Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Balfour, John Hutton
BALFOUR, JOHN HUTTON (1808–1884), botanist, was born in Edinburgh, on 15 Sept. 1808, his father having been a surgeon in the army, and one of his near relatives having been James Hutton, author of the 'Theory of the Earth.' After completing his early education at the High School of Edinburgh he studied at St. Andrew's and Edinburgh Universities, graduating M.A. and M.D. Edin., the latter in 1832. He gave up the intention of seeking ordination in the church of Scotland, for which he at first prepared, became M.R.C.S. 1831, F.R.C.S. (Edin.) 1833, and, after studying some time in continental medical schools, commenced medical practice in Edinburgh in 1834. He had previously been greatly attracted to botanical studies by Professor Graham's lectures and excursions, and continuing to enlarge his botanical knowledge, in 1836 he was prominent in establishing the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, and in 1838 the Edinburgh Botanical Club. In 1840 he commenced to give extra-academical lectures on botany at Edinburgh, and had considerable success. In 1841 he succeeded Dr. (afterwards Sir) W. J. Hooker as professor of botany at Glasgow University, and thenceforward gave up medical practice. In 1846, on the death of Graham, Balfour became professor of botany at Edinburgh, and was nominated regius keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden and queen's botanist for Scotland. Becoming F.R.S. (Edinburgh) in 1835, he was for many years an active secretary of the society. For thirty years he was dean of the medical faculty of the university of Edinburgh, in which capacity he was most valuable to the medical school, and very popular with the students. His botanical excursions with pupils were most energetically conducted, and extended to almost every part of Scotland. He ascended every important peak, and gathered every rarity in the flora. Under his care and in co-operation with the curators, the Macnabs, father and son, the Royal Botanic Gardens were much enlarged and improved, and a fine palm-house, an arboretum, a good museum, and excellent teaching accommodation provided. He was the first in Edinburgh to introduce classes for practical instruction in the use of the microscope. He retired from office in 1879, when he received the title of emeritus professor of botany, became assessor in the university court for the general council, and each of the three universities with which he had been connected conferred on him the degree of LL.D. For many years he was a fellow of the Royal Society of London, and a member of a large number of British and foreign scientific societies. He died at Inverleith House, Edinburgh, on 11 Feb. 1884.
Inducted into botany before microscopical work had been largely developed and before the advent of modern views on vegetable morphology and physiology, Balfour was almost necessarily for the most part a systematic botanist. His original work was not extensive, and it is as a teacher and writer of text-books that he was chiefly known. His teaching was painstaking and conscientious, earnest and impressive, and characterised by wealth of illustration and a faculty of imparting his own enthusiasm. He was impartial in the breadth of his teaching, and ever anxious to assimilate new knowledge. His character was deeply religious, and he saw in the objects of nature indubitable evidences of a great designing mind. His geniality was contagious, and it is related of him that on his botanical excursions, as the party neared the habitat of some rare Alpine herb, the wiry and energetic professor—'Woody Fibre' as they called him—would outstrip all in his eagerness to secure it; and that in toiling up a long ascent, his jokes and puns would keep the whole party in good spirits.
Balfour was for many years one of the editors of the 'Annals of Natural History' and of the 'Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal,' and contributed important articles to several cyclopædias. In biography he wrote: 'Biographical Sketch of Dr. Golding Bird,' Edin. 1855; 'Biography of J. Coldstream,' Lond. 1865; and a 'Sketch of D.T.K. Drummond,' prefixed to 'Last Scenes in the Life of Our Lord,' 1878. His botanical text-books went through numerous editions, and included a 'Manual,' 1848, revised 1860; a 'Class Book,' 1852; 'Outlines' 1854; 'Elements,' 1869: a 'First' and a 'Second Book,' with other minor manuals; 'Botanist's Companion,' 1860; 'Botanist's Vade Mecum;' 'Guide to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh,' 1873. His 'Introduction to Palæontological Botany,' 1872, was the least successful of his botanical works. He wrote several botanico-religious books, such as 'Phyto-Theology,' 1851, entitled in its third edition, 'Botany and Religion;' 'Plants of the Bible,' 1857; 'Lessons from Bible Plants,' 1870. He also wrote the botany in MacCrie's 'Buss Rock,' 1848.
[Scotsman, 12 Feb. 1884; Athenaeum, 16 Feb. 1884; Nature, 21 Feb. 1884.]