Entrepreneurship in Victorian botany: did you know that was a thing?

Image: Richard Spruce late in life. Frontispiece to Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes (1908), public domain.

Last week, I did a little ranting about what I consider the fetishization of entrepreneurship in our society.  In the Replies, a couple of readers pushed back, pointing out ways in which entrepreneurship serves economic and societal purposes.  I’m glad to have the pushback (especially because so far, nobody has gotten incoherently angry about the post).  I’m even going to add a little pushback myself*.  Did you know that entrepreneurship underwrote one of the most amazing botanical expeditions in history?

That entrepreneurship in question was that of Richard Spruce.  Spruce was born in Yorkshire in 1817.  He was a botany nerd, roaming the countryside as a teenager compiling a local flora.  As a young man he took a job teaching mathematics, but by all accounts disliked it; and when his school closed, he took the plunge and became a professional plant collector.  He set out for the Pyrenees, in southwestern France, with a plan to collect plants and to sell the specimens to wealthy subscribers.  The expedition lasted nearly a year, and returned thousands of specimens and some good science – for example, Spruce was able to extend the known bryophyte flora of the region from 169 to 478 species.  But his expedition to the Pyrenees was just a warmup.

In 1849, Spruce used the same entrepreneurial model to fund an expedition to South America.  He retained a British agent (Thomas Bentham) to recruit subscribers to his plant specimens, and to distribute what he shipped home to those subscribers.  He began his expedition the mouth of the Amazon, and over the next 15 years traveled thousands of kilometers along rivers and trails, reaching the most inaccessible parts of the Amazon and Orinoco systems and even crossing the Andes into Ecuador.  Along the way, he got lost; he was nearly robbed and killed by his own guides; and he suffered the stings of bullet ants and the fevers of malaria.  He also did prodigious amounts of science.  He sent specimens of over 7,000 plant species back to England (hundreds of which were species new to science).  He amassed ethnographic and ethnobotanical field notes covering food, fibre, and medicinal plants, and was the first to publish a description of the harvesting and processing of rubber.  He observed the region’s floristics, geography and geology.  After his eventual return to England, he wrote a 600-page treatise on the liverworts – just the liverworts – of the Amazon and the Andes.  And all of this was funded by his subscribers – that is, by Spruce’s entrepreneurship**.

Spruce wasn’t the only one doing this, of course.  The tradition of curiosity cabinets, and of the rich purchasing specimens for their natural history collections, had been around for centuries.  I suppose you could argue that in a rather different form it persists today, in things like the market for seashells and exotic pets.  The difference – and it’s a critical one – is that Spruce was without question a scientist, funding his scientific work via entrepreneurship.  If modern collectors-for-sale do the same thing, I’m unaware of it.

Since I’ve offered Spruce as evidence that entrepreneurship can work in the service of science, it’s only fair to point out that entrepreneurship also nearly broke him.  Near the end of his expedition, he lost all his savings in a bank failure – that is, when somebody else’s entrepreneurial enterprise went belly-up.  More entrepreneurial efforts fail than succeed.  Spruce lived out his life on a modest government pension, not on the fruits of his entrepreneurship.

I don’t have an earthshattering message here, and I don’t think any of this changes my attitude to duct-tape wallets.  I just think Spruce was a fascinating figure.  I’ve only scratched the surface here, but my new book will have a full chapter recounting his story, seen through the lens of the 200+ species that are now named after him***.   Writing last week’s post reminded me of the entrepreneurial dimension of Spruce’s story – and reminded me that  I was completely surprised to find out that entrepreneurial botany was a thing.  Perhaps you are too.  At least, if you’ve read this far, I hope so.  I’d hate to send you away knowing no more than when you came.

© Stephen Heard  June 4, 2018


*^Yes, I am absolutely capable of arguing with myself

**^Spruce did one other thing in South America, which wasn’t entrepreneurial, and it may be the thing for which he’s best remembered.  Under commission from the British government, he managed to collect and export from Ecuador seeds and seedlings of Cinchona succirubra, the tree from which we extract quinine.  (This was an astonishing feat, which you can read about in Mark Honigsbaum’s book The Fever Trail).  Malaria nearly killed Spruce; but the Cinchona plantations derived from Spruce’s collections saved millions.  The export of Cinchona was also the spur to the first biopiracy laws, put in place by Ecuador and Peru in the mid-19th century, long before the word “biopiracy” would be coined.

***^No, spruce trees are not among them.  The etymologies of spruce trees and Richard Spruce appear to be unrelated.

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4 thoughts on “Entrepreneurship in Victorian botany: did you know that was a thing?

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Yes, you’re right – see 3rd-last paragraph, beginning “Spruce wasn’t the only one doing this, of course.” Wallace and Bates are indeed good examples, with a similar business model – which I didn’t know about until I learned about Spruce. By the way, Wallace, Bates, and Spruce had plenty of contact in South America. Wallace even edited and published Spruce’s notes (after Spruce’s death) – and they’re a terrific read. They were published in 1909 as “Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes”.

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