Sir Isaac Bayley Balfour (1853-1922)

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Professor of Botany, 1888-1922

Balfour lived very much in the footsteps of his father, John Hutton Balfour (1808-1884), who, like him, was a botanist of some repute. He was educated at the Edinburgh Academy, where, despite a promising start, he made very little impression as a pupil. This was because his interests and abilities were in the biological sciences, which were taught to him by his father, rather than the classics that were taught at school. Because of his father's post as Professor of Botany, the young Balfour was able to visit the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens, not open to the public at the time. This ready access to botany appears to have shaped Balfour's career. Balfour studied at the University of Edinburgh, from which he graduated with first class honours in 1873, and at the universities in Würzburg and Strassburg (Strasbourg).

Another formative experience in Balfour's life was his participation in the astronomical expedition of 1874 to Rodriguez. Though the stated aim of the mission was to observe Venus, Balfour used the opportunity to investigate the local flora, and on his return, the fieldwork he had carried out permitted him to gain his doctorate. When, in 1879, his father resigned the chair at Edinburgh, Glasgow professor Alexander Dickson (1836-1887) was appointed in his place, and the younger Balfour was promoted to the chair of botany in Glasgow. In 1884, he was appointed Sherardian Professor of Botany at the University of Cambridge. It was, however, after his return to Edinburgh in 1888 to take up his father's old chair that Balfour left his mark. His father had greatly enlarged the Royal Botanical Gardens during his tenure, but Balfour completely transformed them. Having put their finances on a safer footing by transferring them to the crown, Balfour engaged himself in a major reform of the gardens, establishing a proper botanical institute, and largely redeveloping the layout of the gardens in order to have a proper arboretum, building new laboratories and improving scientific facilities.

Much of Balfour's research centred on his major interest of China and the Himalayas, and he was particularly knowledgeable about Rhododendrons and Primulas. However, his real skill was in organisation, and he thoroughly changed for the better the study of botany in the three departments he chaired.

Balfour produced a number of papers during his career, but he did not publish any books.

Awards and Appointments

1873: Awarded Batchelor of Science degree (BSc) with first class honours, University of Edinburgh

1873-1878: Appointed Lecturer in Botany, Royal Veterinary College, Edinburgh

1875: Awarded Doctor of Science degree (DSc), University of Edinburgh

1877: Awarded Batchelor of Medicine, Batchelor of Surgery degree (MB,CM), University of Edinburgh

1877: Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh

1879: Appointed Professor of Botany, University of Glasgow

1884: Awarded Master of Arts degree (MA), University of Oxford

1884: Elected Fellow of the Royal Society

1884: Appointed Professor of Botany, University of Oxford

1888: Appointed Regius Professor of Botany, University of Edinburgh

1897: Awarded Victoria Medal of Honour, Royal Horticultural Society

1901: Awarded Doctor of Laws degree (LLD), University of Glasgow

1919: Awarded Linnean Medal of the Linnean Society

1921: Awarded Honorary Doctor of Laws degree (LLD), University of Edinburgh


  • Gillispie, Charles C, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol I(New York,Scribner's,1970)
  • Royal Society, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B, vol. 96, ( London, Harrison & Sons, 1924)
  • A Logan Turner, The History of the University of Edinburgh, (London, Oliver and Boyd, 1933)