On this day in history : 15th February 1842 – The death of Archibald Menzies, Scottish surgeon, naturalist and botanist – who introduced us to species such as the Douglas Fir and the Monkey Puzzle tree….

Archibald Menzies – Public domain

Menzies was born on the 15th of March 1754 in Weem, near to Aberfeldy, Perthshire…. After a basic education at Weem Parish School he went to work as a gardener for Sir Robert Menzies, the chief of the Menzies Clan – who had an interest in newly discovered plants….

Young Menzies had four brothers, all of which were also gardeners…. One of them, William, went to Edinburgh to work at the Royal Botanic Gardens established by Professor John Hope in 1763…. Menzies then went to work alongside his brother and soon impressed Hope, who was Professor of Botany at Edinburgh University…. Hope was particularly taken by a herbarium collection of rare Scottish plants that Menzies had put together…. It was he who encouraged Menzies to study at the university and so between 1771-1780 he studied medicine, surgery, chemistry and botany….

After leaving university Menzies spent a period working as a doctor’s assistant in Wales, before joining the Royal Navy and becoming assistant surgeon on HMS Nonsuch…. It was in 1786 that he was appointed ship’s surgeon on HMS Prince of Wales, after a recommendation by Professor Hope to Sir Joseph Banks…. HMS Prince of Wales sailed to the North Pacific, along a route which was to include the west coast of North America, the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) and China…. When on dry land he spent much of his time collecting new species of plants…. On his return to Britain in 1789 he was elected as a fellow of the Linnean Society in London, the world’s oldest biological society….

1790 saw him setting sail once again, this time as naturalist on board HMS Discovery, under the command of Captain George Vancouver – it was to be a five year voyage around the world…. It was whilst over-wintering in Hawaii that Menzies and Lieutenant Joseph Baker, along with two other men, made the first recorded ascent of Mauna Loa, one of the five volcanoes that form Hawaii….

HMS Discovery – Public domain

It was also on this voyage that Menzies was to first record the Douglas Fir Pseudotsuga menziesii, one of the most prominent trees of western North America….

Douglas Firs – Walter Siegmund – own work – CC BY-SA 2.5

And it was whilst in Chile that he dined with the Viceroy…. When the dessert arrived it contained some nuts that he had never seen before – so he took some back to the ship and planted them…. On return to England one of the saplings was planted at Kew – it lived for nearly 100 years – and was the first time Britain had been introduced to the Monkey Puzzle tree Araucaria araucana….

Monkey Puzzle Tree at Kew Gardens

Menzies spent some time in the West Indies before retiring from the Royal Navy and returning to England…. He practiced as a doctor in Notting Hill, London and was appointed President of the Linnean Society…. He died in London and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery…. Although married he had no children….

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