The Madras College Archive

     

 

Former Pupil Biographies

Dr. John Hardie Wilson D.Sc., F.R.S.E. (1858 - 1920)

A native of St Andrews and educated at Madras College, he was the second son of James Wilson F.R.H.S., proprietor of Greenside Nurseries. He had early horticultural and botanical studies at Greenside Nurseries.

After studying at Madras College, Wilson worked as a plants-man in Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Gardens. While in Edinburgh he began to study Botany as an academic discipline at Edinburgh University. He took a course in Forestry at the RBGE and was awarded with a First Class Certificate in Forestry the same year, demonstrating thorough knowledge of practical forestry; outlines of botany, nature and properties of soils; drainage and effects of climate; land and timber measuring and surveying; mechanics and construction as applied to fencing, draining, bridging and road making; implements of forestry; and book keeping and accounts .

In 1886 he returned to St Andrews to study natural history. In 1887 Wilson, still an undergraduate, began to teach as a Demonstrator in Botany. He graduated in Zoology in 1888. Wilson became the University's first D.Sc hood in 1889 for work on the mucilage glands in the plumbagineae. As part of his studies he is known to have spent time in Germany and Belgium. Wilson was also a prime mover behind the establishment of the University Botanic Garden (primarily a teaching garden) that opened in the summer of 1889, and was responsible for supplying and planting out the garden assisted by Thomas Berwick.

In 1890 Wilson left his teaching post for unclear reasons, at least partly due perhaps to a reluctance on the part of the University to commit to adequate funding of his teaching, which would change in 1891. During 1891 he laid out a teaching Botanic Garden at the Morgan Academy in Dundee with the assistance of Patrick Geddes. In 1894 Wilson is recorded as 'of Edinburgh University' and as Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, having been elected to the latter in 1891. From 1894 he was teaching in St Andrews again as extra-mural Lecturer in Agriculture. He was also appointed, in 1894, Lecturer in Botany. He was also appointed, in 1894, Lecturer in Botany at Yorkshire College, Leeds, afterwards Leeds University, remaining in post until College restructuring saw funding for his post end in 1897. In 1898, Wilson is known to be back in St Andrews. In 1891 his paper "Observations on the Fertilisation and Hybridisation on some species of Albuca" was published in the Royal Belgian Botanical Society's Yearbook. His principle area of research was disease-resistant food-crops, most especially potatoes, oats and soft fruits, although he also had a lesser interest in developing new floral varieties.

A number of his potato varieties, most especially Rector, Bishop and Templar, were to remain in widespread commercial cultivation long after his death; the latter two varieties are still grown to this day. Much of his experimental planting during his career took place on family held land around St Andrews, possibly at Greenside Nursery. 

The University was never enthused about his work or his field of study. He received no salary from the University until 1908-09 when he was paid 40. His income for those past 8 years was derived from fees (minus expenses) charged for his numerous talks and presentations and educational sessions given throughout Scotland and further afield. In some cases his rail and hotel expenses were greater than the fees charged. In 1901 he was instrumental in establishing the St Andrews and East Fife Farmers' Club. He advised on methods of improving the greens of both the Old Course and the Centenary Course at St Andrews.
 

Over many years he wrote numerous scientific papers for professional journals and local newspapers, and in 1910 he wrote and published, the successful volume "Rambles round St Andrews", a guide to the natural history of the town and it's hinterland. He also gave countless talks covering all aspects of botany in towns and villages across Scotland including St Andrews and numerous venues in Fife, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Stirling, Dundee, Ayr, Huntly, and Banff to name but a few.

Among his other interests Wilson was a keen antiquarian. He was also a skilled photographer, taking many striking and significant images not only of botanical specimens but also of St Andrews and the East Neuk of Fife. He received many honours, including the Royal Horticultural Society's Banksian Medal in 1899 for this work, and the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society's Neill Prize in 1908 for his services to Horticulture.

The Great War saw student numbers dwindle and, after 1916, funding for Wilson's experimental potato beds came to an end. He turned his attentions to tending to the University Botanic Garden for the duration of the War, the head gardener having been called up for active service. It was commented on at the time of his death (1920) that the strain of this work, which he undertook largely single-handedly in the absence of additional manpower during the War, had been contributory in his death. Wilson died in 1920 from pleurisy and pneumonia.