George Bentham

George Bentham

George Bentham
Born (1800-09-22)22 September 1800
Stoke, Plymouth
Died 10 September 1884(1884-09-10) (aged 83)
Nationality English
Fields botany
Institutions Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Notable awards Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1859
Clarke Medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1879
Author abbrev. (botany) Benth.
Spouse Sarah Jones

George Bentham CMG FRS (22 September 1800 – 10 September 1884) was an English botanist, characterised by Duane Isely as "the premier systematic botanist of the nineteenth century".[1]

Early life

Bentham was born in Stoke, Plymouth, on 22 September 1800.[2] His father, Sir Samuel Bentham, a naval architect, was the only brother of Jeremy Bentham to survive into adulthood. George Bentham had neither a school nor a college education, but at an early age acquired the power of giving sustained and concentrated attention to any subject that occupied him. He also had a remarkable linguistic aptitude. By the age of seven he could speak French, German and Russian, and he learned Swedish during a short residence in Sweden when little older. At the close of the war with France, the Benthams made a long tour through that country, staying two years at Montauban, where Bentham studied Hebrew and mathematics in the Protestant Theological School. They eventually settled in the neighbourhood of Montpellier where Sir Samuel purchased a large estate.[3]

George Bentham became attracted to botanical studies by applying to them his uncle's logical methods, and not by any special interest in natural history. While studying at Angoulême he came across a copy of A. P. de Candolle's Flore française, and he became interested in the analytical tables for identifying plants. He immediately proceeded to test their use on the first plant he saw. The result was successful and he continued to apply it to every plant he came across. A visit to London in 1823 brought him into contact with the brilliant circle of English botanists. In 1826, at the pressing invitation of his uncle, he agreed to act as his secretary, at the same time entering Lincoln's Inn and reading for the bar. He was called in due time and in 1832 held his first and last brief.[3] However, his interest in botany never flagged and he was secretary of the Horticultural Society of London from 1829 to 1840.[4] In 1832, Jeremy Bentham died, leaving his property to his nephew. Having inherited his father's estate the previous year, he was now in a position of modest independence, and able to pursue wholeheartedly his favourite studies. For a time these were divided between botany, jurisprudence and logic, in addition to editing his father's professional papers.


Views on evolution

Bentham's life spanned the Darwinian revolution and, moreover, his young colleague Joseph Dalton Hooker was Darwin's closest friend and one of the first to accept Darwin's ideas. Bentham was until then an unquestioning adherent of the dogma of the constancy of species. In 1863 he had still not converted to the new ideas, but by 1874 he was able to write: "Fifteen years have sufficed to establish a theory, of which the principal points, so far as they affect systematic botany... [continues in familiar Darwinian manner, variation, differential survival and heredity producing new varieties and species]."[5]

Bentham's conversion to the new line of thought was remarkably complete, and included a change from typology in taxonomy to an appreciation that "We cannot form an idea of a species from a single individual, nor of a genus from a single one of its species. We can no more set up a typical species than a typical individual."[6]

Honours and awards

Bentham was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1859 and elected a Fellow in 1862.[7] He served as president of the Linnean Society of London from 1861 to 1874.[8] He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1866.[9] He was appointed CMG (Companion of St Michael & St George) in 1878. His foreign awards included the Clarke Medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1879.


Bentham's first publication was his Catalogue des plantes indigènes des Pyrénées et du Bas Languedoc (Paris 1826), the result of a careful exploration of the Pyrenees in company with G. A. Walker Arnott (1799–1868), afterwards professor of botany in the University of Glasgow. It is interesting to notice that in it Bentham adopted the principle from which he never deviated, of citing nothing at second-hand. This was followed by articles on various legal subjects: on codification, in which he disagreed with his uncle, on the laws affecting larceny and on the law of real property. But the most remarkable production of this period was the Outline of a new system of logic, with a critical examination of Dr Whately's Elements of Logic (1827).[10] In this the principle of the quantification of the predicate was first explicitly stated. This Stanley Jevons declared to be undoubtedly the most fruitful discovery made in abstract logical science since the time of Aristotle. Before sixty copies had been sold the publisher became bankrupt and the stock went for wastepaper. The book passed into oblivion, and it was not till 1873 that Bentham's claims to priority were finally vindicated against those of Sir William Hamilton by Herbert Spencer.[3]

In 1836 he published his Labiatarum genera et species. In preparing this work he visited, between 1830–1834, every European herbarium, several more than once. The following winter was passed in Vienna, where he produced his Commentationes de Leguminosarum generibus, published in the annals of the Vienna Museum. In 1842 he moved to Pontrilas in Herefordshire. His chief occupation for the next few years was his contributions to the Prodromus Systematis Naturalis Regni Vegetabilis, which was being carried on by his friend, A. P. de Candolle. In all these dealt with some 4,730 species.[3]

In 1844, he provided the botanical descriptions for The Botany of the Voyage of H.M.S. Sulphur.[11] The editor, Richard Brinsley Hinds, had been surgeon on HMS Sulphur 1835-41 while she explored the Pacific coast of the Americas.[12]

In 1854 he found the maintenance of a herbarium and library too expensive. He therefore offered them to the government on the understanding that they should form the foundation of such necessary aids to research in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. At the same time he contemplated the abandonment of botanical work. However, he yielded to the persuasion of Sir William Jackson Hooker, John Lindley and other scientific friends. In 1855 he took up his residence in London, and worked at Kew for five days a week, with a brief summer holiday, from this time onwards till the end of his life.[3]

In 1857, the government sanctioned a scheme for the preparation of a series of Floras or descriptions in the English language of the indigenous plants of British colonies and possessions. Bentham began with the Flora Hongkongensis in 1861, which was the first comprehensive work on any part of the little-known flora of China and Hong Kong, including Hong Kong Croton. This was followed by the Flora Australiensis, in seven volumes (1863–1878), the first flora of any large continental area that had ever been finished. His greatest work was the Genera Plantarum, begun in 1862, and concluded in 1883 in collaboration with Joseph Dalton Hooker.[13] His most famous work, however, was the Handbook of the British flora, begun in 1853 and first published in 1858. This was used by students for over a century, running into many editions. After his death it was edited by Hooker, and was known simply as Bentham & Hooker. He is most famous for his extensive and excellent classification of plants, especially angiosperms, along with Hooker, forming the "Bentham & Hooker system", which was published in three volumes as Genera Plantarum between 1862 and 1883.[3]

Personal life

Bentham married Sarah Jones (1798–1881), daughter of Sir Harford Jones Brydges, on 11 April 1833; they did not have children. [14]


Bentham died at his London home of 30 years, 25 Wilton Place, on 10 September 1884, aged 83. He was laid to rest in Brompton Cemetery.

Selected publications


A number of plants were named in his honour:



See also


  1. Isely, Duane (1994). One hundred and one botanists (1st ed.). Ames: Iowa State Univ. Press. pp. 163–166. ISBN 0813824982. Retrieved 10 August 2015.
  2. Oxford University Press. (1999). A Dictionary of Scientists. ISBN 0192800868
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Chisholm 1911.
  4. Lankester Botanical Garden (2010). "Biographies" (PDF). Lankesteriana. 10 (2/3): 183–206, pages 183–184. Archived (PDF) from the original on 23 May 2014.
  5. Green, J. Reynolds 1914. A history of botany in the United Kingdom from the earliest times to the end of the 19th century. Dent, London. p498
  6. Reynolds Green, op cit, p499.
  7. "Library and Archive Catalogue". Royal Society. Retrieved 27 December 2010.
  8. "George Bentham". 10. Botanical Gazette: 211–213. JSTOR 2994865.
  9. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 15 June 2011.
  10. George Bentham, Outline of a new system of logic: with a critical examination of Dr. Whately's Elements of Logic (1827); Thoemmes; Facsimile edition (1990) ISBN 1-85506-029-9
  11. Hinds, Richard Brinsley, ed. (1844). The Botany of the Voyage of H.M.S. Sulphur. Bentham, George (botanical descriptions). Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. Retrieved 2 May 2016.
  12. "Hinds, Richard Brinsley (1812?–1847)". Royal College of Surgeons. Retrieved 2 May 2016.
  13. Bentham & Hooker 1862–1883.
  14. A Genealogical and Heraldic History of The Landed Gentry of Great Britain, Burke, John Bernard, Sir., London, 1906
  15. IPNI.  Benth.


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Bentham, George". Encyclopædia Britannica. 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  • Marion Filipuik ed 1997. George Bentham, autobiography 1800–1843. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0-8020-0791-0
  • J. Reynolds Green 1914. A history of botany in the United Kingdom from the earliest times to the end of the 19th century. Dent, London.
  • Duane Isely 1994. One hundred and one botanists Iowa State University Press p163-6.
  • B. Daydon Jackson 1906. George Bentham.
  •  Bettany, George Thomas (1885). "Bentham, George". In Stephen, Leslie. Dictionary of National Biography. 4. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 
Wikisource has original works written by or about:
George Bentham
Academic offices
Preceded by
Thomas Bell
President of the Linnean Society
Succeeded by
George James Allman
Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Richard Owen
Clarke Medal
Succeeded by
Thomas Huxley
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