Papers of John Hardie Wilson

Scope and Content

The John Hardie Wilson Bequest forms the largest part of the Botany Department collection which includes research material and photographs illustrative of the work of Wilson together with a number of other St Andrews and Scotland-based botanists of the 19th and 20th centuries, including William Buist, Charles Howie, W C McIntosh, R A Robertson, W B Ogilvie, Ellis Crapper and John Colville and W Boulinger.

The Wilson bequest contains academic papers, botanical notes, mounted botanical specimens, correspondence, diagrams and botany teaching aids. The latter comprise material produced by Wilson during his career in academic teaching, ca.1890-ca.1916 but also dating from ca.1887-1947. There is also additional material relating to JHW collected from other sources.

Dr John Hardie Wilson himself collected the works of other botanists and other botanical material. Thus included in the Wilson Bequest are, for example, papers of the notable local naturalist Charles Howie (1811-1899), largely relating to Howie's botanical studies, most especially of Fifeshire mosses and including published and unpublished works, specimens and some personal correspondence. There are also papers of John Smith, Curator of the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, London (ca.1844 to 1864), dating from ca.1818 to ca.1845.

The bequest also contains significant holdings relating to the Wilson Family business of Greenside Nurseries, St Andrews, including printed material and photographic albums.

Administrative / Biographical History

Dr John Hardie Wilson (1858-1920) was born in St Andrews, educated at Madras College, St Andrews and thereafter worked as a plantsman in Edinburgh, possibly at the Royal Botanic Garden. While in Edinburgh he began to study Botany at Edinburgh University. In 1886, he returned to St Andrews to study natural history under W.C. McIntosh. In 1887 Wilson began to teach as a Demonstrator in Botany while still an undergraduate. He graduated in Zoology and became lecturer in Botany in 1888 and attained his D.Sc in 1889. Wilson was also a prime mover behind the establishment of the University Botanic Garden which opened in the summer of 1889. In 1889-1890 Wilson was also one of the founder members (and first president) of the University Science Club. In 1890, however, Wilson left his teaching post within the University partly due perhaps to a reluctance on the part of the University to commit adequate funding to his teaching.

From mid-1890 to September 1893 he appears to have been employed as "Curator of the Herbarium and Library of the Royal Botanic Garden". Wilson is known to have taught extra-mural classes at Heriot Watt College from 1891 In 1892, he is known to have applied (unsuccessfully) for the curatorship of the Glasgow botanic garden. In 1894 he was at St Andrews again as extra-mural Lecturer in Agriculture and was then appointed Lecturer in Botany at Yorkshire College, Leeds remaining in post until College restructuring saw funding for his post end in 1897.

During the 1890s Wilson established himself as a plant hybridologist of international renown. In 1891, his paper Observations on the fertilisation and hybridisation of some species of Albuca was published by the Royal Belgian Botanical Society. His principal area of research was disease-resistant food crops, most especially potatoes, oats and soft fruits. Throughout his career, much of his experimental planting took place on family-held land around St Andrews. It was this work, coupled with his proven teaching abilities, which lead to Wilson being appointed lecturer in Agriculture and Rural Economy at the University of St Andrews in 1900. John Hardie Wilson styled himself a practical botanist, stating that the motive of his research was to provide more useful and productive plants. In this he sought hybrids both within and across plant species. Amongst many honours, he received the Royal Horticultural Society's Banksian Medal for this work.

In 1901-1903 and 1905-1906 the University of St Andrews sought unsuccessfully to establish a Department of Agriculture under Wilson. However, his Agriculture classes were well-attended and highly regarded. He was also heavily involved in botanical outreach within the local community. The Great War saw student numbers dwindle and, after 1916, funding for Wilson's experimental potato beds came to an end. Wilson turned his attentions to tending to the University Botanic Garden for the duration of the War, the head gardener having been called-up for active service. It was commented at the time of his death in 1920 that the strain of this work, which he undertook largely single-handedly in the absence of additional manpower during the War, had been contributory in his death. Thereafter the Agriculture section of the Department of Natural History was wound up with most specimens, together Wilson's assistant Robb, being transferred to Edinburgh.

Wilson was a keen antiquarian and became a prominent member of the St Andrews Literary and Philosophical Society. He was also a skilled photographer, taking many striking and significant images not only of botanical specimens but also of St Andrews and the East Neuk of Fife. Finally, he was also a competent geologist, applying this discipline to the study of East Fife.


  • ms37783/1 Edinburgh University student botany notes with illustrations including some watercolour images, 1884-87;
  • ms37783/2 Illustrations of fungi and bacteria plus supporting documentation, watercolour plates, 1885-1889;
  • ms37783/3 Miscellaneous botanical illustrations by Dr John Hardie Wilson, ca.1884-1920;
  • ms37783/4 Scottish Agricultural Commission booklet, 1910;
  • ms37784 Reprints of prize-winning papers on plant hybridology from American Gardening journal including Dr John Hardie Wilson's prize-winning paper 1899;
  • ms37788 Album of Press cuttings relating to Dr John Hardie Wilson's career sourced from local and other newspapers and journals, 1879-1921;
  • ms37789-90 Greenside Nursery papers 1883-1902;
  • ms37791-95 Notebooks in the hand of William Fernie Buist, Lawpark, St Andrews, 1839-1859;
  • ms37796-98 Mounted botanical specimens and papers with provenance relating to John Smith, Curator, Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, London, 1818-1864;
  • ms37799 student botanical drawings by W A Anderson 1888;
  • ms37800 Dr John Hardie Wilson autograph personal notebook listing "herbaceous plant species: Edinburgh" September 1893;
  • ms37801 illustrated botanical notebook 1902-1903;
  • ms37802 Folder of Stebler's Figures of grasses and clovers, ca.1880;
  • ms37803-4 C Howie Fife moss specimens ca.1850-ca.1870;
  • ms37805 Charles Howie correspondence 1851-1898;
  • ms37806-8 C Howie plant species lists 1865-1889;
  • ms38491/3 Bound autograph notebook in the hand of Dr John Hardie Wilson listing the first planting of the first University of St Andrews botanic garden (1889);
  • ms38513 Botany teaching aids, principally relating to the teaching of agriculture, ca.1900-ca.1916;
  • ms38514/1 Mounted exhibition plates of plants propagated by Dr John Hardie Wilson plus related texts and autograph Dr John Hardie Wilson exhibition poster, ca.1900-1919;
  • ms38514/2 Album of botanical specimens and plates ca.1896-1920;
  • ms38524/1 Outsize/folio material relating to the teaching of plant hybridology, ca.1890-ca.1900;
  • ms38524/2 Botany teaching resources 1895;
  • ms38525 Miscellany of original and photocopy resources relating to Dr John Hardie Wilson, 1884-2001.

Access Information

By appointment with the Archivist. Access to unpublished records less than 30 years old and other records containing confidential information may be restricted. Special conditions apply to photographs.

Acquisition Information

The bequest papers were transferred to the Department of Special Collections in 1984.


Photographic material is not described here but can be found under GB 227 phJHW.

Description compiled by Rachel Hart, Archives Hub Project Archivist, using descriptions provided by Meic Pierce Owen, HOST project archivist.

Other Finding Aids

The collection has been listed as part of the RSLP-sponsored History of Science and Technology project, 2000-2002 and the list is available on the manuscripts database of the University of St Andrews Special Collection Department.

Conditions Governing Use

Applications for permission to quote should be sent to the University Archivist. Reproduction subject to usual conditions: educational use and condition of documents. Special conditions apply to photographs.

Appraisal Information

This material has been appraised in line with standard GB 227 procedures.

Custodial History

The papers known as the bequest were given to the Botany Department of the University of St Andrews by John Hardie Wilson's niece, a Miss Anderson, in 1933. Additional material has been acquired since that date or gathered during the HOST project.

Related Material

GB 227 phJHW and ms37852/15-16, ms37785-87/2 etc., John Hardie Wilson photographic collection covers the photographic material within the JHWilson collection.

These papers are part of the Botany Department Collection of the University of St Andrews which can be found at GB 227 ms37783-ms37852, ms38524; ms38459, ms38491-ms38492, ms38513-ms38514 and ms38525.

Geographical Names