The Fruit Structure Taxonomist
November 10, 1683
Today is the anniversary of the death of the 17th-century Scottish botanist Robert Morison.
A contemporary of the English naturalist and writer, John Ray, Robert helped to devise the modern system of plant classification by relying mainly on the structure of a plant's fruits for classification.
After fighting on the losing side of the Civil Wars in Scotland, Robert left his home country to go to France, where he got a job as the Royal Gardens director at Blois (“Blue-ah”). Blois was foundational for Robert. The experience gave him a close personal understanding of a vast number of plants. Between his encyclopedic knowledge of plants in Scotland and France, Robert quickly became one of the most knowledgeable botanists of his time. Robert stayed in France for a decade between 1650 and 1660. Like many botanists of his time, Robert was a physician, and he served both French and English royalty as a private doctor.
By 1669, Robert began teaching botany at Oxford, and he released his groundbreaking book Praeludia botanica, followed by additional valuable references like his plant history book and his book on herbs. Through these works, Robert voiced his criticism of the old ways of classification - which were based on habitat, the season of flowering, leaf shape, or medicinal uses, for example. Robert felt that his system could best be learned hands-on by observing nature day after day as he had in Blois's gardens. But Robert also thought that the proper way to classify plants had been revealed biblically in Genesis 1:11-12:
And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.”
Robert cast a long shadow on future generations of botanical leaders. He inspired the artist Nicolas Robert to pursue botanical illustration. And Robert's influence can be seen in this little story about the botanist John Wilson. By training, Wilson was a shoemaker and then a baker. But his heart was inclined toward botany. John was so intent on learning about botany that he almost sold his only cow to buy one of Morison’s books. History tells us that the transaction would have almost certainly caused John's financial ruin had a neighbor lady not purchased the book for him.