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.