Saturday, 10 August 2013

Balfour - The People's Professor

An Illustration to have been commissioned
by Balfour as a teaching aid, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
Last month a PhD was advertised on the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh website. On the surface, it could have been a PhD in Plant Science, but it evidently was not. The Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh had joined up with the University of Edinburgh in applying for funds to enable them to offer a three year collaborative PhD to look into their John Hutton Balfour (1808-1884) archives and to carry out essential work in understanding the life of this mysterious Regius Keeper, his role in the botanical arena and how he conducted his lessons and facilitated research. Passionate about all historical research, I thought, what a wonderful project!
John Hutton Balfour in his earlier years,  National Portrait Gallery

After seeing the beautiful illustrations that Balfour had commissioned to help him in his teaching (I had forgotten that I had featured them before in this blog) I decided to carry out a bit of research myself. Though oddly, there isn't much information about this chap out there. This is surprising considering he was pretty much on a level-pegging with the likes of Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911). In fact, Balfour and Hooker were good friends when they were young, both studying at the same University under William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865) and Robert Graham (1786–1845). The sad thing is, they fell out rather drastically after applying for the same lecturing post at Edinburgh University in 1845 (Bellon, 2004). The two men applying for the same post caused quite a stir at the time, and from what is sounds like, it became a ruthless competition between the two men and their supporters.

John Hutton Balfour commissioned illustrations, Kate Davies Designs
Hooker never got the post despite having hundreds of references, a faultless academic track record and having already been working under the previous keeper, Robert Graham. It seems that the whole petition was more about which candidate knew what to do with their merits rather than having the merit alone. Balfour was less qualified, but obviously had something the community wanted. I think there is something we can all learn from in that story. 

Probably feeling really quite heartbroken about that episode in his life, Hooker turned his attentions elsewhere and later on became a huge supporter and friend of Charles Darwin (1809-1882)  Balfour, however, did not really take to Darwin's theories, and this probably ever increased the gap between Balfour and Hooker. Maybe this is one of the reasons why we know so little about Balfour. Maybe his name got blackened with the politics in England alongside his dislike of Darwin's work? Maybe this PhD will reveal all...
John Hutton Balfour in his later years - check out the transformation, University of Edinburgh
I do find it interesting that Balfour chose not to embrace the theories discussed in The Origin of Species. Looking at his background we might be able to see where this comes from, although my feeling is that it isn't as straight forward as a simple Religion v Science war. Balfour started his education in Theology at St. Andrew's after being somewhat forced to enter this subject for study by his family. His father was a Reverend and his mother seemed hooked on getting him to follow in the steps of him and her own father. Balfour completed his studies, but became more and more interested in Botany and attended some lectures by the Robert Graham at the University of Edinburgh towards the end of his degree. Not wanting to give up on his botanical studies Balfour and his theology tutor Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) managed to persuade his parents to allow him to study Medicine in the end, which in those days was as close as you were going to get to Botany. 

Botany wasn't really seen as a true academic subject fit for study and was always combined with the Medical Sciences. This is something that Joseph Hooker personally detested and something which I believe he continually worked hard all his life to rectify. Hooker did eventually change how people saw Botanical Science. It did become less amateurish and got a name for itself. He did this by cleverly changing the way he published books and papers, adopting new designs and layouts and a new language, and, of course, through all his work in enlarging Kew. This though can form another blog post! But I will say here that I feel that in the end, the two men actually needed each other in the promotion of Botanical Science. They both filled their own niches. One came up with the theories and employed new minds in the Jodrell laboratory, the other taught those new minds and passed on the theories. (Check out my blog post on Hooker's reluctance to let visitors into Kew).

A John Hutton Balfour's commissioned illustration, Helle Jorgensen
So Balfour had a background in Theology, and this could explain his reluctance to accept or adopt Darwin's theories in the Origin of Species. I guess one can only speculate, but my own feelings towards Balfour is that this isn't the reason. He appears to have been quite an open minded chap and very inclusive in his approach to teaching and talking with people. He, in my mind, was the people's professor and probably did as much as Hooker when it came to promoting Botany as a science in it's own right, although he did it a different way. When it comes to Darwin, I think that Balfour was actually just deeply concerned about the possible civic outcomes that could result from such a publication. The ever encroaching possibility that people could start to feel detached from the world. The mechanical nature of science ever undermining the enchantment that is life. I think Balfour worried that the book heralded the end of an era. The magic of not knowing where we came from was lost.

John Hutton Balfour exhibition, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
On the surface of things it seems Balfour was a genius in dealing with the human condition. It is with no doubt that his childhood and adolescence in Theology taught him a lot about people and I think Balfour cleverly merged his disciplines into one conduit. He fulfilled his love of botany by working with other people and passing on that love - he was a man of service. Through the use of props and paintings, Balfour could transform boring lecture rooms into colourful vibrant places for study. Large illustrations were often produced by Victorian lecturers as teaching aids, but Balfours' were just so large and so colourful that they somehow still ignite a reaction. I am not sure if you agree, but looking at that picture at he start of this post I start to feel really excited and curious. The piece is tantalising and I immediately want to know more. 

Religion in all it's forms has, of course, always been deeply spatial (Warf & Arias). Religious spaces operate an interface of two worlds - the material and the theological. Such places are polylocative, ever fluctuating between the real and imaged, the past and the future (Corrigan). They offer an area where people can reflect; coming to terms with oneself and one's place. They are often highly decorated and the architecture can be dramatic. Incense burns, stained glass shimmers and instruments sing. It is these qualities of religion which makes me feel that Balfour used his background to his advantage. I don't think he was dogmatic and preaching, he just knew what worked and with that in mind set out to make botanical science a religion on it's own. 

Another example of a commissioned illustration, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
From what we know so far, the illustrations were
either produced by Robert Kaye Greville (1794-1866)
or John Sadler (1837-1882)
Balfour transformed the lecture room he inherited from Robert Graham, hanging pictures all around. Isaac, his son, described his father's lecture table as forming the synopsis of the lecture. It would be filled with specimens (living, pressed, carpological) and other artifacts such as books and drawings (Noltie). Balfour always proudly stated the number of illustrations on the title pages of his books - he knew the power of the picture. As part of his application as Regius Keeper in Edinburgh, Balfour stated that he had nearly 1000 drawings on a large scale for illustrating the structure of plants (Noltie). Natural History has never been a purely intellectual pursuit. It has always had a considerable aesthetic component to it as well. Many people are attracted to study nature purely for visual reasons. Even in it's most primitive manifestation - in the form of collecting - there is delight to be had looking at the different shapes, colours and patterns of specimens (Allen). Balfour knew this.

John Hutton Balfour, National Galleries of Scotland

So after thinking about John Balfour for a while, I am left wanting to know more. I wonder if Balfour approached his lectures like a sermon? It is after all evident that he became quite a figurehead in the local community. A luminary of civic morality - the ear, the voice - a man of service. And yet there is a another layer, the Romantic layer. Balfour seems to be a bit of a romanticist looking at accounts of his work in the field. Walking in the mists of Scotland for hours on end, he eventually got the nickname 'Woody Fibre'. 

Woody Fibre, the showman and the magician (check out the portraits). There is always something appealing about these types of people. Audiences always have to play catch up and their curiosity grows. Learning becomes contagious and this sparks the debate and the quest for knowledge. With this in mind we can see how Balfour played a key role in maintaining scientific knowledge. He left the formation of new concepts to others. Sadly though, it is the intellects like Darwin that we all remember, but thing is you need both types of people for cultures to grow. Like an idea that comes too early, an idea that has no way of being passed onto other people cannot grow and is at risk of being forgotten. There is nothing as powerless as an idea whose time has not yet come, but this is equally so for an idea that can't be communicated. 

So, how marvelous for Edinburgh to be instigating this PhD. I myself am going to be watching the space for news. I am personally fascinated by Balfour's use of public space both indoors and outside. I think there could be lot of information in the archives that could be of use to contemporary curators, communicators and educators. The archives have the potential to show a yet unseen way of how 19th century Botany was spread as a popular science, and, as a consequence, the ways in which botany can be communicated today. 

John Hutton Balfour, University of Glasgow
I feel that knowledge has now sadly become a commodity and this is serious. It affects the image of science. As James Secord wrote: 'Consumers expect finished products backed by something akin to a guarantee. When knowledge becomes a commodity and then fails to deliver on its promises, by proving to be provisional, uncertain and open to conservatory, the public all to early become disillusioned. This is especially acute in dealing with complex interactions of the environment' where we are only just beginning to fully understand how nature works.  Take all those climate change models for example - none us have a clue what's really going on. 

There is so much put in front of us now that we just don't know what to do with ourselves. Take a David Attenborough program for example. You sit there, learn that the world is in danger and yet are given no real tangible route of action. We sit there in a panic, or in an emotional void not knowing what to do, and then the adverts come in, offering us a way out of the void through consumption - the last thing that the natural world needs on a mass scale. I think Balfour would have agreed that the study of Science needs to continue in a more harmonious way, where humans are nature and not something that is separate from it. In the words of Balfour:

'Science in itself cannot give peace'

or on a more personal level:

'Mathematics never healed a broken heart'

Warf, B. and Arias, S., (2008), The Spatial Turn
Allen, D. E., (2001), Naturalists and Society, The Culture of Natural History in Britain 1700- 1900
Bellon, R., (2004), A Question of Merit, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biology and Biomedical Science
Noltie, H.,(2008), Nature study: Louise Bourgeois and John Hutton Balfour Exhibition Catalogue
Livingstone, D. N., and Withers, C. W. J., (2011), Geographies of 19th Century Scince
Secord, A., (2002), PhD Thesis: Artisan Naturalists
Golinski, J., (1998), Making Natural Knowledge
Secord, A., (1994), Corresponding Interests, The British Journal History f Science, pp. 383-408
Secord, A., (1996), Artisan Botany, Cultures of Natural History, CUP
Outram, D., (1996),New Species on Natural History, Cultures of Natural History, CUP
D. Allen., (1996),Tastes and Crazes, Cultures of Natural History, CUP, pp. 394
Drouin, J-M., and Bensaude-Vincent, B., (1996), Nature of the people, Cultures of Natural History, CUP, pp. 408

Books by Balfour:

Plants of the Bible (1885)
Botany and Religion (1882)
Biographical Sketch of Dr. Golding Bird (1855) 
Biography of J. Coldstream Lond. (1865) 
Sketch of D.T.K. Drummond prefixed to 'Last Scenes in the Life of Our Lord' (1878) 
Manual (1848)
Class Book' (1852) 
Outlines (1854) 
Elements (1869) 
Botanist's Companion (1860) 
Botanist's Vade Mecum 
Guide to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh (1873) 
Obituary Notice of Charles Robert Darwin, published in Transactions & Proceedings of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh


  1. Fascinating. My curiosity is aroused. There are just so many avenues of interest to pursue - how can anyone ever claimed to be bored! And how true the Secord quote. Thank you for this post.

    1. I am glad you found this piece insightful. It's always a worry when there is so much text that my readers won't want to read it all, but I felt that there was a lot of important information that I wanted to convey and so I went for it. The history of Natural Science is my other passion. Thank you for your comment Olga - it's great to know that you found the information fascinating.