Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Curtis, William (1746-1799)

1350647Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 13 — Curtis, William (1746-1799)1888Robert Hunt

CURTIS, WILLIAM (1746–1799), botanist, was born at Alton in Hampshire in 1746. When but fourteen years old he was apprenticed to his grandfather, an apothecary. He appears to have acquired his taste for botany from an ostler, who had studied some of the popular herbals of that day. At the age of twenty, Curtis removed to London in order to finish his medical education. He associated himself after a short period with a Mr. Talwin, licentiate of the Apothecaries' Company, to whose practice he at length succeeded. Curtis soon made himself known as a botanist, and became a demonstrator of practical botany at the medical schools; his students frequenting a botanical garden which he planted at Bermondsey, though later in life he cultivated a more extensive establishment at Lambeth Marsh, and eventually he organised a still larger and more important garden in Brompton.

Curtis combined the study of insect life and their metamorphoses with his botany, his first published work being a pamphlet entitled ‘Instructions for Collecting and Preserving Insects.’ This was published in 1771, and in the following year he produced a translation of Linnæus's ‘Fundamenta Entomologiæ.’ These publications secured him a name, and in 1777 he commenced his ‘Flora Londinensis,’ which established his reputation. This work extended to six fasciculi of seventy-two plates each. In 1781 he undertook the ‘Botanical Magazine,’ which was long continued, and added to Curtis's income. In 1782 there was much alarm created by the appearance in vast numbers of the brown-tailed moth. Large rewards were offered for collecting and destroying them. Curtis carefully studied the natural history of this caterpillar, and wrote a pamphlet proving that there was no reason for fearing any increase in their numbers.

Curtis from time to time printed catalogues of his garden, and he published his ‘Lectures on Botany,’ which after his death were illustrated with beautifully coloured plates. His work also on ‘British Grasses’ was of great value to the farmer. He was one of the original fellows of the Linnean Society, and he furnished two of his most complete entomological papers to the transactions of that body, one on the ‘Silpha Grisca and Curculio Lapathi’ and the other showing that the aphides or lice of plants were the sole cause of the honey dew. This last paper was not published until after Curtis's death, on 7 July 1799. For a considerable time he had laboured under an organic affection of the heart and the vessels connected with it. He bore his affliction with much resignation, and died regretted by a large circle of scientific friends, who followed his remains to their resting-place in Battersea Church.

[Gent. Mag. 1799, lxix. 628; Rees's Cyclopædia; Transactions of the Linnean Society; Rose's Biographical Dictionary; Flora Londinensis.]

R. H-t.