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John Hutton Balfour (1808 - 1884)

Founder of the Edinburgh Botanical Society and an influential figure in the promotion and understanding of botanical sciences.

John Hutton Balfour
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Portrait of John Hutton Balfour

John Hutton Balfour was born in Edinburgh on the 15 September 1808. He was educated at the Royal High School in the city and then studied at St. Andrews University and Edinburgh University, graduating with degrees of M.A. and then M.D in 1832.

From people to plants

In 1826 Balfour attended a lecture at the Botanic Garden in Edinburgh which was both influential and inspirational. After completing his medical degree at Edinburgh; chosen because of its intellectual proximity to botanical studies, Balfour began to shift his focus from people to plants.

In 1840 he began teaching a summer course in Botany at the University of Edinburgh, did the same the following year, and then, in 1841, became Chair of Botany at Glasgow University.

A return to Edinburgh

In 1845, after a bitter contest with Joseph Dalton Hooker, Balfour was appointed Professor of Botany at Edinburgh University and nominated Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE).

Under his care the RBGE was enlarged and improved with the addition of a palm-house and arboretum alongside the foundation of the first dedicated botanical library. He also added new teaching accommodation and he took between 2000 and 3000 students on botanical excursions.

He continued living in Inverleith House within the grounds of the RBGE until his death on the 11th February 1884.

Sharing knowledge

During his life John Hutton Balfour published extensively, including a number of botanical text-books such as Manual of botany (1848), Class book of botany (1852), Outlines of botany (1854), and Elements of botany for schools (1869), Botanist’s companion (1860), and Introduction to palaeontological botany (1872).

He also contributed to the article on botany in the 8th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

A lasting legacy

As well as a lifetime of botanical achievements, Balfour’s legacy also extends to California where a rare pine (Pinus balfouriana) is named after him, and to Hollywood, as the actress Tilda Swinton is his great-great-granddaughter.