Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Aiton, William (1731-1793)

AITON, WILLIAM (1731–1793), botanist, was born at a small village near Hamilton, Lanarkshire, and brought up as a gardener. In 1754 he came to London in search of employment, and was engaged as an assistant by Mr. Philip Miller, then gardener to the Botanic Garden at Chelsea. In 1759 he was appointed to the management of the Botanic Garden at Kew, which was then in the possession of the Princess Dowager of Wales. He soon raised the position of the garden to one of importance, and indeed may be said to have founded the reputation which Kew has ever since enjoyed. He took every opportunity of increasing the collections, and was mainly instrumental in sending out Francis Masson in 1772, one of the earliest botanical collectors at the Cape. In 1783 he was promoted to the management of the royal forcing and pleasure gardens at Kew and Richmond, at the same time retaining his former post, a house being built for him at Kew by George III. In 1789 he published the ‘Hortus Kewensis, being a Catalogue of the Plants cultivated in the Royal Garden at Kew,’ in 3 vols. 8vo, with 13 plates. To this important work, which contains an enumeration of 5,600 species, he devoted ‘a large proportion of the leisure allowed by the daily duties of his station during more than sixteen years.’ It met with a cordial reception, the whole impression being sold off in two years. A second edition appeared in 1810–13, in five volumes, edited by Aiton's eldest son [see Aiton, William Townsend]. He received the assistance of Dr. Solander, then curator of Sir Joseph Banks's herbarium, to whom the plants from Kew, as well as from other important gardens, were sent to be named. Although no indication is given in the book, the descriptions of the new species contained in it were contributed by Solander, and are so recognised by botanists: the types of these novelties were placed in the Banksian herbarium, now incorporated in the British Museum collections. Dryander, another assistant of Banks, also helped Aiton. The ‘Hortus Kewensis’ is of historical value on account of the care with which the dates of the introduction of the plants enumerated were ascertained by Aiton, not only from books but from personal inquiry among his contemporaries. His eldest son succeeded him; another son, John Townsend Aiton, was placed in charge of the Royal Garden at Windsor. Aiton was extremely active; his private character is described as ‘highly estimable for mildness, benevolence, piety, and every domestic and social virtue.’ Among his friends was Sir Joseph Banks. He died of a disease of the liver, 2 Feb. 1793, and is buried in Kew churchyard. A portrait, in oil, exists in the museum of the Royal Gardens, Kew, from which an engraving was published.

[Preface and Introduction to Hortus Kewensis; Gent. Mag. 1793, lxiii. pt. i. 389; Rees's Cyclopædia.]

J. B.