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date: 30 November 2020

Hooker, Sir William Jacksonfree

  • Sylvia FitzGerald

Sir William Jackson Hooker (1785–1865)

by Spiridione Gambardella, 1843

by permission of the Linnean Society of London

Hooker, Sir William Jackson (1785–1865), botanist, was born on 6 July 1785 at 71–7 Magdalen Street, Norwich, the second of the two children of Joseph Hooker (1754–1845) and his wife, Lydia, née Vincent (1759–1829). Joseph Hooker was distantly related to the Baring brothers and was a confidential clerk in their Norwich office, trading in worsted and bombazine. He was also an amateur botanist and gardener, with a collection of succulent plants. Lydia Hooker came from a family of worsted weavers and artists in Norwich. William Jackson Hooker was named after his godfather William Jackson (1757–1789), his mother's cousin, and son of John Jackson (1710–1795), a wealthy brewer and farmer, three times mayor of Canterbury, Kent. He bequeathed his estate to William Jackson Hooker who inherited in 1806 when he was twenty-one.

Education and early career

Hooker attended Norwich grammar school from about 1792 until 1802 or 1803. He then went to Starston Hall, 18 miles south-east of Norwich, as a pupil in estate management, probably so that he could manage the estates inherited through his godfather. Hooker's father encouraged his interest in natural history, especially in botany and entomology; he made many field trips in Norfolk and Suffolk and got to know the principal naturalists in East Anglia. His most important patrons were Sir James Edward Smith (1759–1828), who owned Linnaeus's herbarium and library; Dawson Turner (1775–1858), banker and botanist, who became Hooker's friend and father-in-law; and Sir Joseph Banks (1743–1820), president of the Royal Society, to whom Dawson Turner introduced him in 1806. In 1805 Hooker made his first important botanical discovery when he found a species of moss not previously recorded in Britain, Buxbaumia aphylla, at Rackheath, near Sproston, Norfolk. He studied mainly mosses, liverworts, and ferns, and became an expert in a difficult group of liverworts, the Jungermanniae, on which in 1816 he published a monograph.

On his election to the Linnean Society of London in 1806 Hooker felt committed to a life of botany. He read his first paper to the society in 1807, on the mosses of Nepal from Buchanan Hamilton's specimens in Smith's herbarium. He toured Scotland, the Hebrides, and the Orkneys in 1807 and 1808. In 1809 he went to Iceland to make a botanical survey for Banks; his collections were lost in a fire at sea on the way home but with the aid of Banks's notes from his own journey there in 1772 Hooker was able to produce an account which was published in 1811. Sir James Smith named a new genus of mosses (Hookeria) after him.

Hooker helped Turner with his botanical work, preparing 234 of the 258 coloured plates in Turner's book on seaweeds (Fuci, 4 vols., 1808–19), which went unacknowledged. In 1809–20 he managed a brewery in Halesworth, Suffolk, for Turner. He made his first visit to Kew Gardens on 5 June 1811; with Thomas Taylor (1786–1848) he began work on a new book on mosses, Muscologia Britannica (1818; 2nd edn, 1827; 3rd edn, 1855). In 1812 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London.

In 1814 Hooker travelled in Europe for nine months, going to Paris with the Turner family, then continuing alone to Switzerland, the south of France, and Italy. On this tour he met with leading botanists and laid the foundations of many long-term friendships. In Paris Baron von Humboldt invited him to write up the cryptogamic plants he had collected in South America; Hooker's text and plates were published in 1816 as Plantae cryptogamicae, quas in plaga orbis novi aequinoctali collegerunt &c., with some mosses being published in his Musci exotici (1818–20).

On 12 June 1815 Hooker married Turner's eldest daughter, Maria Sarah (1797–1872). Their first son, William Dawson Hooker (1816–1840), was born at Halesworth on 4 April 1816. He graduated MD at Glasgow in 1839 and married in the same year Isabella Whitelaw Smith. In 1837 he visited Norway. He published Notes on Norway (1837 and 1839) and his dissertation on cinchona before leaving for the West Indies, where he died at Kingston, Jamaica, on 1 January 1840. A second son, Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817–1911), was born on 30 June 1817, and three daughters followed. Hooker's life at this time consisted of 'brewery, books and babies' (Allan, 72), but many botanists visited him at Halesworth and consulted his herbarium. The brewery was neither successful nor congenial to Hooker, and he sought paid botanical work. Eventually, in 1820, with Banks's recommendation he was appointed regius professor of botany at Glasgow University.

Professor of botany at Glasgow

When Hooker arrived at Glasgow there were thirty botany students and 8000 plants in the botanical garden in Sauchiehall Street; when he left in 1841 he had more than 100 students and the garden had been relocated and contained 20,000 plants. Many years later his son said:

He had never lectured, nor even attended a course of lectures; … the botanical chair was and always had been held by a graduate in medicine … his appointment was … unfavourably viewed by the medical faculty …. But he had resources that enabled him to overcome all obstacles: familiarity with his subject, devotion to its study, energy, eloquence, and a commanding presence with urbanity of manners, and above all the art of making the student love the science that he taught.

J. D. Hooker, Opening of the new botanical department, 551

Some of his students went on to achieve fame at home or overseas; many were to make valuable contributions to his herbarium and library in later years. Hooker was always prompt to thank them and to respond to their queries. Thousands of herbarium sheets were added to his herbarium every year, all identified, labelled, and filed.

In Glasgow Hooker lectured and took his students on field trips. He wrote Flora Scotica (1821), prepared Botanical Illustrations (1822) as a pioneering visual aid, and initiated summer courses in botany for the general public. He was awarded the university's LLD in 1821. Between 1823 and 1840 he prepared and illustrated seven major works, on the plants of Frederick Beechey's voyage of 1825–8 to the Pacific and Bering's Strait, on the plants of North America, and on ferns. He described numerous new plants and in 1827 became editor of Curtis's Botanical Magazine, a journal which described plants from round the world suitable for cultivation in Britain, with a finely drawn coloured plate for each. In 1829 Hooker started Botanical Miscellany—Journal of Botany, which continued with some title modifications until 1857, and Icones plantarum in 1834 which continued until 1990. He employed Walter Fitch (1817–1892) to prepare drawings for reference and publication, training him in the requirements of botanical work, and employed helpers to curate his herbarium. During this time Hooker wrote a Catalogue of the Plants in the Royal Botanic Garden of Glasgow (1825), Directions for Collecting and Preserving Plants in Foreign Countries (1828), The British Flora (1830; 7th edn, 1855), and Perthshire illustrated, a series of select views … a general introduction illustrative of the scenery, botany &c. (1833). He was knighted in 1836 in the Royal Guelphic Order by William IV, in recognition of his work at Glasgow and services to botany.

Director of Kew Gardens

Throughout the years in Scotland Hooker remained hopeful of employment in London or East Anglia. His dream was Kew, which had a magnificent collection of plants; it had been founded in 1759 by Princess Augusta, but after the deaths of George III and Banks had declined. A parliamentary working party set up in 1838 to review the management and expenditure of the various royal gardens recommended the development of Kew as a national botanical garden providing information and plants to the new colonies, and aiding the mother country, Britain, in everything useful in the vegetable kingdom. In April 1841 Sir William Hooker was appointed the first full-time director of the royal gardens at Kew. He was now fifty-seven, but he told Turner he felt 'as if I were going to begin life over again' (Allan, 109).

The botanic garden at Kew then comprised 11 acres. In his first year Hooker extended the opening hours, and that year 9174 visitors went. By 1845, 271 acres had been added, a new arboretum planted, glasshouses repaired and extended where possible, and a new palm house begun, built to pioneering design in wide-span wrought iron by Decimus Burton (1800–1881) and Richard Turner (c.1798–1881), to replace the old Great Stove designed by William Chambers (1723–1796). Queen Victoria and Prince Albert both took a keen practical interest in Hooker's work at Kew, visiting on many occasions with their children. Hooker continued his worldwide correspondence, received plants from every continent, sent out plant collectors to gather specifically for Kew, and established further education lectures and a reading-room for Kew's gardeners. The public loved it all, and went in their thousands: in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition in London, 331,210 people went to Kew Gardens; in 1865, the year he died, there were 529,241.

Hooker's annual reports from 1844 detailed the progress made, the plants and herbarium specimens received, the books and periodicals acquired, and the research visitors who came to consult his collections which from 1847 increasingly included samples of plant products for the new Museum of Economic Botany. He continued to edit Curtis's Botanical Magazine, still illustrated by Fitch who had accompanied him from Glasgow. It covered a wide range of plants from round the world, including many orchids, and the giant water lily, Victoria amazonica. Hooker wrote many of the articles himself with the horticultural notes contributed by John Smith (1798–1888) until 1852. Smith, a fern enthusiast, had worked at Kew since 1820, then as curator from 1841 to 1864. Joseph Hooker said that it was entirely due to him 'that the Royal Botanic Gardens maintained any position … between the death of Sir Joseph Banks in 1820 and the appointment of the new Director in 1841' (J. D. Hooker, Sketch, xlvii). Smith was experienced, knowledgeable, and outspoken, but sometimes clashed with Hooker. On one occasion, when Hooker and his landscaper William Nesfield ignored his advice on the siting of the palm house in relation to the pond, Smith was proved right. Smith and Fitch commiserated with each other on the perceived injustices they suffered, but stayed and were invaluable in the development of the gardens and its useful publications.

The contacts Hooker had already developed at Glasgow with governments, the India Office, and the colonies benefited Kew considerably, and enabled it to take on its new role quickly. A highly significant and effective worldwide network of botanical gardens and herbaria grew up, centring on Kew but also communicating directly with each other. Hooker was consulted when they needed senior staff, and often recommended young Kew-trained gardeners for posts overseas, or to accompany exploring expeditions. Kew became the botanical arm of the Foreign Office and was always consulted when questions arose about plants, new crops, forestry, and useful natural products. These questions all presumed the accurate identification of plants, and to assist in this critical work Hooker initiated a series of inexpensive colonial flora volumes describing the plants of various territories, written for the educated layman. He was also appointed local commissioner for the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, advising particularly on economic botany.

Useful new plants were propagated and sent to the botanical gardens overseas where they were most likely to flourish, and many became regular crops. One of the most important was the transfer of Cinchona plants to India in 1859–60 at the request of the India Office, as a remedy for malaria. Hooker also established contacts outside the colonies, notably in Japan. In Britain, Kew-trained gardeners took up appointments in other botanical gardens and the new municipal horticultural departments. Kew propagated plane trees for distribution to London boroughs, and sent suitable new plants to both private and public gardens elsewhere.

The donation of the herbarium and library of W. A. Bromfield (1801–1851), a former student at Glasgow, permitted Hooker to move Kew's herbarium specimens and his own collections from his former home at West Park, Mortlake, into Hunter House on Kew Green, while Hooker himself took up residence in another nearby house. This brought the collections closer to hand, gave space for expansion, and demonstrated the government's commitment to botany; it also attracted other donations, including George Bentham's library and herbarium in 1854. During this time the need grew for an assistant director; Hooker eventually succeeded in getting the post created, and his son Joseph appointed. It was one of Hooker's main ambitions to see his son take over as director at Kew. Father and son worked closely for many years, and is not always easy to attribute responsibility for development at Kew correctly.

Character and final days

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker described his father as over 6 feet tall:

erect, slim, muscular; forehead broad and high but receding, hair nearly black, complexion sanguine, eyes brown, nose aquiline—it had been broken in a school fight; his mobile face, and especially mouth, was the despair of artists … He was a vigorous pedestrian, covering 60 miles a day with ease.

J. D. Hooker, Sketch, lxxxv

The marble bust of William Hooker by Thomas Woolner in 1859 was regarded by his son as an excellent likeness. He was generally very healthy, but a little deaf after an attack of scarlet fever in Glasgow, and subject to eczema and throat infections. In character he was well-mannered, affable, and immediately impressed people with his energy and ability. He had a good memory and worked fast, was prudent and judicious, and knew his strengths. He worked long hours throughout his life, usually until midnight. He was not often seen at great social functions, society meetings, or on committees and suchlike—he did not enjoy them and anyway had his own very wide network of contacts. Besides his Glasgow degree and his knighthood, Hooker received the DCL from Oxford in 1845, and was a corresponding member of the Académie Française, and companion of the Légion d'honneur of France, as well as a member of other leading academies in Europe, Russia, and America.

In summer 1865 there was an epidemic of septic disease of the throat, probably caused by streptococcal bacteria. On Monday 7 August Hooker and his son walked about 5 miles to Battersea Park, to see some sub-tropical plants, and later he showed people around the gardens at Kew; the next day he fell ill. His family were on holiday at Yarmouth, as it had been very hot in London: Lady Hooker was summoned home, but everyone else was advised to stay away for fear of infection. Joseph then became ill with a bad attack of rheumatic fever (also probably caused by Streptococcus) and close friends were called in to help; Sir William died on Saturday 12 August, from a septic paralysis of the throat. He was buried in the family tomb in St Anne's churchyard, Kew Green, on 17 August, and commemorated by a Wedgwood plaque within the church. His wife, Maria, died at Torquay in 1872.

George Bentham and Thomas Thomson completed Hooker's unfinished articles for the next issue of the Botanical Magazine. In accordance with Hooker's will, his personal herbarium and library were offered for sale to the nation, and were purchased for Kew in 1866; they contained over 1 million herbarium specimens, 4000 volumes of publications, and about 29,000 letters dating from 1810 from over 4400 correspondents, bound in 76 volumes.


  • J. D. Hooker, ‘A sketch of the life and labours of Sir William Jackson Hooker, with portrait’, Annals of Botany, 16 (1902), lx–ccxxi
  • M. Allan, The Hookers of Kew, 1785–1911 (1967)
  • R. Desmond, Kew: the history of the Royal Botanic Gardens (1995)
  • J. D. Hooker, ‘The opening of the new botanical department at the Glasgow University’, Annals of Botany, 15 (1901), 551–8
  • G. Bentham, diary, 1865, RBG Kew
  • W. J. Hooker, diplomas granted, etc., RBG Kew
  • R. Desmond, A celebration of flowers: two hundred years of Curtis's Botanical Magazine (1987)
  • F. O. Bowen, ‘Sir William Jackson Hooker’, Makers of British botany, ed. F. W. Oliver (1913), 127–49
  • Sir William Jackson Hooker … 1785–1865, RBG Kew (1965)
  • L. Huxley, ed., Life and letters of Joseph Dalton Hooker (1918)
  • G. Bentham, ‘Sir William Jackson Hooker, 1785–1865’, Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London (1865–6), lxvi–lxxiii


  • Auckland Public Library, letters to Sir George Grey
  • BL, letters to Robert Brown, Add. MSS 32439–32440
  • CBS, letters to duke of Somerset
  • Elgin Museum, letters to George Gordon
  • Harvard U., Houghton L., letters to Asa Gray
  • Linn. Soc., letters to William Swainson; letters to Sir James Smith
  • NHM, letters to members of the Sowerby family
  • Norfolk RO, letters to Hudson Gurney
  • Oxf. U. Mus. NH, letters to J.O. Westwood
  • RBG Kew, letters to Richard Spruce
  • RGS, letters to Royal Geographical Society
  • RS, corresp. with Sir John Herschel
  • Suffolk RO, Ipswich, letters to Robert White
  • TNA: PRO, CRES, WORKS, Admiralty, Foreign Office, Colonial Office and India Office collections
  • U. Newcastle, Robinson L., letters to Sir Walter Trevelyan


  • H. Cook, stipple, 1834 (after T. Phillips), BM, NPG; repro. in W. Jerdan, National portrait gallery of illustrious and eminent personages (1834)
  • W. Drummond, lithograph, pubd 1837, BM
  • S. Gambardella, oils, 1843, Linn. Soc. [see illus.]
  • T. H. Maguire, lithograph, 1851, BM, NPG
  • T. Woolner, marble bust, 1859, RBG Kew; plaster cast, NPG
  • Wedgwood medallion, 1866 (after model by T. Woolner), NPG
  • E. Edwards, photograph, NPG; repro. in L. Reeve, ed., Portraits of men of eminence (1863)
  • D. Macnee, drawing, RBG Kew
  • Maull & Polyblank, carte-de-visite, NPG
  • T. Phillips, pastel drawing, RBG Kew
  • D. Turner, etching (after J. S. Colman), BM, NPG
  • T. Woolner, Wedgwood memorial plaque, St Anne's Church, Kew Green; copy, V&A
  • engraving (after photograph by E. Edwards), repro. in ILN (26 Aug 1865)

Wealth at Death

under £40,000: resworn probate, April 1867, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Royal Geographical Society, London
Natural History Museum, London
National Register of Archives, private collection
Oxford University Museum of Natural History
Boston Public Library, Massachusetts
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
National Portrait Gallery, London
, Church of Jesus Christ of the Latterday Saints
British Museum, London
Royal Society, London
National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
Linnean Society of London
Norfolk Record Office, Norwich
Suffolk Record Office, Ipswich
British Library, London
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, Aylesbury
University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Robinson Library
Harvard University, Houghton Library