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John Scouler (c.1804-1871) Scottish Naturalist: A Life, with Two Voyages

By E. Charles Nelson

Review By Ted Binnema

August 13, 2014

BC Studies no. 186 Summer 2015  | p. 159-160

Less celebrated than his friend David Douglas, John Scouler was nevertheless an important scientific traveller to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Nootka Sound, Haida Gwaii, and Observatory Inlet in 1825. Although Douglas has been the subject of several book-length biographies, Scouler has, until now, not received similar treatment. Thus, historians, anthropologists, and environmental scholars interested in the British Columbia coast should welcome this book.

Scouler and Douglas both found themselves aboard the Hudson’s Bay Company’s William and Ann in July 1824, headed for the HBC’s Fort Vancouver (present-day Vancouver, Washington). Douglas travelled on behalf of the Horticultural Society of London (now the Royal Horticultural Society), while Scouler had been engaged by the HBC as surgeon-scientist on the William and Ann. Both had been recommended to their respective employers by one of their professors at the University of Glasgow, the influential botanist, William Jackson Hooker.

By the time he joined the HBC, the twenty-year old Scouler (pronounced “schooler,” according to Nelson), had added medical training in France to his studies of botany. Thus, he was attractive to the HBC, which sought a ship surgeon who could also serve as natural historian. As it turns out, Scouler did not stay with the HBC very long. By April 1826 he had returned to London and left the employ of the HBC.

Nelson’s book — although interpretively timid — reveals that Scouler’s short visit to the Northwest Coast was crucial to his entire career and reputation as a scientist. Hooker’s important Flora Boreali-Americana, published between 1833 and 1840, drew upon Scouler’s herbarium. Still, Nelson argues (38) that Scouler has still not received credit for all he collected. More controversial than his natural history collection were the human remains Scouler gathered. Scouler’s ethnological collections (including remains of Inuit, Chinook, and Tshimshian people), which he willed to a museum of natural history in Paris, are still in Paris. In 1840 and 1846, Scouler also published articles on the indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast that remain of interest to historians of ethnology.

Nelson contributes to our knowledge of Scouler’s life before and after his time with the HBC. By the end of May 1826, Scouler was on another voyage — this time to India. Until now almost nothing was known about that trip. Nelson’s dogged research adds some details to our knowledge. However, Scouler’s contributions to science during those years were few, and cannot have added much to his reputation.

In 1829 then, based primarily on his work on the west coast of North America, Scouler was appointed Professor of Mineralogy and Natural History at Anderson University, and curator of the Andersonian Museum in Glasgow. In 1834 he accepted a position in Mineralogy and Geology at the Royal Dublin Society. However, his career and publications in mineralogy, geology, and Irish and European botany were undistinguished. Furthermore Scouler was unhappy at the Royal Dublin Society. “A situation in the Dublin Society is anything but an agreeable one to a man of science who retains any feelings of self-respect,” he once wrote (62). In 1854, at only 50 years old, he was placed on paid leave, owing to his poor health. Thereafter, he moved to Glasgow where he served several scientific societies until his death. Although Scouler published in various fields (for his publications see 83-86), his scientific contributions would probably be entirely forgotten today had it not been for his time on the Pacific Coast.

Appendix 1 (87-118) consists of an edition of Scouler’s journal kept from July 1824 to March 1826. The journal has been published previously, and while the annotated version in Nelson’s book is a welcome contribution, it is unfortunate that Nelson rendered the long or medial “s” as an italicized “f” (as in progreƒs) instead of an “s” throughout the journal. In sum, although Nelson could have pushed his analysis of the evidence much further, his carefully researched biography deserves a place in the research libraries and many of the personal libraries of the Pacific Northwest.

John Scouler (c.1804-1871) Scottish Naturalist: A Life, with Two Voyages
E. Charles Nelson
Glasgow: Glasgow Natural History Society, 2014. 142 pages Illus. £11.00 paper