S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Menzies, Dr Archibald (plant collection)

Born: 15 March 1754, Near Aberfeldy, Perthshire, United Kingdom.
Died: 15 February 1842, London, United Kingdom.

Archibald Menzies, naval surgeon and naturalist, received a basic education and then worked as a gardener for Sir Robert Menzies, the clan chief. After some time he moved to Edinburgh to become a gardener at the Royal Botanical Gardens there, established by Professor John Hope. Professor Hope encouraged him to study at the University of Edinburgh and from 1771 to 1780 he attended classes in medicine, surgery, chemistry and botany. During 1778 he undertook a botanical tour through the highlands of Scotland and the Hebrides. After some time as assistant to a surgeon at Carnarvon (now Caernarfon), Wales, he joined the Royal Navy as an assistant surgeon in 1782 and was stationed at Halifax, on the east coast of North America, in 1784. He sent his first consignment of seeds to Sir Joseph Banks* in May 1784. After returning to England In 1786 he sailed as ship's surgeon in the Prince of Wales on a fur-trading voyage of discovery, via Cape Horn to the west coast of North America and on around the world. They visited the Hawaiian Islands and China, and after touching at the Cape of Good Hope returned to Britain in July 1789. Menzies was elected a Fellow of the Linnaen Society in 1790 and the next year published "Descriptions of three new animals found in the Pacific Ocean..." in the society's Transactions.

In April 1791, on Banks's recommendation, Menzies sailed in the Discovery, commanded by Captain George Vancouver, as ship's surgeon and naturalist. Vancouver was quite impressed with him. The ship, accompanied by the Chatham, visited the Cape of Good Hope, remaining at Simons Bay from 10 July to 17 August 1791. Menzies took the opportunity to collect plants on the Cape Peninsula and, according to W.H. Harvey*, found a number of beautiful mosses at Paradise, an estate near Kirstenbosch. During his stay he met Colonel R.J. Gordon*. Upon hearing that the expedition had no portable barometer with which to measure the heights of any mountains that they might ascend, Gordon presented Menzies with the portable mercury barometer that he had used in earlier years to measure heights above sea level on his travels into the interior. While at the Cape Menzies wrote two letters to Sir Joseph Banks. These were later published in the Historical Records of New South Wales (1892).

After leaving the Cape the Discovery visited Australia, New Zealand, the Galapagos Islands and Hawaiian Islands (then known as the Sandwich Islands), and made a more detailed investigation of the west coast of North America. On their third visit to Hawaii, in January 1795, Menzies climbed the volcanic mountains Hualalai (2521 m) and Mauna Loa (4170 M) and determined their heights with his barometer. He collected plants at all the places visited and brought back a large collection when he returned to England in October 1795. In 1798 he published two papers on the genus of mosses Polytrichum in the Transactions of the Linnean Society. His plants were described by Sir J.E. Smith, Robert Brown, and Sir W.J. Hooker. Years later he published "Some account of an ascent and barometrical measurement of Wha-ra-rai [Hualalai], a mountain in the island of Owhyhee [Hawaii]..." in the first two volumes of the Magazine of Natural History (1829). His journal of the three visits to the Hawaiian Islands was published only in 1920, followed by his Olympia peninsula journal in 1992, and his Alaska journal in 1993.

Menzies undertook one more voyage, in 1799, this time to the West Indies, before retiring from the navy in 1802 and settling in London to practice until his retirement in 1826. He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree by Aberdeen University in 1799. The North American genus Menziesia (Family Ericaceae) and several plant species were named after him. His specimens went to the herbaria of the British Museum (Natural History) and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Edinburgh. To the latter institution he furthermore bequeathed his large herbarium of cryptogams. During his career he discovered at least 400 new species.

List of sources:
Forbes, V.S. Further notes on Colonel R.J. Gordon. Africana Notes and News, 1952, Vol. 9(3), pp. 84-94.

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

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

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

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of scientific papers. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.

Stearn, W.T. Menzies, Archibald, in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 7. Retrieved from http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/menzies_archibald_7E.htm in 2018-10-15.

Compiled by: C. Plug