David Douglas, The Overzealous Botanist

By | October 1, 2019

test article image
Douglas Fir in Quinault Forest Olympic National Park Washington USA. Source: (Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Botany, the study of plants, may seem like a dull subject. Collecting and cataloging flora doesn’t seem to be in league with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone or the explorations of Henry Hudson. But that was not the case two hundred years ago. To the West, much of the world was still unknown and there was a cadre of explorers who were filled with derring-do to collect all the world’s knowledge.

Since unknown species of plants were located in unexplored parts of the globe, this entailed scientists to cloak themselves with Indiana Jones-like guts mixed with the stamina of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton. Case in point is David Douglas who is one of history’s best-known botanists and to whom his name is given to the Douglas fir tree.

He also died one of the most atypical deaths imaginable.

test article image
David Douglas. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Early Years

David Douglas was born on June 25, 1799, in the village of Scone, Scotland the son of a stonemason. He began an apprenticeship in plant lore at age 10 or 11 at the estate of the Earl of Mansfield under the tutelage of the head gardener, William Beattie. This he did for seven years learning the practical work of plant culture and then obtained a position at the estate of Sir Robert Preston. Preston happened to have a large library of botanical books that the young Douglas, who had no formal education, devoured.

In 1820, Douglas went to the Botanical Gardens of the University of Glasgow where he became friends with a new botany professor, William Hooker. He attended Hooker’s lectures and obtained access to the professor’s private library. Hooker would describe Douglas as one of “great activity, singular abstemiousness, and energetic zeal." Together the two journeyed into the Scottish Highlands where Douglas learned how to press and dry plants, something very important for field preservation. In 1823, Hooker recommended Douglas to the prestigious Royal Horticultural Society which needed a young botanist to send abroad as a collector.