Menzies, Lambert and Poiret

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by James L. Reveal
Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland

The nomenclatural morass associated with the scientific name of Douglas-fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii, is a long and complex tale. The history of its scientific name is tied closely with the history of early explorations along the western coast of North America, and the development of our modern system of rules for the naming of plants embodied in the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. The present-day name, Pseudotsuga menziesii, is only the latest innovation in a long series of learned pronouncements, and for the uninformed, the relationship of the scientific name to its common name, Douglas-fir, is hardly obvious.

The tree was seen by various naturalists who visited the Pacific Northwest in the later part of the eighteenth century, usually from aboard ship looking onshore. It was the surgeon-naturalist Archibald Menzies1 aboard HMS Discovery—captained by George Vancouver—who first collected specimens. Apparently, he gathered them in July of 1792 (not 1791 as often reported) from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. They probably were sent to England in the fall of that year, but it is not known when Sir Joseph Banks,2 Menzies' sponsor before the Admiralty, received the specimens. If seeds were gathered in 1792, or in 1794 when Menzies returned to the Island, there is no evidence they reached England or, if so, that the tree was introduced into cultivation.

photo: painted portrait of sir joseph banks

Sir Joseph Banks
Portrait by Thomas Phillips (1731-1781)

In September of 1803, the English conifer expert, Aylmer Bourke Lambert,3 assigned the name Pinus taxifolia (tax-eh-FOHL-ee-ah, having needles like the yew tree, a member of the genus Taxus [TAX-us]) to Menzies' specimens in his now rare book A description of the genus Pinus. Unfortunately this name was a homonym, that is, the same name (Pinus taxifolia) had been used for a totally unrelated conifer by another English naturalist, Richard Salisbury, in 1796. Two years later the French clergyman and botanist Jean Louis Marie Poiret, writing various portions of the botany section for Jean Baptiste Lamarck's Encyclopédie Méthodique, inadvertently proposed the new name Abies taxifolia in August of 1805. Remarkably, once again this name was a later homonym.4

According to our modern rules of botanical nomenclature, a later homonym is considered to be an illegitimate name, and, being a name proposed in opposition to the rules, it cannot be used. Although the tree was described and known to the scientific world, it did not yet have a correct ("valid" in the jargon of the rules) name.

1. Archibald Menzies (in Europe, pronounced as if spelled "Minges" [MEN-ges], but "MEN-zees" in America) was born near Aberfeldy, Perthshire, Scotland in 1754. He was educated at Weem Parish School and learned botany at Castle Menzies (built in 1057 A.D.). He attended classes at Edinburgh University and studied botany at the Royal Botanic Garden. Introduced to Sir Joseph Banks (see next footnote) in 1786, Menzies obtained a position as surgeon-naturalist and sailed around the world from September 1786, until July 1789. During this voyage he visited the northwest coast of America, but got only as far south as Nootka Sound in British Columbia, Canada. As a result of this experience, Menzies was appointed naturalist for an expedition headed by Captain George Vancouver (1757-1798). Vancouver was given explicit instructions by the Admiralty (e.g., through Banks) that he was to cooperate fully with the efforts of Menzies to collect natural objects. When the surgeon fell ill and returned to England, Menzies assumed those duties as well. Although he managed to collect thousands of specimens on the 1791-1795 voyage, it was often without the assistance of Vancouver. Many of his California collections, for example, were smuggled aboard ship by sailors allowed ashore when Vancouver confined Menzies to ship. His large collection of plants may now be seen at The Linnean Society in London.

2. Sir Joseph Banks was one of the most powerful men in all of natural history in Great Britain. A highly respected naturalist in his own right, he was in the position, as President of the Royal Society from 1778 until 1820, to influence all kinds of the events. As a man of wealth he was well positioned in society, and as a friend of the king he was protected politically. The owner of a large library and a "cabinet of curiosities" that few could rival, he attracted many naturalists to his home at Soho Square in London. Today, his library and collections are the centerpiece of the Department of Botany (originally the Banksian Department) at The Natural History Museum in London. The entire collection of books, specimens and correspondence was bequeathed to Robert Brown (1773-1858) with the proviso that the material would eventually be given to the British Museum. This Brown did in 1827.

Banks was born to a landed Lincolnshire family of modest means. His grandfather, uncle and father were members of Parliament. Although he attended Harrow, Eton and Oxford, Banks was not even a moderately good student—a failing that would be with him his entire life. Voted a member of the Royal Society at age 23, and its President when he was 35, in between he took two voyages. His first was to Newfoundland (1766) and his second (1768-1771) was with Captain James Cook (1728-1779). With the sponsorship of the Royal Society and the backing of the British Admiralty, Cook was given H.M.S. Endeavor to sail to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun. Banks went along as naturalist. Cook's expedition was a voyage of tremendous British discovery in terms of lands and geographic observations. Banks and the botanist Daniel Solander (1736-1782) matched this in the natural sciences. By hiring botanists and librarians like Solander and Brown, Banks encouraged the publication of numerous books and scientific papers—none of which were to bear his name—including several with superb illustrations executed by Sydney Parkinson (c. 1745-1771), Franz Andreas Bauer (1758-1840), and others. Earlier, his Newfoundland plants had been illustrated by Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770), the foremost botanical illustrator of the day. His unmarried sister, Sarah Sophia, would spend her life taking care of Banks' correspondence, and his wife Dorothea dealt with all the other details of his life. In 1781, Banks became a baronet; in 1795 he was honored by George III with the Red Ribbon of a Knight of the Order of the Bath. As President of the Royal Society, Banks was an autocrat much as Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and, to a lesser degree Hans Sloane (1660-1753), had been before him. Even toward the end of his life in 1820, Banks was still busy organizing new expeditions and promoting the interests of the Society. He left an enormous legacy that is honored to the present day.

3. Aylmer Bourke Lambert, born in 1761, was a British "gentleman of leisure"; in short, he was wealthy! Educated at Oxford (St. Mary Hall), he acquired via purchase a large library of rare botanical publications, and assembled an herbarium of plants from around the world. He published lavishly illustrated works on Cinchona [chin-CHONE-ah] (a plant used to treat malaria) and the conifers. Prior to his death in 1842, Lambert purchased plant collections from several important collectors. He was so consumed with obtaining botanical curiosities and treasures that when he died his family had little in the way of readily available capital. Consequently, the Sotheby auction house sold Lambert's library and collections just weeks after his death in 1842. Most of his material was obtained by The British Museum and is now at The Natural History Museum in London. A substantial portion also ended up at the botanic garden in Geneva. However, a small lot went back to America—it was the Lewis and Clark specimens Pursh had taken to England in 1811.

4. Lamarck's full name was Jean Baptiste Antoine Pierre Monnet de Lamarck. Born in 1744, this French biologist was one of the originators of the theory of evolution. His career was certainly checkered. He served in the French army from 1761 until 1768, worked in a bank until 1778 and then, until 1793, served as a botanist at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Also in 1778, Lamarck was named professor of zoology at the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle, holding that position until his death in 1829. At the end of his life, he was blind and lived in near poverty. His Encyclopedie methodique botanique was published in eight volumes with five supplements from 1783 until 1817. In addition, he published a supporting work of 1,000 plant illustrations entitled Tableau encylopedique et methodique, which came out in three volumes between 1791 and 1823. Poiret (1755-1834) was Lamarck's co-author of the Encyclopedie, having obtained some of his botanical training in the wilds of northern Africa. A prolific writer in his own right, Poiret produced seven volumes on economic plants (published from 1824 until 1829), his most important independent contribution.