Open main menu

Sibthorp, John (DNB00)

SIBTHORP, JOHN (1758–1796), botanist, born at Oxford on 28 Oct. 1758, was youngest son of Humphry Sibthorp (1713–1797) by his second wife, Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of John Gibbes of Instow, Devonshire. Humphry Sibthorp, younger son of John Sibthorp of Canwick Hall, Lincolnshire, was fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, from 1734 to 1741; graduated M.B. in 1743 and M.D. in 1745; and in 1747 succeeded John James Dillenius [q. v.] as Sherardian professor of botany at Oxford. During his thirty-six years' occupancy of the chair he is said to have delivered only one lecture, and that not a successful one; but he was a correspondent of Linnæus, who dedicated to him the genus Sibthorpia (Bloxam, Magd. Coll. Reg. vi. 228; Druce, Flora of Oxfordshire, p. 385).

John Sibthorp was educated at Magdalen College school and Lincoln grammar school, and in 1773 matriculated from Lincoln College, Oxford, graduating B.A. in 1777 and M.A. in 1780. Having been elected Radcliffe travelling fellow of University College, he went to the university of Edinburgh to study medicine. After graduating as M.B. at Oxford in 1783, he went to continue his studies at Montpellier, where he made the acquaintance of Broussonet, and was elected a member of the Academy of Sciences. His uncle dying at this time, his father, on succeeding to the Canwick property, resigned the Sherardian professorship to his son. Sibthorp accordingly returned to England in 1784, and unsuccessfully bid against his friend James Edward (afterwards Sir James Edward) Smith [q. v.] for the collections of Linnæus, hoping to add them to those at Oxford. In the same year he graduated M.D. at Oxford; but, leaving George Shaw [q. v.] to act as deputy-professor, he returned to the continent to make arrangements for a botanical expedition to Greece, with a view to determining the plants named by Dioscorides.

He went first to Gottingen, where he received a doctor's degree, and then to Vienna, where he examined the celebrated illustrated codex of Dioscorides, made the acquaintance of the Jacquins, father and son, and secured the services of Ferdinand Bauer as artist. Leaving Vienna in March 1786, they proceeded by Trieste, Venice, Bologna, Florence, and Rome, to Naples, whence they sailed in May, touching at Messina and Milos, to Crete. There they spent much of the summer; and, after visiting several other islands, Athens and Smyrna, they went by land to Bursa, the Bithynian Olympus, and Constantinople. During the winter Sibthorp studied modern Greek and the birds and fishes of the district. In March 1787 he sailed, with Captain Emery and John Hawkins (afterwards his executor), for Cyprus, touching at Mitylene, Scio, Cos, Rhodes, and various points on the Asiatic coast on the way. He devoted five weeks to the study of the fauna and flora of Cyprus, carefully noting the stations, uses, and vernacular names of the species. The disturbed state of Greece, the immediate prospect of a Russian war, the rebellion of the pashas, and an outbreak of the plague at Larissa, rendered a land journey through Greece impossible; but Sibthorp revisited Athens in June 1787, crossed over to Negropont, ascended Delphi, visited Mount Athos in August, and, proceeding thence by Thessalonica and Corinth, left Patras in September, and reached England in December.

In 1788, the year of the foundation of the Linnean Society, of which Sibthorp was an original member, Sir Joseph Banks, Dr. James Edward Smith, and Dryander spent a week at Oxford examining his collections. Bauer was at the time engaged in drawing the animals collected in Greece.

Sibthorp next devoted himself to the preparation of a flora of Oxfordshire, and in 1794 published his ‘Flora Oxoniensis’ (Oxford, 8vo), which enumerates twelve hundred species from the county, all observed by himself (Druce, op. cit. p. 387). In 1793 Sibthorp's chair and the botanical chair at Cambridge were both made regius professorships.

In March 1794 Sibthorp once more started for Greece, taking Francis Borone with him as assistant. He reached Constantinople suffering from a bilious fever, and was there joined by his friend Hawkins from Crete. They revisited Bithynia, climbed Olympus, and at Fanàr made the acquaintance of Dr. Dimitri Argyrami, an aged botanist who had known the Danish traveller Forskall. In September they went to the Troad, Imbros, Lemnos, and Mount Athos, where they were delayed for some time by Barbary pirates cruising in the neighbourhood. Reaching Athens in October, they stayed there four weeks, during which time Borone was accidentally killed, falling from a window in his sleep. Visiting Zante, Sibthorp purchased from a local apothecary a complete herbarium of the island flora with modern Greek names to the specimens, and in February 1795 he and Hawkins visited the Morea, going to Argos, Mycenæ, Elis, and the site of Sparta, ascending Mount Taygetus, and not returning to Zante till April. Hawkins then returned to Greece, but Sibthorp on 1 May started for Otranto. Bad weather extended the voyage to twenty-four days. He touched at Kephalonia and Prevesa on the mainland, and visited the ruins of Nicopolis, where he caught a cold which brought on consumption. Returning home overland from Ancona, he tried the climate of Devonshire without success, and then moved to Bath, where he died on 8 Feb. 1796. He was buried in Bath Abbey.

By his will Sibthorp bequeathed to the university of Oxford all his books on natural history and agriculture, together with an estate at South Leigh, Oxfordshire, the proceeds of which were to be devoted, first, to the publication of his ‘Flora Græca,’ in ten folio volumes, each with a hundred plates by Bauer, and of an octavo ‘Prodromus’ to the work, without plates, and then to the endowment of a chair of rural economy. For this work he had collected three thousand species; but he left nothing complete beyond Bauer's figures and the plan of the ‘Prodromus.’ The ‘Flora Oxoniensis,’ however, shows Sibthorp to have been a thoroughly critical botanist. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1789. At the death of his father in 1797 Sibthorp's correspondence came into the possession of his sister Lady Sewell, and at her death was sold to a paper mill as waste paper (Druce, op. cit. p. 390). His collection of plants is preserved at Oxford.

Besides the ‘Flora Oxoniensis,’ Sibthorp's only work was his share in the posthumous ‘Flora Græca’ and ‘Floræ Græcæ Prodromus.’ The latter was issued in 2 vols. 8vo, in 1806 and 1813 respectively, by Dr. James Edward Smith, to whom it was entrusted by Sibthorp's executors. Of the ‘Flora Græca Sibthorpiana’ six volumes were issued by Smith between 1806 and his death in 1828, the seventh being published in 1830. The eighth, ninth, and tenth volumes, edited by Dr. John Lindley, were published between 1833 and 1840, the entire cost of the work exceeding 30,000l. Only thirty complete copies of this edition were issued to subscribers, the price of each being 240 guineas. There were in all 966 plates, which were engraved by James Sowerby. A reissue of forty more copies at 63l. each was published by Bohn in 1845–6, under the supervision of Dr. Daubeny.

[Gent. Mag. 1805, ii. 995 (epitaph); Chalmers's Biogr. Dict.; English Cyclopædia; Rees's Cyclopædia, article by Sir J. E. Smith; Nichols's Illustrations, vi. 838; Allibone's Dict. of English Lit.]

G. S. B.