Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 22 September 2023

Balfour, John Huttonfree


Balfour, John Huttonfree

  • D. E. Allen

John Hutton Balfour (1808–1884)

by Maull & Polyblank, 1855

Balfour, John Hutton (1808–1884), botanist, was born in Edinburgh on 15 September 1808, the eldest son of Andrew Balfour, an army surgeon who later settled in that city as a printer and publisher, and Magdalene, daughter of the Revd George Goldie, an Edinburgh minister. James Hutton the geologist was a first cousin of his grandfather. Balfour was a brilliant student and was able to resist his mother's determination that he follow her father into the church. After a thorough grounding in classics at Edinburgh high school and Edinburgh University, he was initially sent at sixteen to study theology at St Andrews, but he had acquired his father's fondness for botany and both he and his teachers there saw he was better suited to a medical career. His parents reluctantly permitted him to attend Professor Robert Graham's botany class at Edinburgh, on the condition that he completed his divinity studies. In 1827 they finally gave way, and Balfour was apprenticed to the professor of military surgery, Sir George Ballingall, apparently with the aim of following his father into that branch of the subject. He graduated MD in 1832 and, after qualifying MRCS and FRCS Edinburgh, extended his surgical studies in Paris before returning to Edinburgh in 1834 to take up private practice. The next year he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, of which he was later to be an active secretary for more than ten years.

Botany now increasingly took over. In 1836 the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, the first specialist body in that subject in Britain of national standing, had its inaugural meeting in Balfour's house, and in 1838 he was equally to the fore in the founding of the Edinburgh Botanical Club. In 1840 he began lecturing on botany in the Edinburgh Extra Academical School of Medicine, and equipped by that he successfully competed the next year for the chair at Glasgow University vacated by Sir William Hooker, which at last enabled him to give up medical practice. His Glasgow stay, however, proved brief, for in 1845, on the death of Graham, he returned to Edinburgh as professor of medicine and botany, regius keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden, and queen's botanist for Scotland. Soon after, with his future now on a settled course, he married Marion Spottiswood Bayley, the daughter of Isaac Bayley, a writer to the signet. Among their children was the botanist Sir Isaac Bayley Balfour.

Though Balfour served the Edinburgh medical faculty as dean for nearly thirty years, he took no regular part in the clinical teaching and was otherwise free to devote all his considerable energies to botany. His induction into botany occurred before microscopical work had been largely developed, and before the advent of later concerns with plant morphology and physiology, so he was, almost of necessity, for the most part a systematist. His original work was not extensive and it was as a teacher and writer of textbooks that he was distinguished academically. His teaching was painstaking and conscientious, earnest and impressive, and characterized by a wealth of illustration and a gift for imparting his own enthusiasm.

That enthusiasm was most of all in evidence in the lively tradition of Saturday student excursions that Balfour inherited from his predecessor. On the longer of these trips, undeterred by the frequently rough going and primitive conditions, leading botanical ‘outsiders’ would often join the party, augmenting with taxonomic expertise the professor's discourses on the local vegetation and geological features. No one was more tireless than the wiry Balfour, his geniality contagious, his jokes and puns keeping everyone in good spirits as they toiled up some long ascent. Not for nothing was he known to generations of students by the nickname ‘Woody Fibre’. On one occasion, in the Isle of Arran, the party became lost in the hills in deep mist, and in the account subsequently published by him of that shaking experience the deeply religious strain in his character is strikingly apparent. He resembled an Old Testament prophet in appearance, and his youthful immersion in theology had left its mark so that the intricacy of nature was always for him indubitable testimony to a great designing mind. Among the many books he wrote were several linking botany with religion, one of them, Phyto-Theology (1851), winning a wide enough readership to achieve a third edition.

Amid all this activity the Royal Botanic Garden was in no way neglected. Under Balfour's care and in co-operation with the successive principal gardeners, the very able McNabs, father and son, the garden was much enlarged and improved, and a fine new palm house, an arboretum, a good museum, and excellent teaching accommodation provided. Latterly as many as 354 students a year were attending Balfour's botanical lectures there. A final accomplishment was the construction and planting of the great rock-garden.

Severe illness brought about Balfour's retirement in 1879, when each of the three universities with which he had been connected marked the occasion by conferring on him an honorary LLD. He had been elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1856, and was also a member of a wide range of other scientific bodies. He died at Inverleith House, Edinburgh, on 11 February 1884. He is commemorated in the genus Balfourodendron; two British plants long bore his name as well, but Poa balfourii, a grass which he collected on Ben Voirlich in 1842, is now considered a mere variant of a more widespread species, and Rubus balfourianus, a name given in his honour by Babington to a blackberry, after a century disappeared into synonymy.


  • I. B. Balfour, ‘A sketch of the professors of botany in Edinburgh from 1670 until 1887’, Makers of British botany: a collection of biographies by living botanists, ed. F. W. Oliver (1913), 280–301, esp. 293–300
  • PRS, 96B (1924), i–xvii [obit. of Sir I. B. Balfour]
  • Transactions of the Botanical Society [Edinburgh], 16 (1886), 187–9
  • Nature, 29 (1883–4), 385–7
  • Scottish Naturalist, new ser., 1 (1883–4), 160–62
  • History of the Berwickshire naturalists' club, 11 (1885), 218–26
  • H. R. Fletcher and W. H. Brown, The Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, 1670–1970 (1970), 126–48
  • C. Roger, Botanizing excursions in high and low lands (1877)
  • Alisma, Reminiscences of a student's life at Edinburgh in the seventies (1918)


  • Museum and Art Gallery, Perth, British herbarium
  • NA Scot., corresp.
  • Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, corresp. and papers
  • Wellcome L., lecture notes


  • Maull & Polyblank, photograph, 1855, NPG [see illus.]
  • J. Horsburgh, oils, 1878, Scot. NPG
  • D. MacNee, oils, exh. RA 1878, U. Edin.
  • L. Ghémar, lithograph, NPG
  • W. Hole, etching, NPG; repro. in W. Hole, Quasi cursores (1884)
  • Maull & Co., photograph, RS
  • J. Moffat, photograph, RS
  • photograph, repro. in L. Reeve, ed., Portraits of men of eminence (1855)
  • photograph, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh
  • portrait, U. Edin., botany department
Page of
University of Newcastle upon Tyne
Page of
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
Page of
Royal Society, London
Page of
Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London
Page of
National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh
Page of
National Portrait Gallery, London
Page of
Proceedings of the Royal Society of London
Page of
University of Edinburgh
Page of
University of St Andrews
Page of
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)