David Prain

Director of The Royal Botanic Gardens

On this day in Fettercairn Scotland, the amateur botanist David Prain was born.
He would ultimately become the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens of Calcutta and Kew.
In 1887, David was sent to Calcutta to be the curator of the herbarium. While he was there, he researched Indian Hemp along with crops like Wheat, Mustard, Pulses, and Indigo. But, David's most crucial work involved Cinchona plantations. The bark of Cinchona trees contains quinine, which is used to treat malaria. In David's obituary, it said that he set up a system with the local post offices to send quinine to every Indian village and undoubtedly saved countless lives.
After David returned to England, he became the director at Kew. During his tenure, David implemented many notable changes. David oversaw the effort to have the medicinal garden installed at Cambridge Cottage, and he acquired the Japanese gateway for the 1910 Japan-British exhibition. In terms of promotional efforts, David also reinstated the Kew Bulletin.
David's most significant professional challenge at Kew came not from a plant, but a person. William Purdom was a sub-foreman at Kew, and he was passionate about making sure that the garden staff was being treated fairly.
Tensions started when some of the gardeners discovered that their positions were only temporary. In addition, wages were well below the market level. Even though all of these challenges were legacy issues David had inherited, the problems fell squarely on his shoulders.
David's humble origins gave him a heart for his workers, and he did his best to mediate the situation. While David stayed professional, Purdom made it personal and he pressured David relentlessly. Finally, when he felt despite his best efforts that Purdom would never be satisfied, David forced the issue. David basically said to the powers that be, that they had a choice;  it was him or Purdom.
In the end, David got the support he needed and Purdom moved on.  In a noble gesture, David worked to get Purdom a lead spot on the expedition to China sponsored by Harry Veitch and the Arnold Arboretum. Today, history looks back at David Prain with admiration, that he could recognize the talents of an employee, even while disagreeing with him - acting with both fairness and integrity.

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David Prain
David Prain

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