Mycologist Profiles

- the heroes that shaped mycology in Scotland and beyond...

All of the individuals in this Hall of Fame have been important pioneers; many of them were not primarily mycologists, but all of them have helped to shape our modern understanding of the systematics, taxonomy, morphology and distribution of fungi, as well as their pathogenic characteristics and an understanding of their place in the various ecosystems in which they occur. Many of them were English by birth, but each of them has made substantial contributions to the evolution of Scottish mycology. To find information about great mycologist from further afield, have a look at Cybertruffle's Fungal Valhalla!
  

Sir Robert Sibbald (1641-1722)
It seems incredible that the first member of our Hall of Fame should have been born less than twenty five years after the death of William Shakespeare! Born in Edinburgh, he would attend the Royal High School in that city before going on to study at the universities of Edinburgh, Leiden and Paris before gaining his doctorate at Angers when only 21 years of age. Settling back in Edinburgh he soon rose to prominence not only as a physician, but also as a cartographer, an antiquarian and a natural historian. He was appointed Geographer Royal in 1682, and he took a leading part in establishing the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh of which body he was elected president in 1684. A year later he was appointed the first Professor of Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. He was the first to scientifically describe the largest animal ever to inhabit the Earth, which was known for a long time as "Sibbald's Rorqual" before becoming better known as the Sulphur Bottom or Blue Whale. He also had several books published, the diverse subject matter reflecting his many talents and interests. The most famous of these works is Scotia illustrata (1684) which deals with Scottish plants, animals and minerals as well as articles on medicine and travel within Scotland. He is also revealed to be something of a philanthropist by his 1699 publication "Provision for the poor in time of dearth and scarcity". Perhaps he even forgave his barber for that spectacularly awful hairdo.
So, you may ask, what has the energetic Sir Robert done to justify inclusion in a mycological Hall of Fame? Well, his major contribution was to co-found the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens in 1670 with Dr. Andrew Balfour whom he had met and befriended during his studies in Europe. Originally planted as a "Physic Garden" where physicians could grow medicinal herbs it would eventually become the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh, which has been and continues to be the seat of Scottish mycology and the location of its extensive fungal herbarium. Sibbald also provides us with our earliest records of fungi in Scotland. In Scotia illustrata he gives us our first list, containing the grand total of five species all found prior to 1684. Among these is the stinkorn which he described as "Fungus phalloides, Phallus Hollandicus Park. Noxius seu foetidus, penis imaginem referens C.B." Imagine if all the scientific names were like that today! Thank goodness for Linnaeus! Sibbald found the stinkhorn at Caribber Bank in West Lothian, which would give it the modern grid reference of NS9675, not bad precision for a record well over 300 years old, and considerably better than the efforts of some field mycologists active today! He also recorded field mushrooms, which he described as "widely eaten", in King's Park (now Holyrood Park), Edinburgh (most of which lies within NT2773) as well as an indeterminate small round puffball from the same locale. From other areas he noted Jew's Ear and "Touchwood" which refers to the fungus we now call Phellinus igniarius.
In his 1710 publication "A History Ancient and Modern of the Sheriffdoms of Fife and Kinross" he mentions two further finds, the first another stinkhorn which he found "growing in Kirkaldy (sic) sands, amongst the sea-grass, near to the West bridge" (modern grid reference NT2790). The second find, sent to him from somewhere in Fife by a Doctor Preston, he describes as "Fungus caliculatus seminiferus". When the book was reprinted in 1803 the editors placed a footnote on this description, ascribing it to a species described by Hudson in 1788 as Peziza lentifera to which they attached the common name "Black seeding Peziza". This is the fungus we now know as Crucibulum laeve, The Common Bird's Nest.
In 1753, thirty one years after the death of our hero, the Genus Sibbaldia in the rose family, and specifically the mat-forming tundra plant S. procumbens were named in his honour by Linnaeus himself, no less! Some time later Sibbaldia procumbens was adopted as the emblem of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, and "Sibbaldia" is also the name of a series of horticultural journals currently published by the RBGE.
 
  

Rev. John Lightfoot (1735-1788)
The period from around the middle of the 18th century until the end of the Victorian era was the heyday of the naturalist-clergyman. Guaranteed a stable, if modest, income, and with more leisure time than most, clergymen were well-positioned to take advantage of the fact that their literacy put them into an elite stratum of society and that their knowledge of Latin gave them access to all the latest science of their time. Many of them studied birds, butterflies, beetles and fossils and made collections which would be of great value to the professional scientists who came later, but John Lightfoot's major passions were for botany (which in those days invariably included the "cryptogamic vegetables"; ferns, algae, mosses, lichens and fungi) and conchology (the study of sea-shells). Born at Newent in Gloucestershire, his early life appears to have been uneventful and typical of the genteel classes of the time. He graduated at Oxford in 1760, but did not attain his Masters until years later, however it was not primarily as an academic that he would excel, but as a meticulous organiser, researcher and recorder of information which was usually provided by his contemporaries. He was also extremely well-connected from his Oxford days, and his appointment as chaplain to Margaret Bentinck, Duchess of Portland enhanced his social circle still further. No doubt it was his enthusiasm for categorization that led to the Duchess making him curator of her renowned "Cabinet of Curiosities" including the famous ancient vase which would later bear her family's titular name. By the end of the 1760's Lightfoot was close friends with Joseph Banks, probably the most celebrated botanist of his day, and may well have introduced him to Daniel Solander, who had studied in his native Sweden under Carl von Linne (Linnaeus), and was by this time in England spreading the word about the Linnaean system of classification. I wonder how Lightfoot must have been feeling when his two best mates sailed off with James Cook on a voyage that would lead to Botany Bay, Solander Point and botanical immortality!
Among his other friends Lightfoot could boast William Hudson, James Dickson, James Edward Smith, Gilbert White, John Sibthorpe and the great Halifax mycologist James Bolton, whose first book was bankrolled by none other than the Duchess of Portland. We might speculate that our Johnny had something to do with that. All of these men resolutely accepted the Linnaean system and together with Banks and Solander, led by Smith, they were among the co-founders of the Linnaean Society in 1788. It was another of his friends, however, who would take John Lightfoot on a trip that would lead to the publication of his his best-known work "Flora Scotica" in 1777, and later to his greatest achievement, inclusion in this Hall of Fame. Thomas Pennant was born into Welsh landed gentry and wasn't short of a bob or two. Commendably, rather than squandering his wealth and considerable leisure time, he turned himself into a zoologist and antiquarian of note, with the publication of many works that would lead to his election into the Royal Society as a fellow in 1767. Dissatisfied by a previous trip to Scotland in 1769, he resolved to undertake another expedition in 1772 and invited Lightfoot to come along as botanist to nullify his own shortcomings in that field. This time, with our hero's help, the entire enterprise was much more competently organised, with the Rev. John Stuart of Killin engaged as a translator and expert in matters Gaelic and a great swathe of pamphlets sent out in advance advertising the trip and seeking offers of hospitality and access to extant collections and papers. 
The expedition entered Scotland around Annandale and proceeded north to the borders of Sutherland via Langholm, Edinburgh, and Blair Atholl before sailing to many of the Inner Hebrides (at which point Banks and Solander briefly joined in the fun) then returning to mainland Argyll and traversing the country to "the Mearns" (Kincardineshire) via Glen Lyon before finally returning to England via Belmont (near Meigle, Perthshire), Edinburgh and Kelso. In all the trip took five months; when Flora Scotica was published five years later it contained references to many hundreds of species of plants and "cryptogamia" and although Lightfoot had already been a student of botany for sixteen years at the time of the trip it would beggar belief that he could have amassed such a comprehensive list single-handedly. Lightfoot was quick to acknowledge this, citing the assistance of Dr. Hope, professor of Botany at Edinburgh, the Rev. Dr. Burgess of Kirkmichael, Dumfriesshire and Dr. Parsons, Oxford, (who had previously studied botany at Edinburgh) for reference to their copious notes and observations and access to their well-stocked herbaria. Notwithstanding this, there is no doubt that all of the early records of these contributors would have been lost were it not for John Lightfoot, and the list of 73 species of fungi included in volume 2 of his book was by far the greatest contribution to Scottish mycology until Hopkirk published his Flora Glottiana some 36 years later.
Lightfoot's 73 species were divided into ten genera of which one, Tremella, was ascribed to the algae. While his classification might be a bit wonky by today's understanding, most of the species he recorded can be traced to modern taxa. Among these we have the first British record for Chanterelle (Belmont Castle, Meigle, Perthshire (NO2843) September 1772) as well as three separate records for "Esculent Morels". Who would have imagined that the first British record for the Summer Truffle (Tuber aestivum) would come, not from the chalky downs of the Home Counties but from the lonely wilderness of Glen Lyon, in the grounds of Meggernie Castle at NN5546 (these were found by a Mr. Menzies, which gives a lovely link into one of Scotland's most famous ghost legends)!
After his Scottish adventure, Lightfoot made subsequent botanical trips in 1773 and 1774 to Wales and South-West England respectively, and in 1786 he published "An Account of Some Minute British Shells, Either not Duly Observed or Totally Unnoticed by Authors". In spite of the catchy title of this tome it is for his magnificent compilation work in Flora Scotica that Lightfoot will be remembered. The surviving part of his personal herbarium is preserved today at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
 
 

James Dickson (1738-1822)
Any student of bryology or lichenology will revere the contribution made to their fields of study by James Dickson, while devotees of horticulture will be similarly impressed with his work in their sphere. As a mycologist, however, he was one of the rare breed who reversed the usual trend whereby Englishmen came north to improve the understanding of our local mycology - he was a Scot who moved south to the benefit of theirs! Born at Kirke House, Traquair, Peeblesshire he was brought up in a family of nurserymen: his father, Robert, had been a gardener who had set up a nursery at Teviotdale in 1729, while his brother, Walter, had a nursery at Leith Walk in Edinburgh which was the most extensive and possibly also the best in Scotland. With no classical education young James established a nursery of his own in Perth before deciding to move to London while still a young man. In 1772 he set up in business a a nurseryman and seedsman in Covent Garden, and by 1781 he had become interested in mosses and other "cryptogams". At some point he met and befriended Joseph Banks and so became a member of the Banks-Solander gang with the inevitable result that he was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society, and would eventually go on to become a founder member of the Linnaean Society. From 1785 to 1791 Dickson made several "cryptogamic excursions" to his native Scotland, including one to Ben Lawers and the Hebrides in 1789 with his brother-in-law, a young Mungo Park, who would later gain fame through his exploration following the River Niger into the interior of Africa. In 1785 Dickson published the first part of his "Fasciculus Plantarum Cryptogamicarum Britanniae", illustrated by James Sowerby and dedicated to "Josepho" Banks, followed by three further "Fasciculi" in 1790, 1793 and 1801. Combined they form a body of work of major importance with respect to mosses and algae in Britain, with Scotland well represented, but infuriatingly, when it comes to fungi his major effort appears to be in England where he recounts the findings of many of his friends and contemporaries, particularly in the Home Counties, Suffolk and Warwickshire. Many of his Scottish records are unreported, being described simply as being "common everywhere (throughout Britain)", but we can find the odd Scottish "first" if we are persistent, including Lactarius torminosus and Microglossum viride with the latter being found "in the vicinity of Loch Lomond". It has been widely rumoured that Dickson was the first to note the "Old Man of the Woods" in Britain, and that the material he used was of Scottish origin: when he describes "Boletus strobiliformis" in his first fasciculus he is clearly talking about the Old Man of the Woods, but closer examination shows that the specimen he was referring to was submitted to him from Bulstrode Park, Buckinghamshire prior to 1785 by our old pal Johnny Lightfoot!
While Dickson's achievements in Scottish mycology fell short of stupendous, his ground-breaking work in the study of other "cryptogams" together with his contribution, as a Scot, to English mycology just about merits a place in our Hall of Fame, although it would have been difficult to justify his inclusion had he been active fifty years later.
By the late 1790's Dickson had established another profitable nursery, this one at Croydon in Surrey, and in 1804 he would be a founder member of the Royal Horticultural Society, of which body he would later become a vice-president. The plant genus Dicksonia is named in his honour. 

 
MORE MYCOLOGIST PROFILES TO FOLLOW! 
 
 









 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Capt. Dugald Carmichael (1772-1827)
 
 
 
Sir William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865) 
 
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Thomas Hopkirk (1785-1841)
 
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Robert Kaye Greville (1794-1866)
 
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George Johnston (1797-1855)
 
 
Rev. James Keith (1825-1905)
 
 
Thomas King (1834-1896) and the "Glasgow Boys"
 
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 Rev. John Stevenson (1836-1903)
 
 
 
 
Francis Buchanan White (1842-1894)
 
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James William Helenus Trail (1851-1919) 
 
 
Daniel Alexander Boyd (1855-1928)
 
 
Richard William George Dennis (1910-2003)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
Peter Darbishire Orton (1916-2005)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Douglas Mackay Henderson (1927-2007)
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