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Darwin Correspondence Project

From J. D. Hooker   4 August 1881

Royal Gardens Kew

Aug 4/81.

Dear Darwin

I am groaning over my Address for York after a fashion with which I have more than once bored you awfully.—1 now do believe me when I say that it is an unspeakable relief to me to groan towards you;—& I will have done.

I am trying to formulate my ideas on the subject of the several stages or discoveries or ideas by which the Geog. distrib. (of plants) has been brought up to be a science & to it’s present level, & showing that these stages have all been erected on ideas first entertained by great voyagers or travellers, thus “hitching” myself on to the sympathies of a Geographical audience!—something in this following sort of way—

1 Tournefort’s Enunciation of the likeness between the vegetation of successive elevations & degrees of latitude:—the true bearings of which have come out only now that we know that said vegetations are affiliated in fact as well as in appearance.2

2 Humboldt’s showing that great natural orders, Graminiae Leguminae, Compositae &c are subject to certain laws of increase or decrease relatively to other plants, in going polewards (in both hemispheres), or sky-wards. I should also refer parenthetically to his construction of the isothermals as so great an engine towards the advancement of Geog. Bot.3

Now will you give me your idea as to whether I should be right in calling Humboldt the greatest of Scientific travellers; or only the most accomplished,—or most prolific.? It is the custom to disparage Humboldt now as a shallow man, but when I think of what he did through his own observations during travel, for Geog. distrib. of plants,—for Meteorology, for Magnetism,—for topography,—for physical Geography & hydrography, for Ethnology, for political history of Spanish America & for Antiquity of Mexico—besides the truth & picturesqueness of his descriptions of scenery & all else—I am constrained to regard him as the first of scientific travellers;— do you?4 This is however a digression.—

3. Lyell’s showing that distribution is not a thing of the present only or of the present condition of climates and present outline & contour of lands & Forbe’s Essay on the British Flora.5

4. The establishment of the permanence since the Silurian period of the present continents & oceans.— Were not you the first to insist on this, or at least point this out?— Do you not think that Wallace’s summing up of the proof of it is good? (I know I once disputed the doctrine, or rather could not take it in—but let that pass!)6

5. The Evolution theory.7

6 The discovery of fossil warm plants in high Northern regions, leading to exact ideas as to effect of glacial period, as shown by Gray’s Essay.8

7. I must wind up with the doctrine of general distribution being primarily from North to South & always along existing continents, with no similar general flow from S. to N.—thus supporting the doctrine which has it’s last expression in Dyer’s Essay read before the Geog. Soc.—& referred to in my last R. S. Address (1879 p. 15)9 Now if this is accepted, we may not too hastily throw overboard Saporta’s doctrine of the boreal origination of the main types of vegetation;10 & if this again is accepted we cannot altogether neglect Buffon’s argument that vegetation should have commenced where the cooling globe was first cold enough to support it, ie. at a pole,— and lastly if this is accepted I must bring in Buffon’s speculation in its proper chronological order, and put it as No 2 of the stages that have led up to our present state of knowledge—11 But I am disposed to regard Saportas & Buffons views as too speculative for that & to introduce them at the end— What do you think of this point, & of it all.?

It is not even on paper & how I am to get it all in shape before the end of the month passes my limited power of prevision.

I have to take some part in this Congress, & by request, give a Garden party on Saturday—12 it will be a dreadful ordeal I fear, (except it rains!.)

I was at H. C. Watson’s funeral yesterday— I had known him since 1832!—13

We have taken a cottage at Bagshot, in Waterer’s grounds for the childrens holidays & for my Sundays.14 You will be affectionately glad to hear that Brian comes out high in taking his Diploma in Metallurgy at School of Mines; & that Reggie left his school at Margate with the first prize— Brian goes for 2 years to the Mining School at Clausthal.15 Reggie is still puny & weakly but in excellent spirits— I shall now send him to France to live with an Aunt of my wifes for a year & go to a day school.—16 Languages are his forte.

Moseley will I suppose go to Oxford.17

I feel awfully guilty in sending you such a screed & asking you for so much advice.

Ever affly Yrs | J D Hooker.


Hooker was preparing his presidential address for the geography section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting at York (Hooker 1881; see letter from J. D. Hooker, 20 August 1881).
Hooker traced the beginnings of plant geography to Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, who was credited with the idea that vegetation of higher altitudes paralleled that of higher latitudes; Hooker added that the affinity of floras was now understood through the theory of descent (Hooker 1881, p. 729).
On Alexander von Humboldt’s contributions to plant geography, see Hooker 1881, pp. 730–1. On his use of isothermal lines, see Humboldt 1817 and Dettlebach 1996, pp. 295–9.
On the European reception of Humboldt and his influence on natural history and travel in the nineteenth century, see Nicolson 1990, Pratt 1992, and Leask 2002.
In his address, Hooker discussed Charles Lyell’s views on climate and the surface of the earth, citing the third edition of Principles of geology (C. Lyell 1834–5, 3: 376; Hooker 1881, p. 731). He also discussed Edward Forbes’s essay on British flora (Forbes 1846; Hooker 1881, pp. 731–2).
For CD’s view on the permanence of continents, see Origin, pp. 357–8; see also Correspondence vol. 6, letter to Charles Lyell, 16 [June 1856], and Correspondence vol. 14, letter to Charles Lyell, 12 October [1866]). Alfred Russel Wallace had written on the permanence of continents and oceans in Island life (Wallace 1880a, pp. 81–102). Hooker had proposed a former continent joining New Zealand and South America (see Hooker 1853–5, 1: xxi–xxiii, and Correspondence vol. 14, letter from J. D. Hooker, [24 July 1866]). For Hooker and CD, the Silurian period comprised what would now be termed the Ordovician and the Silurian periods.
Hooker discussed the importance of CD’s theory of descent and described him as the ‘latest and greatest lawgiver’ of the science of geographical distribution (Hooker 1881, p. 733).
Asa Gray’s essay on the affinities between the floras of eastern Asia and eastern North America had suggested the possibility of migration across Arctic regions (A. Gray 1858–9; see Correspondence vol. 8, letter to Asa Gray, 7 January [1860]).
Hooker had discussed William Turner Thiselton-Dyer’s lecture to the Royal Geographical Society of London (Thiselton-Dyer 1878) in his presidential address to the Royal Society of London in 1878 (see Hooker 1878, pp. 54–5).
Gaston de Saporta had proposed that flowering plants (angiosperms) originated in the polar regions in Saporta 1877.
Hooker presented Saporta’s thesis as an elaboration of the views of Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, that the cooling of the globe began in the polar regions, and that these were the first to support organic life (see Buffon 1774–89, vol. 9, Saporta 1877, pp. 198–9, and Hooker 1881, p. 737. On Buffon’s theory of the cooling earth, see Rudwick 2005, pp. 142–7.
The seventh International Medical Congress was held in London from 2 to 9 August 1881; for details of the festivities, including the garden party at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, see British Medical Journal, 13 August 1881, p. 303.
Hewett Cottrell Watson had died on 27 June 1881 (ODNB).
The grounds were owned by John Waterer and Sons, nurserymen in Bagshot, Surrey (Post Office directory of the six home counties).
Brian Harvey Hodgson Hooker and Reginald Hawthorn Hooker. Hooker refers to the Royal School of Mines in South Kensington, London, and the Preussische Bergakademie Clausthal in Germany.
Hyacinth Hooker’s aunt, Harriet Alicia Joan Raynal, lived in Paris (letter from J. D. Hooker to W. T. Thiselton-Dyer, 22 October 1878, Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, JDH/2/16 f.44).
Henry Nottidge Moseley became Linacre Professor of human and comparative anatomy at Oxford in 1881 (ODNB). The position had been held by George Rolleston until his death (see letter from J. D. Hooker, 18 June 1881).


Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de. 1774–89. Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière. Supplément. 14 vols. Paris: Imprimerie royale.

Dettelbach, Michael. 1996. Humboldtian science. In Cultures of natural history, edited by Nicholas Jardine et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Forbes, Edward. 1846. On the connexion between the distribution of the existing fauna and flora of the British Isles, and the geological changes which have affected their area, especially during the epoch of the Northern Drift. Memoirs of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, and of the Museum of Economic Geology in London 1: 336–432.

Gray, Asa. 1858–9. Diagnostic characters of new species of phænogamous plants, collected in Japan by Charles Wright, botanist of the US North Pacific Exploring Expedition … With observations upon the relations of the Japanese flora to that of North America, and of other parts of the northern temperate zone. [Read 14 December 1858 and 11 January 1859.] Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences n.s. 6: 377–452.

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. 1853–5. Flora Novæ-Zelandiæ. 2 vols. Pt 2 of The botany of the Antarctic voyage of HM discovery ships Erebus and Terror, in the years 1839–1843, under the command of Captain Sir James Clark Ross. London: Lovell Reeve.

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. 1878c. President’s address. [Read 30 November 1878.] Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 28 (1878–9): 43–63.

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. 1881. On geographical distribution. Presidential address, section E, geography. [Read 1 September 1881.] Report of the 51st Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held at York, Transactions of the sections, pp. 727–38.

Humboldt, Alexander von. 1817. Des lignes isothermes et de la distribution de la chaleur sur le globe. Mémoires de physique et de chimie de la Société d’Arcueil 3: 462–602. [Also Edinburgh Philosophical Journal 3 (1820): 1–20, 256–74; 4 (1821): 23–37, 262–81; 5 (1821): 28–39.]

Leask, Nigel. 2002. Curiosity and the aesthetics of travel writing, 1770–1840: ‘from an antique land’. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lyell, Charles. 1834–5. Principles of geology: or, the modern changes of the earth and its inhabitants, considered as illustrative of geology. 3d edition. 4 vols. London: John Murray.

Nicolson, Malcolm. 1990. Alexander von Humboldt and the geography of vegetation. In Romanticism and the sciences, edited by Andrew Cunningham and Nicholas Jardine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.

Post Office directory of the six home counties: Post Office directory of the six home counties, viz., Essex, Herts, Kent, Middlesex, Surrey and Sussex. London: W. Kelly & Co. 1845–78.

Pratt, Mary Louise. 1992. Imperial eyes: travel writing and transculturation. London: Routledge.

Rudwick, Martin John Spencer. 2005. Bursting the limits of time: the reconstruction of geohistory in the age of revolution. London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Saporta, Gaston de. 1877c. L’ancienne végétation polaire d’après les travaux de M. le professeur Heer et les dernières découvertes des explorateurs suédois. Paris: E. Martinet.

Thiselton-Dyer, William Turner. 1878. Lecture on plant-distribution as a field for geographical research. [Read 24 June 1878.] Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London 22 (1878–9): 412–45.

Wallace, Alfred Russel. 1880a. Island life: or, the phenomena and causes of insular faunas and floras, including a revision and attempted solution of the problem of geological climates. London: Macmillan.


Outlines address to York BAAS meeting on history of geographical distribution. Organising theme: advancement in this science based on ideas enunciated by scientific voyagers. Asks CD’s advice.

Letter details

Letter no.
Joseph Dalton Hooker
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 104: 154–7
Physical description
ALS 8pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 13272,” accessed on 22 March 2023,