Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bentham, George
BENTHAM, GEORGE (1800–1884), botanist, second son of Sir Samuel Bentham [q. v.], and nephew of Jeremy Bentham [q. v.], was born 22 Sept. 1800 at Stoke, near Plymouth, where his father was making his annual inspection of the dockyard. His mother, daughter of an eminent physician. Dr. George Fordyce, was a woman of great ability and energy. All the young Benthams were forward children, George beginning Latin before he was five. The years 1805–7 were spent in Russia, Sir Samuel Bentham being occupied on a mission to St. Petersburg; and this visit secured for George a funding in Russian, French, and German. During the homeward voyage in 1807 the family were detained several weeks in Sweden through bad weather, and the indefatigable children took the opportunity to learn Swedish, In later life Bentham read botanical works in fourteen modern European languages, a range highly conducive to the perfection of detail found in his writings. The voyage home from Sweden was a very dangerous and prolonged one, and when they at last arrived off Harwich the family were left at night by the crew on board a wretched craft, where they fed on rejected fragments of biscuit till taken off the following midday. The Benthams remained in England till 1814, the children being entirely educated by private tutors; and with the lack of a public school education there grew on Bentham an habitual shyness that often caused him to be misunderstood. Between the burning of Moscow and the peace of 1814 the young family translated from a Russian paper, for a London magazine, a series of articles on the war. Young George, an enthusiastic boy glorying in the downfall of Napoleon, was presented by his father to the Czar on his visit to Portsmouth dockyard. The Benthams now commenced their prolonged residence in France (1814-27), and Bentham's journals while in Paris are full of interest. Young as he was, he appeared in the brilliant company which his parents received, and enjoyed the society ot Walter Savage Landor, Talleyrand, and Humboldt, the latter warmly aiding him in studying physical geography, on the data of which the youth had already begun to write. In 1816 a very extensive caravan tour of France by the family proved the occasion of Bentham^s first botanical study. At Angouléme he accidentally picked up a copy of De Candolle's 'Flore Française,' then just published, which his mother, a plant lover and a friend of Alton of Kew, had bought. He was struck with its analytical tables, which exactly suited the ideas he had learned from his uncle Jeremy, and which he himself was applying to geography. Going at once into the back yard of the house, and gathering the first plant he saw, he spent a morning over it, and succeeded in assigning it to its right species, a difficult task for a beginner, as the plant happened to be 'Salvia pratensis.' Bentham thereafter took to making out the name and systematic position of every plant he met with.
At Montauban, near Toulouse, the family remained some months, and Bentham was entered as a student of the faculty of theology at Montauban, studying mathematics, Hebrew, and philology, as well as music (of which he was passionately fond), drawing, and botany. Dancing was his most absorbing recreation. De Candolle's 'Theory of Botany ' and other works opened his mind to scientific botany, and he studied exotic plants to a considerable extent. About 1820 shooting and stuffing birds became favourite pursuits of his. At the same period John Stuart Mill joined the Benthams for seven or eight months, and Bentham for a time became once more absorbed in philosophy: Insects were the next study, and insect life was systematicallv tabulated.
Bentham next appears as manager of his father's estate of 2,000 acres near Montpellier, his elder brother having died in 1816. By his method, application, and knowledge of French country life, the young man rapidly improved the estate, but continued to study logic, translating into French his uncle's chapters on nomenclature and clasaification from the 'Chrestomathia,' and amplifying considerably the portions relating to the arts and sciences. This waa publisbed in Paris in 1828, and established his position in France as an acute analyser, clear expositor, and cautious reasoner. His holidays were spent in botanical excursions to the Pyrenees and the Cevennes, and in 1825 an extended journey with Dr. Arnott (afterwards professor of botany at Glasgow) led to Bentham's first botanical work, 'Catalogue des Plantes indigènes des Pyrénées et de Bas-Languedoc, avec aes notes et observations,' Paris, 1826. In this work special stress was laid on the verification of original type-specimens described by authors, then too much neglected. He deprecated the extreme multiplication of badly defined species, and protested against the loose way of naming and describing plants then current. Moreover he noted the variability and intricacy of the characters assigned to species, and insisted on the impropriety of giving separate names to accidental or minor variations.
Induced by his uncle's proposals for joint work, by the attractions of English society, and by the difficulties thrown in the way of improving the French estate by provincial jeslousies, Bentham finally left France in 1826. His uncle persuaded him to give much time to aiding him, but he also studied at Lincoln's Inn. The arrangement lasted till the uncle's death in 1832, but the nephew, from various causes, received much less than he should have done under his uncle's will. Labour with and for his uncle proved irksome and uncongenial ; incessant toil was also demanded of him in connection with his father's voluminous writings on the navy and dockyards. His law studies were sacrificed, and partly on this account, as well as through nervousness, his practice was a failure. Nevertheless, in 1827, he produced 'Outlines of a New System of Logic,' largely in the form of a criticism of Whately's 'Logic' In this remarkable book the doctrine of the quantification of the predicate was for the first time clearly set forth ; but unfortunately the publishers became bankrupt, and the stock went for waste paper when only sixty copies had been sold. It was not till 1850 (Athenæeum 21 Dec.) that the fact of its containing the above discovery was recognised. Sir William Hamilton's claims to it having been supposed indubitable ; but Professor Stanley Jevons, following Herbert Spencer (Contemporary Review, May 1873), gives a decided verdict in favour of Bentham's originality, and terms it the most fruitful discovery in abstract logical science since the time of Aristotle. Sir W. Hamilton reviewed Bentham's book in the 'Edinburgh Review,' lvii. 194–238, but did not mention this discovery.
On several matters of jurisprudence Bentham held and put forward decided views in opposition to his uncle. His paper on codification attracted the attention of Brougham, Hume, and O'Connell; his suggestions on the larceny laws drew a complimentary letter from Peel, and a long comment from Brougham. A pamphlet on the law of real property, dealing with the Registration Bill of 1831, showed the same mastery of details that was afterwards so conspicuous in his botanical writings. But the death of his father (1831) and uncle (1832) set Bentham at liberty to follow the pursuit which had been strengthening its hold upon him in spite of the attractions of law and logic, and to become one of the greatest systematic botanists that England has produced.
For fifty years botany was Bentham's main occupation. From his own account of the development of his ideas (Brit Ass. Rep. 1874) we learn that he regarded as essential to a good knowledge of systematic botany, not only the life-history and distribution of races of plants, but also the results of vegetable physiology and palaeontology. He was himself a link between the adolescent and the more mature stages of his science, having in his early days conversed with one of Linnaeus's active correspondents, Gouan of Montpellier, having received many useful hints from A. L. de Jussieu, founder of the natural system, and having been intimate with the chief promoters and improvers of that system, such as De Candolle, Brown, Endlicher, Lindley, and Hooker. At the close of his career Bentham could say that he had received friendly assistance, personally or by letter, from almost every systematic botanist of note in the nineteenth century.
In 1828 Bentham's herbarium arrived from France, and in the same year he was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society, and regularly attended its meetings. He was proposed at the Royal Society in 1829 by Robert Brown, but at his recommendation withdrew, with other scientific candidates, who regarded with dissatisfaction the election of a royal duke to the presidency of the society. By spending several long vacations on the continent Bentham knew by 1832 the principal continental botanists, and the working of the botanical establishments of Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Munich, and Geneva. Botany grew more interesting to him as it became generally agreed that its main object was not finding out the name of a plant, but determining its relations and affinities, as well as its structure.
In 1829 began Bentham's connection with the Horticultural Society as honorary secretary, which office he retained till 1840. The society at this time had sent out collectors to various countries, and Bentham, with Lindley, the assistant secretary, who became his attached friend, named and described many of the species they brought back. Many plants which have become very common, such as eschscholtzia and clarkia, were introduced by Douglas, and described, with beautiful coloured plates, by Bentham. Further, his management of the society was so successful that he raised it from a perilous state of debt and dissension to a flourishing condition, both financially and scientifically. His 'Plantæ Hartwegianæ,' London, 1839–67, formed another valuable result of his connection with the Horticultural Society, being an account of the collections made in Mexico and California by Hartweg, a collector for the society. Early in Bentham's botanical career Dr. Wallich's return from India with the great collections of the East India Company afforded him a rich supply of material, and led to his study and publication of various more or less exhaustive memoirs of genera and natural orders of Indian plants. Of these the 'Labiatarum Genera et Species,' 1832–36, and 'Scrophularineæ Indicæ,' 1835, were the most important, the former order having been in a state of chaos before he took it in hand.
In 1834 Bentham married the daughter of Sir Harford Brydges, formerly British ambassador at the court of Persia, and in 1834 he removed to his late uncle's house in Queen Square Place, on the site of which the Bentham wing of Queen Anne's Mansions now stands. There he resided till 1842, when, in order to accommodate his extensive herbarium and library, and devote himself more fully to science, he removed to Pontrilaa House, Hereford, where he revised the 'Labiatæ,' and elaborated the great families of scrophularineæ, ericaceæ, polemoniaceæ and others, for his friend Alphonse de Candolle's continuation of the great 'Prodromus of the Vegetable Kingdom.'
In 1854, finding that the expenses of his collections and books were exceeding his means, he presented these (valued at 6,000l.) to Kew Gardens, and even contemplated abandoning botany, still regarding himself, with chacteristic modesty, as an amateur rather than a professional botanist. But fortunately the entreaties of his friends, Sir J. W. Hooker and Dr. Lindley (the former offering him a room at Kew and the use of his private library and herbarium, and asking his co-operation in the series of colonial floras then projected at Kew), averted this threatened loss to science. Bentham returned in 1855 to London, and from 1861 onwards lived at 26 Wilton Place, and almost daily, except during excursions to the continent or to Herefordshire, went to Kew and worked at descriptive botany from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. To his assiduous labours are due the 'Flora of Hongkong' (1861), a model of its kind, and the 'Flora Australiensis,' including seven thousand species, the most extensive exotic flora ever completed, and the unrivalled 'Genera Plantarum.' The working up of the vast and peculiar flora of Australia at such a distance from the localities would have been much more difficult but for the abundant and capable aid afforded by Baron F. von Müller from Melbourne, and the specimens which he transmitted. Nevertheless the work was enormous to undertake single-handed, and Bentham's fears lest he might not live to complete it are very intelligible, when we learn that his success involved the personal examination, criticism, and description of from one thousand to twelve hundred species in a year, as well as the consultation of authorities respecting them. The publication of this great 'Flora,' in seven octavo volumes, extended from 1863 to 1878. The preface gives a vivid idea of the extent of the labour which was expended upon it. Bentham further drew up terse and valuable 'Outlines of Botany,' to be prefixed to all the colonial floras.
Meanwhile the Linnean Society realised Bentham's value as an administrator, and elected him vice-president in 1858, and president in 1861, which office he held continuously for thirteen years with very great success. Time, thought, and money were unsparingly devoted to the promotion of the society's interests, and he was practically secretary, treasurer, and botanical editor as well as president. He personally rearranged the society's librarv on its transference to the new buildings in Burlington House. Bentham's annual presidential addresses were of a masterly character, whether they dealt with philosophical subjects or with the progress of botany. His cautious temperament and logical method made his adhesion to Darwin's views of evolution of great value, when in 1863 he declared that the accuracy of Darwin's facts was no longer contested, and that much of his reasoning was unanswered and unanswerable. In 1868 he thus formulated the principles which he also consistently practised. 'In every biological undertaking . . . there is one true course to pursue: first, to observe for one's self once and again, and to test personally the observations of others; secondly, to collect, compare, and methodise all that has been pulbished and authenticated upon the . . . subject of investigation; and thirdly, to reduce the observations to a general treatise, and speculate upon the conclusions to be drawn from them.'
His valedictory address to the Linnean Society appears in the British Association Report for 1874 as a 'Report on the Recent Progress and Present State of Systematic Botany,' of high historical and autobiographical value. It also, like some of his Linnean addresses, indicates in detail the work remaining to be done in botany.
Bentham's most conspicuous achievement, however, is his share, the larger portion, in the 'Genera Plantarum,' which occupied more than the last quarter of a century of his life. An account of the portions of the work done respectively by Bentham and Sir Joseph Hooker has been given by the former (Linn. Journ. Bot. xx. 804; see also Nature, xxviii. 486). The first part appeared in 1862, and the first volume was completed and brought up to date in 1867; the first half of volume ii. was issued in 1878, the second half in 1876; the first part of volume iii in 1880, the concluding portion in 1888. A single incident may serve to indicate the spirit in which Bentham worked. After more than a year's constant and uninterrupted labour on the orchids, he concluded his revision of that difficult order late one Saturday afternoon; but without pause, knowing that the grasses, a still more arduous task, remained to be undertaken, he simply bade an attendant bring him the material for commencing this last great portion of his work, and immediately began. A man of this mould seemed destined to complete what he undertook, octogenarian though he then was; and the 'Genera Plantarum' gives a revised definition of every genus of flowering plants, a view of its extent, geographical distribution, and synonymy, with references and notes. The Rev. M. J. Berkeley revised the Latin text to secure uniformity of style and diction. The descriptive characters of the natural orders are most carefully drawn up. Nothing has been neglected which could add to the value of the work. The authors have personally examined specimens, living and dead, of the whole series of flowering plants wherever practicable, their extent of knowledge and command of materials far exceeding anything previously attained. The Candollean arrangement of orders is maintained for the most part, but nearly every important order is remodelled. Such a work marks of necesaity an epoch in botany, and Bentham's share in it is his most enduring monument — a model of scientific accuracy, good arrangement, precision of language, and lucidity. Some of the more important orders were also fully discussed by him in extended memoirs in the 'Linnean Society's Journal' during the progress of the 'Genera Plantarum;' among these, those on the Myrtaceæ, Compositæ, Orchideæ, Gramineæ, and on the classification of Monocotyledons, are of special value.
Personally shy and retiring, Bentham's honours were forced upon him unsought. He was elected into the Royal Society in 1862, and received the distinction of a royal medal in 1859; he was also a corresponding member of the Institute of France, in 1878, on the completion of the Australian flora, he was created C.M.G. His reserved manner appeared cold and unsympathetic to those who knew him little; those who knew him well found him warm-hearted and generous in disposition, 'the kindliest of critics, the firmest of friends.'
On the conclusion of the 'Genera Plantarum,' the veteran botanist's strength gave way, and, after ineffectual attempts to resume work at Kew, he became weaker and finally died of old age on 10 Sept. 1884, leaving no family. He bequeathed 1,000l. to the Linnean Society, a like sum to the Scientific Relief Fund of the Royal Society, and a considerable sum for the preparation and publication of botanical works at Kew, and the development of its herbarium and library.
The work by which Bentham was best known to British botanists is his 'Handbook of the British Flora,' 1858. An enlarged and illustrated edition in 2 vols, appeared in 1863-5. All the descriptions were freshly drawn up from specimens.
Besides the works and papers enumerated above, Bentham wrote upwards of 120 separate papers or memoirs, on the classification and description of flowering plants, in 'Linnea,' Hooker's 'Bot. Misc.,' 'Bot. Mag.,' and 'Journ. Bot.,' Linnean Soc. 'Journ.' and 'Trans.,' Hort. Soc. 'Trans.,' 'Natural History Review' (Amur Flora, April 1861; South European Floras, July 1864; De Candolle's Prodromus, Oct. 1864); 'Commentationes de Leguminosarum Generibus,' 4to, Vienna, 1837; 'Enumeratio Plantarum Nov. Holland.' (Hügel's Collection), Vienna, 1837; 'Botany of H.M.S. Sulphur,' London, 1844-6; 'Flora Nigritiana ' in Hooker's 'Niger Flora,' London, 1849; 'Papilionaceæ' in Endlicher and Martin's 'Flora Brasiliensis,' 1840, &c.; Œrsted's papers on Central American flora include much material supplied by Bentham.
[Nature, 2 Oct. 1884 (by Sir Joseph Hooker, who has also kindly revised this article); Gardener's Chronicle, 20 Sept. 1884 (by Dr. Masters); Athenæum, 20 Sept. 1884; Autobiographical Details in Brit Ass. Rep. 1874; Nat. Hist. Rev. (1861), 133, 'On Species and Genera of Plants;' Nature, xxviii. 485; Linn. Soc Journ. Bot. xx. 304.]