Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cunningham, Allan (1791-1839)

CUNNINGHAM, ALLAN (1791–1839), botanist, was the eldest son of Allan Cunningham, a native of Renfrewshire. His mother was a native of Shropshire; by her second marriage in 1790 she had two children, Allan and Richard [q. v.] Allan was born at Wimbledon on 13 July 1791, and went to school at Putney. On leaving school he spent some time in a conveyancer's office in Lincoln's Inn, but the study of law proving uncongenial he readily accepted an engagement as clerk to W. T. Aiton, then at work upon the second edition of the ‘Hortus Kewensis.’ Thus he came into direct contact with Robert Brown, at that time librarian to Sir Joseph Banks, who had charge of the ‘Hortus’ through the press.

In 1814 he was appointed botanical collector to the royal gardens, Kew, and with James Bowie he set sail in October on board the Duncan, Captain Chambers. They anchored at Rio de Janeiro the last week of December, and spent three months collecting in that locality. In April 1815 they started for San Paulo, which they reached after a month of hard and rough travelling, and returned to Rio in August. The next year was spent in collecting from places within a moderate distance from Rio, sending home both dried and living plants. Cunningham was now ordered to sail for New South Wales (his companion proceeding to the Cape), which he reached after a voyage of more than three months in the Surry convict ship; on his arrival he took a cottage at Paramatta, which he used as his headquarters when not travelling. In the autumn (April) he crossed the Blue Mountains, and there saw the pile of stones named Caley's Repulse, as being the furthest point attained by that collector. On reaching the Lachlan they descended the river until it lost itself in swamps; the leader of the expedition, John Oxley, then struck S.W., and they suffered much from thirst. The expedition actually turned back when within twenty miles of the then unknown Murrumbidgee river, and once again struck upon the Lachlan. From this the party began the ascent until in August they came upon the Macquarie, near the Wellington Valley, reaching Bathurst by the end of the month, having traversed twelve hundred miles in nineteen weeks under most trying conditions. His next instructions placed him under Lieutenant King of the Mermaid, 85 tons, on a surveying expedition to the north-west. Six months gave a rich harvest of new forms, but shortness of provisions compelled them to sail to Timor, and after taking in supplies they safely reached Port Jackson. Cunningham then undertook a short expedition to the Illawarra, a more important one to Tasmania, and a second one to the north-west. The vessel had to refit in the mouth of the Endeavour river, the rest of the voyage being over much of the same ground as the former one. Another excursion to the Blue Mountains was made with Stein, the Russian naturalist, followed by a third voyage of the Mermaid to the north-west. On his return to Sydney he heard of the death of Banks. The next few years were spent in constant expeditions; he then returned to England, after an absence of nearly seventeen years. He took up his residence at Strand-on-the-Green, on the opposite side of the river to Kew, and here he devoted himself to arranging his large herbarium, publishing some of his plants in the botanical journals, his travels in the ‘Royal Geographical Society's Journal,’ and some geological remarks in the ‘Geological Proceedings.’

The colonial botanist, Charles Fraser, died in 1832. The post was offered to Allan Cunningham, but declined in favour of his brother Richard, who three years later was killed by the natives. The vacant situation was again offered to Allan, and he accepted it, quitting England never to return. He reached Sydney in October 1836, after an absence of six years from Australia. On entering upon his duties he found that he would have far less chance of collecting than before, as his post was considered to include landscape and market gardening for the colonists, and forty convicts were assigned to quarters in the botanic garden, as a novel feature in a scientific establishment. Early in the following December he resigned his post, and then arranged for a journey to New Zealand, where he spent five months. His health for several years had been in a declining state, and he intended to sail for England in February, but his weakness increased until his death on 27 June 1839. He was buried on 2 July in the Scottish church at Sydney, where a tablet to his memory was inserted; a monument has also been placed in the Botanical Gardens. The coniferous genus Cunninghamia was named by Robert Brown in honour of Allan or Richard Cunningham, possibly both.

[Hooker's Journ. Bot. iv. (1842), 231–320; Hooker's Lond. Journ. Bot. i. (1842) 107–28, 263–92; Proc. Linn. Soc. i. 67–8; Heaton's Australian Dict. (1879), 49, 50; Roy. Soc. Cat. Sci. Papers, ii. 105.]

B. D. J.