Saturday, 18 April 2015

A Learned And Likeable Fellow

John Stevens Henslow was, in his time, known as "the man who knows everything". He was not called this in jest or jealousy by unlearned men, but in admiration by his colleagues at Cambridge University. Not only that but the Reverend Professor Henslow left his own memorial, albeit one which, though much admired, does little to shout his name to visitors.

The admirers are those who seek out the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens. Many come to wander among the trees and enjoy the flowers but few realise that, as they do so, they are reading a book. That book is a textbook of all that was known about botany at the time when Henslow became professor of that subject in the early nineteenth century. For the garden was designed to be a learning resource for his students.

The trees around the perimeter are carefully planted in family groups and a large part of the garden is laid out in what are known as the Systematic Beds which similarly group other plants. This allowed direct comparison to draw out the differences and similarities between plants. It was nothing less than a living book. So just who was this man who developed this instructive but beautiful garden?

Having graduated in 1818 Henslow went on to become Professor of Mineralogy just four years later. Then having taken holy orders, he was soon appointed Professor of Botany, a science which had increasingly interested him. At that time Botany was hardly studied at the University and the Botanic Garden was a tiny plot near the centre of the town.

As a teacher Henslow is said to have listened just as carefully to the newest student as to the most learned authority. He often invited his students to his house to discuss ideas in a less formal setting and he encouraged his students to learn for themselves through field work and indeed gardening. So when there came a chance to acquire a forty acre site (16 hectares) to develop a Botanic Garden he jumped at the chance. 

Henslow was an inspiration to many of the young men who came to study and one in particular became known as "the man who walks with Henslow". His name was Charles Darwin and he became fascinated by Henslow's work on plant families and the variations within them. One branch of Henslow's studies concerned what he called "monstrosities", but which we would nowadays call genetic mutation. All of which later influenced Darwin's work on the origin of species, of course.

The young Darwin
But Henslow had an even greater influence in that it was he who recommended Darwin as a suitable candidate to sail as the naturalist on The Beagle with Capt Fitzroy. 

Then in 1837, soon after Darwin had returned from his voyage, Henslow was appointed rector of the parish of Hitcham in Suffolk. Then, rather than appoint a curate to do the hard work for him, he immersed himself fully in village matters. Although he retained his post at the University he was more concerned with developing a village school, providing allotment gardens and improving farming methods within his parish. He gave talks to farmers on such delightful topics as the fermentation of manure.

As a Christian and a creationist, he could not support Darwin's theories, but nevertheless continued to encourage him and when necessary defend his right to publish his ideas. Henslow died in 1861 and is buried in Hitcham churchyard. There is a small, modest memorial to him in the church but surely the great garden he designed is his greatest legacy and I'm sure he would have approved of the way it has developed and is used today.

Take care.



  1. I love reading about people like this John. You know the farmer and I have walked round just such a garden but I just cannot remember where it is or whether it is in this country or abroad. When he comes in I shall have to ask him. Lovely photographs of crown imperials - have you taken them this year? Mine are nowhere near out.

  2. It's nice to read the true inspirational teachers that grow student's curiosity and give them opportunities such as Henslow. The gardens and Darwin are testament to him. Really interesting post. Take care.

  3. A great tribute and wonderful photography John. A lovely Bot. Gds. indeed. I saw my first Fritillary there one magical April.

  4. Oh wow what an enchanting place & how beautifully photographed!

  5. What beautiful gardens and wonderful story!

  6. Interesting story, and great picture of the Fritillaria!

  7. A great story John and how nice that people can sit & ponder his ideas in the lovely garden.

  8. Beatiful photographs, wonderful post and a great reminder of how many amazing and dedicated men have added to history.

  9. Henslow sounds like an incredibly wise man, especially allowing Darwin to have different views from his own.

  10. Thank you for this interesting post & for introducing me to a new story to research!


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