Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Edmondston, Thomas

EDMONDSTON, THOMAS (1825–1846), naturalist, born at Buness in Unst, the most northerly of the Shetland group of islands, on 20 Sept. 1825, was the eldest son of Laurence Edmondston, M.D. [q. v.], the udaller of that island. From his earliest years he showed great aptitude in acquiring knowledge of plants and animals, especially as the climate made regular attendance at school impossible. His home education was therefore continued as supplementary to his school training from 1834–6. Although at first delicate, the lad grew up strong and full of spirit, devoted to field studies, yet deeply attached to books. A decided impetus was given to his naturalist's proclivities by a visit of Dr. Gilbert McNab, who found, on looking over the boy's herbarium, a plant which he did not recognise. This turned out to be Arenaria norvegica, then first discovered as a native, and known nowhere else in the British Isles. In 1838, in company with Professors Goodsir and Edward Forbes, he visited some of the islands near to Unst, followed directly afterwards by a botanical tour round Shetland by himself, on which he spent three weeks. In 1840 the boy of fifteen went with his mother to Edinburgh, and was nearly wild with delight at the scenes he witnessed and the scientific men he met. The trees greatly delighted him, coming as he did from a treeless district, the specimens his father had planted only growing a few feet high when protected with high walls. Among his new acquaintances may be mentioned Professors Balfour, Graham, Jameson, and Macgillivray. From Edinburgh he went to Glasgow, and spent some time at Bothwell in the neighbourhood, returning to Shetland in September after three months' absence.

The next year was devoted to study and correspondence with his new friends. In 1841 it was decided that Edmondston should pass the winter in Edinburgh. He there became assistant secretary to the Edinburgh Botanical Society. Having matriculated at the university, he began his course of medical studies. He was disappointed of the first prize for a student's collection of dried plants, which was given to another competitor from some mistake on the judge's part. This wrought on Edmondston's sensitive mind, and after some days of brooding he started abruptly for London, whence he was induced to return home by his father, who had followed him.

In 1843 he began to give lectures at Lerwick on botany, having nearly forty pupils, but an attack of measles interrupted the course; the winter was spent in writing articles for the ‘Phytologist’ and similar journals, and in a voluminous correspondence. In 1844 he lectured both at Forres and Elgin, and made a tour after plants in the Braemar and Clova districts, in the course of which he met Hewett Cottrell Watson, with whom he sheltered for a night in a shepherd's shieling. Watson endeavoured to procure for Edmondston the post of curator to the Botanical Society of London, but was unsuccessful. In the autumn he settled in Aberdeen to attend the lectures at the university, but was elected to the professorship of botany and natural history in Anderson's ‘University’ at Glasgow on 15 Jan. 1845. In the spring he issued the ‘Flora of Shetland,’ a small octavo, which is still interesting as a list of plants, but is arranged on a special scheme of the author's own.

Before he had time to begin his lectures Edmondston accepted an offer from Edward Forbes [q. v.] of the post of naturalist on board the Herald, ordered to the Pacific and Californian coast. He joined his ship on 21 May. After sailing round Cape Horn and touching at several ports northwards the Herald visited the Galapagos Islands, and then returned to the coast of Peru, dropping anchor in Sua Bay, near the river Esmeraldos. The next day, 24 Jan. 1846, a boat was sent ashore, but on re-embarking a rifle was accidentally discharged, and the ball passed through Edmondston's head, killing him instantaneously. He was buried on shore the following day.

Dr. Seemann, in his ‘Botany of the Herald,’ dedicated a genus Edmonstonia (sic) to the memory of the naturalist to the ship, but not maintained, as the plant had been previously described by Poeppig as Tetrathylacium, but a variety of a British plant still bears his name, Cerastium arcticum var. Edmondstonii.

[The Young Shetlander, by his Mother (a biography by Mrs. Edmondston), 1868; Phytologist (1845), p. 185, (1846) p. 580.]

B. D. J.