Distinguished Botanist, fearless explorer, humble man*

*from plaque on cottage where he lived out his retirement

A flora that I like to use quite a bit is Howard Crum’s Liverworts of Southern Michigan. I like his personal touch that he uses, similar to that of his moss floras. An abbreviated version of the quote below starts out his flora:

I like to look on plants as sentient beings, which live and enjoy their lives — which beautify the earth during life, and after death may adorn my herbarium… It is true that the Hepaticae have hardly as yet yielded any substance to man capable of stupefying him, or of forcing his stomach to empty its contents, nor are they good for food; but if man cannot torture them to his uses or abuse, they are infinitely useful where God has placed them, as I hope to live to show; and they are, at the least, useful to, and beautiful in, themselves — surely the primary motive for every individual existence. – Richard Spruce

I have read the above quote numerous times. Recently I wondered – who is Richard Spruce?

Looking him up online, I saw that he was a British botanical explorer from the nineteenth century, and somebody certainly worth getting to know better. After a little more searching and reading I have a better picture of this personality who lived over 150 years ago, that I would like to briefly present below.

Richard Spruce was born in 1817 near a very small village of Northern England called at Ganthorpe, in Yorkshire. As a child, he was taught by his father, who was a schoolmaster. He showed an early interest and talent in botanical matters, especially bryophytes. At age 16 he listed plants of his hometown area of Ganthorpe, with a focus on bryophytes – 402 species. At age 19 he had listed 485 flowering plants for the nearby “Malton District.”  At age 27 he published a paper for another area of Northern England, called Teesdale. He listed 167 mosses and 41 liverworts. Five of the mosses and one of the liverworts were new to England. An earlier flora for the area showed only four mosses.

He was a math teacher for five years until his school closed down. This was a fortunate occurrence for botany, as he was then more free to pursue his botanical interests, which were largely self-taught, as well as consorting with notable and accomplished botanists.

Noting his exceptional botanical ability, he was approached by William Hooker, the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and was offered the opportunity to carry out a major expedition to the Pyrenees border region between France and Spain from 1845 to 1846. He collected both vascular plants and bryophytes. In regard to bryophytes, he discovered at least 17 new species and, although there were reports before that gave a low estimate of the number of bryophytes in that region, he increased the count from 169 listed to 478.

After that “jaunt” he was presented with a much larger opportunity by the Royal Botanic Gardens – the Amazon!  He was to spend the next 15 years of his life there – not leaving South America once, working in Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and a bit in Venezuela.

It should be noted here that Spruce was not a healthy man. From an early age he suffered from many illnesses. He had numerous undiagnosed ailments including regularly spitting up blood, having doctors of the time to suspect TB. Nevertheless, he decided to go, thinking that a warmer climate might help him. Also, he decided if he did not go now, he probably never would have this opportunity again.

He arrived in Brazil in 1849 and in the 15-year period, he explored and collected in the headwaters of the Amazon in Brazil, and subsequently the headwaters of the Amazon in Peru and Ecuador, in the Northern Andes. During that time, he collected many specimens of flowering plants as well as ferns, lichens, mosses, and liverworts.

Much of his work led him into activity that was very arduous, and at times endangered him and those assisting him. More than once he feared that his life was over. His drive, willingness, and unselfish attitude to endure difficulties can be perhaps best illustrated by work to procure Cinchona seedlings and seeds by the British government. This source of quinine, the only known remedy for malaria at the time, was found in Ecuador located in the northern Andes and was very expensive. He dropped his plans and started work on this project as soon as he heard the request. The trip to Ecuador was one of the most difficult trips he ever took. It took 100 days to make the trip – all on foot or canoe (of which 90 of those days involved rapids). Once there he spent two years persuading the government to let him proceed, researching the tree to find the best specimens, cultivating seedlings, collecting seeds, etc., etc. All this Spruce had to do mostly himself. During this time, Spruce’s health took a bigger fall. He became partly paralyzed in the back and legs, causing him great pain in moving. This did not stop him from his work. His work with Cinchona helped to start plantations in India and Sri Lanka, making quinine much cheaper and helped to save many lives.  After the Cinchona work was done, most rational men would have gone home – what with major health problems – but not Spruce. He spent three more years studying the vegetation of the Pacific slopes of the Andes – which he had not seen before.

Although he collected many vascular plants and lichens as part of his exploring, his great love was bryophytes, especially liverworts. After he returned to England, and in spite of being largely an invalid, he worked up his liverwort collections from the Andes, and in 1885 produced the book entitled Hepaticae Amaonicae et Andinae.

To describe a bit more of the importance of this work, I am going to refer to an article by Rob Gradstein, noted liverwort specialist, entitled Spruce’s Hepaticae Aazonicae et Andinae and South American floristics, published in Richard Spruce – Botanist and Explorer in 1996. Gradstein says that the above book is “…Richard Spruce’s magnum opus. Today, in spite of being over a hundred years old [it] is still the most important reference on topical South American hepatics…The fact that Spruce knew all his species in the field, together with his outstanding skills as a taxonomist, his eye for detail and his passion for the hepatics, must be reasons why the book is so good. Many of Spruce’s taxonomic concepts are still valid today and modern classifications of important families such as the Frullaniaceae, Plagiochilaceae and Lejeuneaceae are heavily based on Spruce’s treatment in Hepaticae Amaonicae et Andinae.” (p. 142),

Richard Spruce was a multi-talented man. Besides his obvious talents with plants, he had many other talents and interests. He was very good with linguistics. Besides English, he could speak Spanish, Portuguese, and French. He also learned 21 different tribal dialects or languages, making an effort to record, for the first time, vocabularies for each language. He also studied and recorded aspects of the anthropology, geology, and geography of the different areas he travelled. He was a good artist, drawing beautiful pictures of plants he saw, as well as sketches of native life and towns. He also took careful notes of the political and social aspects of different people groups that he travelled amongst. In addition to these, he could handle the many details of travelling through unknown lands, adjusting to primitive living conditions, procuring food for himself with his shotgun when he ran out while travelling, and so on.

After he came back to England, his health was pretty much broken. He eventually lived out the rest of his days in a small cottage near where he grew up. He received a small pension of 100 pounds per year from the British government, for his work on cinchonas, which he subsisted on. Unfortunately, he could not look at all the bryophyte collections he brought back from his travels for long, as after a few minutes at the scope he developed excruciating headaches. He relied heavily on colleagues to make final determinations. However, he did finally write up the results of his work, as well as write numerous other articles. He also kept up an active correspondence with other bryologists. He died in 1893 of influenza, his weakened body unable to resist it. He was buried next to his parents in the local church yard, having never married.

In researching this piece, I read through numerous accounts of his life. Almost all talked of the man’s outstanding personal characteristics. His modesty and humility stood out. He did not complain about his poor living conditions or his health. He had a sense of humor even in the hard times. He did not boast or exaggerate his accomplishments for his own benefit. Even though he took detailed notes during his travels, on many things, along with accomplished drawings, he did not write a book about himself and his travels; rather spending his time figuring out liverworts. He was known for his kindness and concern for others and being an even-tempered person even in the roughest of times. But the search for fame, for renown, was not for him.

A closing note, it seems that very few people know much about Richard Spruce today. He is not as well-known as other English nature explorers of the 1800s, outside of scholars in his area of knowledge (e.g., liverworts). Perhaps this is due somewhat to his humble, quiet nature.

His good friend, and also eminent and better-known Victorian explorer, Alfred Wallace took his many notes, after his death, and put them together to form the two-volume account of his travels. It is called Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon & Andes. Fortunately, a facsimile of the original books can be found for sale on-line at a reasonable price. I found the narrative quite interesting and certainly not dry.

Another good book I found is Richard Spruce: Botanist and Explorer. It is a collection of essays on his life and work from a symposium held in England on the 100th anniversary of his death.

– Bill Schumacher

[originally published in 2020 OBELISK vol. 17]