Douglas Henderson: Twelfth Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh


Douglas Mackay Henderson, botanist and mycologist: born Blairgowrie, Perthshire 30 August 1927; Scientific Officer, Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland 1948-51; staff, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh 1951-87, Regius Keeper 1970-87; Secretary, International Association of Botanical Gardens 1969-81; Curator of the Library and Museum, Royal Society of Edinburgh 1978-87; Honorary Professor of Botany Edinburgh University 1983-2007; HM Botanist in Scotland 1987-2007; Administrator, Inverewe 1987-92; married 1952 Margaret Brown (one son, two daughters); died Inverness 10 November 2007.

For 17 years, from the year of its tercentenary in 1970, Douglas Henderson was Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. As Director of one of the world's foremost botanic gardens, and Britain's second oldest (after Oxford), he was responsible for a remarkable, multi-faceted organisation that encompassed scientific research, the curation of an ever-growing national archive (a herbarium of some two million preserved plants and a 100,000-volume library) and a living plant collection of more than 12,000 species sustained across four exquisite gardens, themselves premier visitor attractions within Scotland.

Although born (in 1927) and raised in Blairgowrie, Perthshire, Henderson was always drawn to his maternal roots in Lochcarron and the dramatic landscapes of Wester Ross. Inspired by his father, a merchant sea captain, he also had a passion for sailing off those shores. After gaining first-class honours in botany at Edinburgh University, he trained briefly in virology at Cambridge before returning to Scotland's capital to take up a post as plant pathologist in the Department of Agriculture. There he met and, in 1952, married a fellow worker, Margaret Brown.

In 1950, joining as a research botanist, Henderson began his 36-year career at the Royal Botanic Garden. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1966, and four years later succeeded Harold Fletcher as Regius Keeper, becoming only the 12th incumbent of that prestigious role since its inception in 1699. Henderson's keepership saw the garden through its final 15 years as a full civil-service institute, to its current incarnation as a Non-Departmental Public Body, with the appointment of the first Board of Trustees in 1986.

Over that period he negotiated major expansions of the herbarium and library; he personally led the installation of the first electron microscope in support of his ultrastructural researches on both rust fungi and pollen grains; he encouraged the growth of schools education; and he expedited the computerisation of all plant records across the gardens. In 1975 he presided over the start of the Flora of Bhutan project, the first documentation of the 6,000 native plants of that remote Himalayan kingdom, eventually published in nine parts between 1983 and 2002.

In a more public vein, he set up new research glasshouses with distinct peat and rock landscapes at Edinburgh. He witnessed the reopening, in 1986, of Inverleith House as an exhibition venue within the Edinburgh garden (after 25 years as the original home of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art). He also drove forward the development of a much-needed café at the entrance to RBGE's first outstation at Benmore, near Dunoon, Argyll; he oversaw the integration of Logan, near Stranraer, (acquired in 1969), as the second outstation; and, in 1978, he led negotiations to take the historic policies at Dawyck near Peebles into the care of the RBGE, thus completing the quartet of remarkable sites that make up Scotland's national botanic garden.

Beyond the Royal Botanic Garden, Henderson was very active in the Royal Society of Edinburgh, in the British Mycological Society and in the Botanical Society of Edinburgh (now the Botanical Society of Scotland). Of great significance was his role as Secretary to the International Association of Botanic Gardens (1969-81), which took him on a seven-month global tour of plant-inspired institutions. His close involvement with the European Year of Conservation, in 1970, and collaboration with the directors of comparable Scottish environmental and heritage bodies, led to the founding of the "1970's Club". During dinner meetings and Hebridean sailboat explorations, he forged lifelong friendships with luminaries such as John Morton Boyd (of the then Scottish Nature Conservancy) and Lester Borley (National Trust).

Such adventures capitalised on Henderson's talents as a natural historian. All garden walks and countryside trips would be punctuated by diversionary poking about in the undergrowth as he pursued his enthusiasm for all types of plants, be they flowering plants, liverworts, ferns or indeed his particular fascination – fungi. He served for 44 years as Plant Recorder for his beloved Wester Ross and had continued to play an active part in fieldwork in the area until very recently.

Summer explorations would focus on the more flamboyant flowering plants, with concern for the delicate leaf-spotting that might indicate the presence of one of his plant-disease specialities, the rusts and smuts. Fieldwork in winter, often the best season for the more subtle lower plants like mosses, might in the genuinely cold years be complemented by an impromptu skating session. Henderson loved to ice-skate and would always be on the lookout for a suitably frozen tract of water.

Among Henderson's publications is The British Rust Fungi (1966), the standard reference work for Uredinales, co-authored with M. Wilson. With Professor Roy Watling, he instigated the encyclopaedic documentation of larger fungi in the British Isles in the form of the ongoing multi-volume British Fungus Flora, set up under the auspices of RBGE in 1969. His greatest regret in retirement was that the taxonomic study of the fungus kingdom, that had developed and flourished under his leadership in parallel with teams at RBG Kew and the former Commonwealth Mycological Institute, had subsequently been allowed to dwindle, at a time when knowledge of these ubiquitous and fundamentally important organisms should have become integral to our understanding of biodiversity and environmental change.

Towards the end of his time as Regius Keeper, he was given an Honorary Professorship from Edinburgh University, appointed CBE in 1985, and in 1987 appointed Her Majesty's Botanist in Scotland. His passion for gardens and gardening was also acknowledged with the Victoria Medal of Honour from the Royal Horticultural Society.

On his retirement from the Botanic Garden, Henderson returned to Wester Ross as the National Trust for Scotland's administrator at Inverewe Garden. Residing in the heart of this special landscape, he was able to exploit his lifetime's experience of gardens across the globe.

Alan P. Bennell

In the early 1980s, writes Tam Dalyell, Labour MPs for Scotland – and I was the most vociferous – entertained the gravest doubts about the proposal of the Thatcher government to transfer responsibility for the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh from the Scottish Office to a board of trustees. We voted against it at the committee stage of the Bill in the Commons.

The fact that we were proved wrong is significantly due to the skill of Douglas Henderson in managing the transition. Henderson's choice of Sir Peter Hutchison for the first chairman of the trustees, was, in the opinion of David Ingram, Director of the garden from 1990 to 1998, inspirational.

The change produced a different outlook in the garden – as Hutchison put it to me, "a sense that the future was in our own hands. In the proprietary period after my appointment I expressed a need for basic information and discovered that the leadership of the garden had no idea of the pay scale of any of those who worked in the garden, since it was all administered through the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries in Scotland".

Henderson encouraged the then novel idea of earning money and produced numerous subtle ideas to this end. Above all, he made it his business to reduce the difference between botanists and gardeners, and persuaded some shy scholars to come out of their proverbial box and inform the public of what they were doing.

As Chairman of Edinburgh University Court, I know how much Henderson did to bring together the garden and the university, following the earlier separation of the posts of Regius Keeper and Regius Professor of Botany in the 1950s.

In 1990 my wife and I spent a magical day with Douglas and Margaret Henderson, his wife of 55 years, at Inverewe Garden in Wester Ross. For hours, Henderson did what he liked best – showing to visitors his favourite plants, which ranged from unusual eucalyptus to rare fungi. He was an ambassador extraordinary for botany.

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