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Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Bentham, George (1800-1884)


Reference code(s): GB 0068 GEB

Held at: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Title: Bentham, George (1800-1884)

Date(s): 1799- 1897

Level of description: Collection (fonds)

Extent: 4 series, 63 files

Name of creator(s): Bentham | George | 1800-1884 | botanist


Administrative/Biographical history:

George Bentham was born on 22 September 1800 at Stoke, near Portsmouth. His father was the well-known naval architect Samuel Bentham. His mother was the daughter of Dr. George Fordyce, F.R.S., and an amateur botanist. In 1805 his father was sent to St. Petersburg by the English government, where the family resided until 1807. At this time George became fluent in Russian, French and German, showing his great aptitude for languages. The family returned to England for a time, and then moved to France in 1814, where they would reside for the next twelve years. Bentham never attended school in his youth, being educated at home by his mother and private tutors.

Bentham studied at the Protestant Theological College for two years beginning 1818, when the family lived in Montauban, S W France. It was during this time that his intense interest in botany developed, prompted by a study of de Candolles' edition of Lamarck's Flore francaise. Bentham was fascinated by the analytical tables for the determination of plants in the book, which fell in with the methodical and tabulating ideas he acquired while studying the works of his uncle, the philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham, and greatly influenced his bias towards Classificatory Botany. Bentham began frequent excursions to the French countryside to collect plants which he would then preserve and classify, forming the start of what would become his extensive herbarium. In late 1820 Samuel Bentham purchased an estate near Montpellier and put George in charge of operations. Bentham continued to devote time to botany and extending his herbarium while managing the estate. He studied plants with John Stuart Mills, a guest of his father. In 1823 he visited England to investigate agricultural methods and implements, while also acquainting himself with British botanists. By 1825 he had collected enough material to write his Catalogue des Plantes Indigènes des Pyrénees et du Bas Languedoc. Bentham's first botanical work firmly established him as a serious botanist.

In 1826 the Bentham family returned to England. In London, to ensure financial stability Bentham pursued law and entered Lincoln's Inn while assisting his Uncle Jeremy each morning. In 1927 he published his Outline of a New System of Logic, with a Critical Examination of Dr. Whaltey's 'Elements of Logic'. Bentham was disappointed with its response, and it was not until an 1850 article in the Athenaeum that Bentham's innovation was recognized. He continued to devote large amounts of time to botany, assisting other botanists and writing articles for botanical magazines. Bentham worked with Dr. Nathaniel Wallich in the distribution of his enormous Indian collection and his elaboration of the order Labitae, demonstrating his insight and great skill for taxonomic work. He became a member of Council of the both the Linnean and Horticulture Societies. He became Honorary Secretary of the Horticulture Society in 1829, a turbulent period for the organisation. With the aid of Assistant Secretary and friend John Lindley, Bentham returned the organisation to a financially and scientifically thriving state. He also instituted the first Chiswick Horticultural Fete in April, 1832.

In 1833 Bentham married Sarah Brydges, the daughter of a diplomat. At this time Bentham ended his career in law to pursue botany full time. Bentham further secured his place in the scientific world with the publication of his Labiatarum Genera et Species, 1832-36. In 1836 he toured the gardens and herbaria of Europe, settling in Vienna in the fall to prepare his first important work on Leguminosae, Leguminorarum Generibus Commentiones.

From 1842 to 1854 Bentham resided at Pontrilas House, Herefordshire where he diligently continued his botanical work. He added to his ever growing herbarium and elaborated on various orders of plants for De Candolle's Prodromus. By 1854 Bentham found the maintenance of his herbarium and library too demanding, and presented them to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He returned to London for the final time, and was encouraged by Sir WJ Hooker, the Garden's Director, to continue his botanical studies at Kew. Bentham was accommodated with his own work space in the Kew Herbarium, where he worked almost every day for the next thirty years.

Bentham produced numerous important botanical works during these years. His Flora Hongkongensis was published in 1861. Bentham completed the Flora Australiensis (1863-1870) in seven volumes, describing around 7,000 species. This was the first time the flora of any large continental area had been finished, and was a remarkable achievement for Bentham. His most major work, however, was done in conjunction with Sir Joseph Hooker. The Genera Plantarum, a revision of the known genera of Phanerogams, was started in 1862 and completed in 1883. Bentham also published the illustrated Handbook to British Flora, a beginner's guide to flora of the British Isles. Bentham took on many other projects during his years at Kew. After Dr. Wallich's return to India he catalogued and distributed the last portion of Wallich's massive herbarium. He also catalogued, arranged and distributed plants collected by Robert and Richard Schomburgk in Guiana, Theodor Hartweg's collections from Columbia, Mexico and California, and Richard Spruce's specimens from Brazil and Peru. He also classified and named the 30,000 species constituting the herbarium of his friend C. Leman. This huge undertaking took ten years and earned Bentham an honorary degree from the University of Cambridge, where the Leman Herbarium was deposited.

Bentham was awarded a Royal Medal in 1859, and elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1862. He served as President of the Linnean Society from 1861 to 1874. During his presidency he developed a scheme for classifying books in the library, and later used same system to help Kew Gardens arrange its new library. Bentham passed away on 10 September 1884, working almost right up to his death. He made Joseph Hooker one of the executors of his estate and left Hooker to administer his greatly extensive collection of correspondence, diaries, papers and manuscripts, which form the Bentham collection at the Kew Gardens Archive.


Scope and content/abstract:

Papers of George Bentham, 1799- 1897, comprising four series. The first is a collection of correspondence addressed to George Bentham, primarily from other botanists and botanical in subject, in addition to letters from Bentham addressed to Sir Joseph Hooker and several others (GEB/1). The second series consist of diaries written by Bentham, the earliest beginning in 1807 and the latest finishing in 1883, near the end of his life (GEB/2). The third series contains various papers, manuscripts and documents relating to the life and death of Bentham, as well his autobiography covering the years of his life from 1800 to 1834 (GEB/3). The fourth and final series contains botanical works, papers and manuscripts written by Bentham, including his nine volume work on Leguminosae and the Bentham Herbarium plant list (GEB/4).


Language/scripts of material: English, French, German, Russian

System of arrangement:

Arranged in series as outlined in the scope and content.

Conditions governing access:

Unrestricted - surrogates to be used where available.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Please contact the Archive for further information.

Finding aids:

File level description available. Please contact the Archive for further information.


Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Records indicate that Bentham left his collection of correspondence and personal papers to Sir Joseph Hooker, Kew Director from 1865 to 1895. GEB/4/16 came to Kew from the University College of North Wales.


Existence and location of copies:

GEB/2/1- GEB/2/20: Bentham Diaries, 1830-1883- Microfilm
GEB/2/21- GEB/2/24: Bentham Diaries, 1807-1811, 1812-1817, 1818-1819, 1820-1825- Microfilm
GEB/3/5 & GEB/3/6: Bentham Autobiography, 1800-1834- Microfilm
GEB/1/3: Bentham Correspondence, Vol 3, Charles Darwin Letters ONLY- Microfilm.
GEB/1/1-4 Correspondence Volumes: Exist on Microfilm.
GEB/3/2: Benthamiana- photocopy of letter from Bentham to JD Hooker regarding will ONLY (Location: S 21/1)


Archivist's note: Entry transcribed by Sarah Drewery, March 2011.

Rules or conventions: General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal Place and Corporate Names 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions: March 2011

Botanists | Scientists | Scientific personnel | Personnel | People by occupation | People
Herbs | Plants | Flora | Vegetation | Botany

Personal names
Hooker | Sir | Joseph Dalton | 1817-1911 | Knight | botanist

Corporate names