John Hutton Balfour

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About John Hutton Balfour

John Hutton Balfour

Birth date: 15 Sept 1808

Birth Place: Edinburgh, Scotland

Date of Death: 11 February 1884.

Place of Death: Inverleith House, Edinburgh,


Father: Andrew Balfour army surgeon

Mother: Magdalene Goldie daughter of Rev. George Goldie

Marriage:Marion Spottiswood Bayley, the daughter of Isaac Bayley, a writer to the signet.

Children His son, Sir Isaac Bayley Balfour (1853-1922) also studied botany and went on to transform the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh into one of the world's great gardens.

Occupation: Dr. of Medicine; Professor of Botany; head of the Royal Botanical Garden and Queen's botanist for Scotland

Honours and Awards:

He was awarded an LLD in 1879.


Balfour studied at the Universities of St Andrews and Edinburgh, graduating MD from Edinburgh in 1836 after which he set up in private practice.

He was a founder member of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh in 1836 and lectured on Botany in the city.

He was invited to be Regius Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow from 1841 to 1845.

He was closely involved in laying out the new Botanic Gardens in the city's West End and brought his herbarium with him from Edinburgh.

In October 1845, however, he returned to Edinburgh as Professor of Medicine and Botany at the University of Edinburgh and he was subsequently appointed Regius Professor of Botany, Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden and Queen's Botanist in Scotland.

Under his care the Royal Botanic Garden was enlarged and improved and a palm-house, arboretum, and teaching accommodation was built.

Balfour retired in 1879.


His publications include 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), Introduction to palaeontological botany (1872), and The plants of scripture.

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

Other Notes:

  • Published biography - Balfour, John Hutton (1808-1884), botanist by D. E. Allen

© Oxford University Press 2004-5 All rights reserved

1851 census transcription details for: 2, Bellevue Crescent, Bellevue Crescent, Edinburgh

National Archive Reference: RG number: Piece: 685, Folio: 38, Page: 18

Parish: Edinburgh, Enum. District: 8, Ecclesiastical District: City/Municipal Borough:

Address: 2, Bellevue Crescent, Bellevue Crescent, Edinburgh. Midlothian

  • BALFOUR, John Hutton Head Married M 42 1809 Professor Of Medicine & Botany Edinr University born Edinburgh, Midlothian
  • BALFOUR, Marion Spotswood Wife Married F 23 1828 Wife Edinburgh, Midlothian
  • BALFOUR, Ada Marion S Daughter Unmarried F 1 1850 Child Edinburgh, Midlothian
  • LOW, Clementina Servant Unmarried F 30 1821 House Servant Munoes, Forfarshire
  • INGLIS, Mary Servant Unmarried F 24 1827 House Servant Edinburgh, Midlothian
  • NICOL, Ann Servant Unmarried F 24 1827 House Servant Leith, Midlothian

© Reproduced courtesy of The National Archives, London, England (from FindMyPast)

1861 - see attached pdf

John Hutton BALFOUR [34088] was born on 15 Sep 1808 in Edinburgh Midlothian Scotland and died on 11 Feb 1884 in Edinburgh Midlothian Scotland at age 75. General Notes: Balfour, John Hutton (1808-1884), botanist by D. E. Allen © Oxford University Press 2004-5 All rights reserved

Balfour, John Hutton (1808-1884), botanist, was born in Edinburgh on 15 September 1808, the eldest son of Andrew Balfour, an army surgeon who later settled in that city as a printer and publisher, and Magdalene, daughter of the Revd George Goldie, an Edinburgh minister. James Hutton the geologist was a first cousin of his grandfather. Balfour was a brilliant student and was able to resist his mother's determination that he follow her father into the church. After a thorough grounding in classics at Edinburgh high school and Edinburgh University, he was initially sent at sixteen to study theology at St Andrews, but he had acquired his father's fondness for botany and both he and his teachers there saw he was better suited to a medical career. His parents reluctantly permitted him to attend Professor Robert Graham's botany class at Edinburgh, on the condition that he completed his divinity studies. In 1827 they finally gave way, and Balfour was apprenticed to the professor of military surgery, Sir George Ballingall, apparently with the aim of following his father into that branch of the subject. He graduated MD in 1832 and, after qualifying MRCS and FRCS Edinburgh, extended his surgical studies in Paris before returning to Edinburgh in 1834 to take up private practice. The next year he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, of which he was later to be an active secretary for more than ten years.

Botany now increasingly took over. In 1836 the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, the first specialist body in that subject in Britain of national standing, had its inaugural meeting in Balfour's house, and in 1838 he was equally to the fore in the founding of the Edinburgh Botanical Club. In 1840 he began lecturing on botany in the Edinburgh Extra Academical School of Medicine, and equipped by that he successfully competed the next year for the chair at Glasgow University vacated by Sir William Hooker, which at last enabled him to give up medical practice. His Glasgow stay, however, proved brief, for in 1845, on the death of Graham, he returned to Edinburgh as professor of medicine and botany, regius keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden, and queen's botanist for Scotland. Soon after, with his future now on a settled course, he married Marion Spottiswood Bayley, the daughter of Isaac Bayley, a writer to the signet. Among their children was the botanist Sir Isaac Bayley Balfour.

Though Balfour served the Edinburgh medical faculty as dean for nearly thirty years, he took no regular part in the clinical teaching and was otherwise free to devote all his considerable energies to botany. His induction into botany occurred before microscopical work had been largely developed, and before the advent of later concerns with plant morphology and physiology, so he was, almost of necessity, for the most part a systematist. His original work was not extensive and it was as a teacher and writer of textbooks that he was distinguished academically.

His teaching was painstaking and conscientious, earnest and impressive, and characterized by a wealth of illustration and a gift for imparting his own enthusiasm. That enthusiasm was most of all in evidence in the lively tradition of Saturday student excursions that Balfour inherited from his predecessor. On the longer of these trips, undeterred by the frequently rough going and primitive conditions, leading botanical ‘outsiders’ would often join the party, augmenting with taxonomic expertise the professor's discourses on the local vegetation and geological features. No one was more tireless than the wiry Balfour, his geniality contagious, his jokes and puns keeping everyone in good spirits as they toiled up some long ascent. Not for nothing was he known to generations of students by the nickname ‘Woody Fibre’. On one occasion, in the Isle of Arran, the party became lost in the hills in deep mist, and in the account subsequently published by him of that shaking experience the deeply religious strain in his character is strikingly apparent. He resembled an Old Testament prophet in appearance, and his youthful immersion in theology had left its mark so that the intricacy of nature was always for him indubitable testimony to a great designing mind. Among the many books he wrote were several linking botany with religion, one of them, Phyto-Theology (1851), winning a wide enough readership to achieve a third edition.

Amid all this activity the Royal Botanic Garden was in no way neglected. Under Balfour's care and in co-operation with the successive principal gardeners, the very able McNabs, father and son, the garden was much enlarged and improved, and a fine new palm house, an arboretum, a good museum, and excellent teaching accommodation provided. Latterly as many as 354 students a year were attending Balfour's botanical lectures there. A final accomplishment was the construction and planting of the great rock-garden.

Severe illness brought about Balfour's retirement in 1879, when each of the three universities with which he had been connected marked the occasion by conferring on him an honorary LLD. He had been elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1856, and was also a member of a wide range of other scientific bodies. He died at Inverleith House, Edinburgh, on 11 February 1884. He is commemorated in the genus alfourodendron; two British plants long bore his name as well, but Poa balfourii, a grass which he collected on Ben Voirlich in 1842, is now considered a mere variant of a more widespread species, and Rubus balfourianus, a name given in his honour by Babington to a blackberry, after a century disappeared into synonymy.

D. E. ALLEN Sources I. B. Balfour, ‘Asketch of the professors of botany in Edinburgh from 1670 until 1887’, Makers of British botany: a collection of biographies by living botanists, ed. F. W. Oliver (1913), 280-301, esp. 293-300 ·

Updated from MyHeritage Match by SmartCopy: Sep 10 2014, 10:09:42 UTC

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John Hutton Balfour's Timeline

September 15, 1808
Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland
Edinburgh, Midlotian, Scotland
Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland
March 31, 1853
Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland
Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland