal Society in 1947. Among others he received the Victoria Medal of Honour from the Royal Horticultural Society (1944), the Darwin-Wallace Centenary Medal (1958) and the Linnean Gold Medal (1968). He was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1972. Volume 31 (1956) of Flowering plants of Africa was dedicated to him. The genus Hutchinsonia was named in his honour.

List of sources:

Bullock, A.A. Bibliography of South African botany (up to 1951). Pretoria: Department of Agricultural Technical Services, 1978.

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 5, 1987

Gunn, M.D. John Hutchinson, OBE, FRS, LLD, VMH, FLS. Bothalia, 1973, Vol. 11, pp. 1-3.

Gunn, M. & Codd, L.E. Botanical exploration of southern Africa. Cape Town: Balkema, 1981.

Oxford dictionary of national biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Compiled by: C. Plug