Curtis, William

, an eminent botanist, was born at Alton, in Hampshire, in 1746. At the age of fourteen he was bound apprentice to his grandfather, an apothecary at Alton, and appears to have first acquired a particular taste for botany, from an acquaintance in humble life, the ostler of an adjoining inn, who had studied some of the popular Herbals. Some more systematic works falling in his way soon after, instilled into his apt and ardent mind, principles of method, and of Linnaean philosophy, which neither his original preceptor, nor the books he studied, could ever have taught. At the age of twenty, Mr. Curtis came to London, in order to finish his medical education, and to seek an establishment in the profession to which he was destined. He was associated with a Mr. Talwin of Gracechurch-street, to whose business he at length succeeded; but not without having from time to time received many reproofs and warnings, respecting the interference of his botanical pursuits with the more obviously advantageous ones of his profession. Nor were these warnings without cause. The street-walking duties of a city practitioner but ill accorded with the wild excursions of a naturalist; the apothecary was soon swallowed up in the botanist, and the shop exchanged for a garden. Mr. Curtis, therefore, became a lecturer on the principles of natural science, and | a Demonstrator of practical botany. His pupils frequented his garden, studied in his library, and followed him into the fields in his herborizing excursions. His first garden was situated at Bermondsey; afterwards he occupied a more extensive one at Lambeth Marsh, which he finally exchanged for a more salubrious and commodious spot at Brompton. This last garden he continued to cultivate till his death.

Mr. Curtis was very early led to combine the study of insects and thtir metamorphoses with that of plants, and his various gardens were furnished with accommodations for this pursuit. Hence he became an author; his first publication being a pamphlet, entitled “Instructions for collecting and preserving Insects; particularly Moths and Butterflies, illustrated with a copper plate,” printed in 1771. In the following year he published a translation of the “Fundamenta Entomologist” of Linnæus, entitled “An Introduction to the Knowledge of Insects,” many valuable additions being subjoined to the original treatise. These two pamphlets have contributed more than any similar works, to diffuse a knowledge of scientific entomology in England, and to engraft on the illiterate illiberal stock of mere collectors, a race of enlightened and communicative observers of nature; who no longer hoard up unique specimens, and selfish acquisitions, but contribute their discoveries and their experience for the benefit of the agriculturist, the manufacturer, or the physician.

The celebrity which these publications procured for their author, was soon altogether eclipsed by what arose from his botanical labours, which have placed him in the very first rank of English writers in that department of science. In 1777 appeared the first number of his “Flora Londinensis,” containing six folio plates, with a page or more of letter-press, consisting of a description in Latin and English, with synonyms of each plant, and copious remarks on its history, uses, qualities, and the insects it nourishes. Each number was sold at half a crown plain, five shillings coloured; and some copie?, finished with extraordinary care, were sold at seven shillings and six-pence. The first artist employed in making the drawings for this work, was Mr. Kilburn, who used a camera obscura for the purpose; his sketches were shaded with Indian ink, before the colours were laid on. The performances of this artist have not been excelled in any similar work. When from | other engagements, Mr. Kilburn was obliged to relinquish his task, Mr. Sowerby was employed, and maintained uridiminished the perfection of the figures. After him, Mr. Sydenham Edwards was engaged by Mr. Curtis, with no less credit, both in this publication and the “Botanical Magazine” hereafter mentioned. Of the plates of the “Flora Londineosis” too much cannot be said; their beauty and botanical accuracy are alike eminent, and it is only to be regretted that the manufactory of paper, as well as the typographical art, were in so degraded a state when this book first appeared. For this its author cannot be responsible, nor are these defects of any moment in the eyes of learned or scientific readers, to whom the work in question, independent of its excellent figures, ranks next to Ray’s Synopsis, in original merit and authority upon English plants. It may be added, that the works of Curtis have tended, more than any other publications of their day, to give that tone of urbanity and liberality to the science, which every subsequent writer of good character has observed. Wherever their author swerved in any degree from this candour, which was very seldom, and not perhaps without provocation, it was always to his own loss; and he was thus led into some of the very few mistakes that he has committed.

The “Flora Londinensis” was extended to six fasciculi, of seventy-two plates each, and ten years after the beginning of it, Mr. Curtis undertook a new publication, the “Botanical Magazine,” a work whose sale has been extensive beyond all former example, and which is in every respect worthy of its author. No book has more diffused a taste for unsophisticated nature and science. It rewarded its contriver with pecuniary emolument as well as with merited celebrity, and is still continued with unabated utility. It is designed to be a general repository of garden plants, whether previously figured or not in other works, but it has often had the advantage of giving entire novelties to the public.

In 1782, Mr. Curtis published a history of the browntailed moth, an insect confounded by Linnæus under his Phalitna Chrysorrhoea. The design of this pamphlet was to allay the alarm which had been excited in the country round the metropolis, by an extraordinary abundance of the caterpillars of this moth, and which was so great, that | the parish officers offered rewards for collecting these caterpillars, and attended in form to see them burnt by bushels at a time. It was one of those popular alarms which every now and then arise amono-the ignorant multitude, and which vanish before the first ray of common sense. When the natural history of the insect was inquired into, and compared with that of others, no cause for any great apprehension could be discerned; and indeed the subsequent years were not more abundant in this species than usual.

Besides the above works, Mr. Curtis published “Practical Observations on the British Grasses,” in 8vo; his truly praise-worthy aim being to direct the farmer to a knowledge and discrimination of the species and their qualities. He also from time to time printed catalogues of his garden. He was induced, by the unfortunate alarm which he conceived at the publication of“English Botany,” an apparently rival work, to put forth diminished figures in 8vo, of his great Flora; but these met with no approbation nor success, and were soon discontinued. His “Lectures on Botany,”' rendered needlessly expensive by superfluous coloured plates, have appeared since his death; but for this publication he is not responsible. Two admirable entomological papers of Mr. Curtis are found in the “Transactions of the Linnean Society” of which society he was one of the original fellows. The first of these is an account of the Silpha Grisea, and Curculio Lapathi, two coleopterous insects very destructive to willows. The other paper is intended to shew that the Aphides, or lice of plants, are “the sole cause of the honey-dew,” a new theory on the subject, and perfectly just, as far as concerns the most common kind of honey-dew. This paper was digested by the president from the unfinished materials of its author, and communicated to the society after his death, which happened on the 7th of July, 1799, after he had for near a twelvemonth laboured under a disease in the chest, supposed to be of a dropsical nature; but which was rather, perhaps, an organic affection of the heart, or of the great vessels immediately connected with it. His remains were interred at Battersea church. He left behind him the character of an honest friendly man, a lively and entertaining companion, and a good master. He was ever ready to encourage and assist beginners in his favourite science, and always endeavoured to render that science as attractive as possible. It must not be forgotten | that he was one of the first, who, in spite of authority, contributed to remove some reproaches to which it was justly liable, on the score of indelicacy. This last praise is justly paid to Mr. Curtis by an excellent and very eminent friend, who has given the world a history of his life and merits in the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1799, whence we have derived many of the ubove particulars. 1

1

Gent. Mag. vol. LXIX. p. 628, 635, methodized in Rees’s Cyclopædia.