BENTHAM, GEORGE (1800-1884), English botanist, was born at Stoke near Portsmouth on the 22nd of September 1800. His father, Sir Samuel Bentham (1757-1831), was the only brother of Jeremy Bentham, the publicist, and of scarcely inferior ability though in a different direction. Devoting himself in early life to the study of naval architecture, Sir Samuel went to Russia to visit the naval establishments in the Baltic and Black Seas. He was induced to enter the service of the empress Catherine II., built a flotilla of gunboats and defeated the Turkish fleet. For this he was made, in addition to other honours, colonel of a cavalry regiment. On the death of the empress he returned to England to be employed by the admiralty, and was sent (1805-1807) again to Russia to superintend the building of some ships for the British navy. He attained the rank, under the admiralty, of inspector-general of naval works. He introduced a multitude of improvements in naval organization, and it was largely through his recommendation that M.I. Brunel's block-making machinery was installed at Portsmouth.
George Bentham had neither a school nor a college education, but early acquired the power of giving sustained and concentrated attention to any subject that occupied him - one essential condition of the success he attained as perhaps the greatest systematic botanist of the 19th century. Another was his remarkable linguistic aptitude. At the age of six to seven he could converse in French, German and Russian, and he learnt Swedish during a short residence in Sweden when little older. At the close of the war with France, the Benthams made a long tour through that country, staying two years at Montauban, where Bentham studied Hebrew and mathematics in the Protestant Theological School. They eventually settled in the neighbourhood of Montpellier where Sir Samuel purchased a large estate.
The mode in which George Bentham was attracted to the botanical studies which became the occupation of his life is noteworthy; it was through the applicability to them of the logical methods which he had imbibed from his uncle's writings, and not from any special attraction to natural history pursuits. While studying at Angoulême a copy of A.P. de Candolle's Flore française fell into his hands and he was struck with the analytical tables for identifying plants. He immediately proceeded to test their use on the first that presented itself. The result was successful and he continued to apply it to every plant he came across. A visit to London in 1823 brought him into contact with the brilliant circle of English botanists. In 1826, at the pressing invitation of his uncle, he agreed to act as his secretary, at the same time entering at Lincoln's Inn and reading for the bar. He was called in due time and in 1832 held his first and last brief. The same year Jeremy Bentham died, leaving his property to his nephew. His father's inheritance had fallen to him the previous year. He was now in a position of modest independence, and able to pursue undistractedly his favourite studies. For a time these were divided between botany, jurisprudence and logic, in addition to editing his father's professional papers. Bentham's first publication was his Catalogue des plantes indigènes des Pyrénées et du Bas Languedoc (Paris, 1826), the result of a careful exploration of the Pyrenees in company with G.A. Walker Arnott (1799-1868), afterwards professor of botany in the university of Glasgow. It is interesting to notice that in it Bentham adopted the principle from which he never deviated, of citing nothing at second-hand. This was followed by articles on various legal subjects: on codification, in which he disagreed with his uncle, on the laws affecting larceny and on the law of real property. But the most remarkable production of this period was the Outline of a New System of Logic, with a Critical Examination of Dr Whately's Elements of Logic (1827). In this the principle of the quantification of the predicate was first explicitly stated. This Stanley Jevons declared to be "undoubtedly the most fruitful discovery made in abstract logical science since the time of Aristotle." Before sixty copies had been sold the publisher became bankrupt and the stock went for wastepaper. The book passed into oblivion, and it was not till 1873 that Bentham's claims to priority were finally vindicated against those of Sir William Hamilton by Herbert Spencer. In 1836 he published his Labiatarum genera et species. In preparing this work he visited, between 1830-1834, every European herbarium, several more than once. The following winter was passed in Vienna, where he produced his Commentationes de Leguminosarum generibus, published in the annals of the Vienna Museum. In 1842 he removed to Pontrilas in Herefordshire. His chief occupation for some succeeding years was his contributions to the Prodromus Systematis Naturalis Regni Vegetabilis, which was being carried on by his friend, A.P. deCandolle. In all these dealt with some 4730 species.
In 1854 he found the maintenance of a herbarium and library too great a tax on his means. He therefore offered them to the government on the understanding that they should form the foundation of such necessary aids to research in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. At the same time he contemplated the abandonment of botanical work. Fortunately, he yielded to the persuasion of Sir William Hooker, John Lindley and other scientific friends. In 1855 he took up his residence in London, and worked at Kew for five days a week, with a brief summer holiday, from this time onwards till the end of his life. As his friend Asa Gray wrote: "With such methodical habits, with freedom from professional or administrative functions, which consume the time of most botanists, with steady devotion to his chosen work, and with nearly all authentic material and needful appliances at hand or within reach, it is not so surprising that he should have undertaken and have so well accomplished such a vast amount of work, and he has the crowning merit and happy fortune of having completed all that he undertook." The government, in 1857, sanctioned a scheme for the preparation of a series of Floras or descriptions in the English language of the indigenous plants of British colonies and possessions. Bentham began with the Flora Hongkongensis in 1861, which was the first comprehensive work on any part of the little-known flora of China. This was followed by the Flora Australiensis, in seven volumes (1863-1878), the first flora of any large continental area that had ever been finished. His greatest work was the Genera Plantarum, begun in 1862, and concluded in 1883 in collaboration with Sir Joseph Hooker, "the greater portion being," as Sir Joseph Hooker tells us, "the product of Bentham's indefatigable industry." As age gradually impaired his bodily powers, he seemed at last only to live for the completion of this monumental work.
When the last revise of the last sheet was returned to the printer, the stimulus was withdrawn, and his powers seemed suddenly to fail him. He began a brief autobiography, but the pen with which he had written his two greatest works broke in his hand in the middle of a page. He accepted the omen, laid aside the unfinished manuscript and patiently awaited the not distant end. He died on the both of September 1884, within a fortnight of his 84th birthday.
The scientific world received the Genera Plantarum with as unanimous an assent as was accorded to the Species Plantarum of Linnaeus. Bentham possessed, as Professor Daniel Oliver remarked, "an insight of so special a character as to deserve the name of genius, into the relative value of characters for practical systematic work, and as a consequence of this, a sure sifting of essentials from non-essentials in each respective grade." His preparation for his crowning work had been practically lifelong. There are few parts of the world upon the botany of which he did not touch. In the sequence and arrangement of the great families of flowering plants, different views from those of Bentham may be adopted. But Bentham paved the way by an intimate and exact statement of the structural facts and their accurate relationship, which is not likely to be improved. In method and style, in descriptive work, Bentham was a supreme master. This, to quote Professor Oliver again, is "manifest not only in its terseness, aptness and precision, but especially in the judicious selection of diagnostic marks, and in the instinctive estimate of probable range in variation, which long experience and innate genius for such work could alone inspire."
(W. T. T.-D.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)