Henry, Augustine

Augustine Henry (1857 – 1930)

Botanical explorer, dendrologist

Augustine Henry was born to an Irish family in Dundee in 1857.   They moved to Co. Tyrone, where Augustine attended Cookstown Academy .   He obtained a BA in Natural Sciences and Philosophy from Queen’s College, Galway, and an MA in Medicine from Queen’s College, Belfast .   Botany figured prominently in the 19th-century medical curriculum, since many medicines were traditionally derived from plants. Augustine Henry was just one of several medical graduates of the time whose interests and main contributions to science were more in the field of botany than in medicine.

Augustine Henry started work as a Medical Officer and Customs Assistant with the Chinese Customs Service in 1881, at a time when that vast country was largely controlled by various imperial European powers. He was proficient in Chinese and served in some of the remotest parts of the country. He was an ardent reader of the worldwide botanical literature. He collected 15,000 dried and 500 live specimens of the Chinese flora for the Kew botanical gardens in London . From his specimens, 25 new genera and 500 new species were identified.   He published his work extensively (including Notes on Economic Botany of China, 1893) and built up a voluminous correspondence with institutions and other plant collectors worldwide.

He left China in 1900 and studied in France at the National School of Forestry at Nancy . He was a Reader in Forestry at Cambridge from 1907 to 1913.   During this time he published (with H J Elwes) the monumental 7-volume Trees of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1913 he was appointed the first Professor of Forestry at the Royal College of Science (now University College Dublin), serving until he retired in 1926. He was involved in developing the National Forestry Service and in evaluating foreign conifer species, particularly those from the north-western coastal regions of North America . These included Sitka Spruce and Lodgepole Pine, which now dominate Irish State forests (to the dismay of some naturalists). He is regarded as the ‘father’ of Irish commercial forestry and numerous plants are named in his honour (e.g. Acer henryi, Lilium henryi and London Plane cv ‘Augustine Henry’).

He was involved in the Celtic Revival of the early 20th century, particularly the Dun Emer craft centre, and counted W B Yeats, George Russell, G B Shaw and Erskine Childers among his many friends and acquaintances.

The Royal Dublin Society, with the Society of Irish Foresters, organise an annual Augustine Henry Memorial Lecture. There are memorials to him in Avondale and Portglenone forests, and his portrait is displayed in the National Botanic Gardens.

Reference : Pim, S. 1985. The Wood and the Trees, a Biography of Augustine Henry. Second revised edition, Kilkenny.

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