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Botany has its origins in the gardens created by Sir Andrew Balfour (1630-1694) in 1668, assisted by Sir Robert Sibbald (1641-1722). They created a garden at Holyrood and charged James Sutherland (c1639-1719) to look after it. Sutherland procured additional land next to Trinity Hospital in 1675. A year later he was appointed to teach at the College though this was not fully formalised until 1695 when he was also appointed King's Botanist and Keeper of the Royal Garden at Holyrood. Botany was originally combined with Materia Medica, the latter being taught during the winter months, the former in the summer. Essentially Botany was seen as a medical subject and was thus based in the Faculty of Medicine.

During the term fifth Professor, John Hope (1725-1786), Botany and Materia Medica were separated into separate Chairs, Hope being retitled 'Professor of Medicine and Botany', with Francis Home (1719-1813) being appointed Professor of Materia Medica. Students in this period included William Roxburgh (1751-1815), later to be Superintendent of the Botanic Garden at Calcutta. Hope was succeeded by Daniel Rutherford (1748-1819), on whose watch Robert Brown (1773-1858), of 'Brownian motion' was to graduate.

Nineteenth Century Expansion

Rutherford's successor, Robert Graham (1786-1845), was appointed in 1820 and his early years were largely occupied with the move of the Botanic Gardens to their new home at Inverleith Row. Numbers attending classes grew. In his final year, deteriorating health necessitated his classes be covered by one Dr (later Sir) Joseph Dalton Hooker. The Town Council turned Hooker down as Graham's replacement.

Like Graham, his successor had previously held the Chair of Botany at Glasgow. John Hutton Balfour (1808-1884) also became Dean of the Faculty of Medicine. He built on Graham's use of expeditions and added more fieldwork to the curriculum.

Next came Alexander Dickson (1836-1887), appointed in 1880. The Chair was now simply 'of Botany'. He too had come from Glasgow. Dickson had as Demonstrator, a young Patrick Geddes.

In 1888, Sir Isaac Bayley Balfour (1853-1922), was appointed to succeed Dickson. He was the son of John Hutton Balfour (above) and the first ever student to be awarded DSc in Botany by the University of Edinburgh. Following the establishment of the Faculty of Science in 1893, Advanced Botany could be taken as part of a Science degree, though elementary study and the subject overall remained based in the Faculty of Medicine.

Broadening and Deepening

Under Balfour the range of subjects available to study increased with new lecturers appointed in Bacteriology, Mycology and Plant Physiology. 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.

The next Professor was Sir William Wright Smith (1875-1956), appointed in 1922.


Professors of Botany (and Materia Medica) in the College

King's Botanist (Regius Professor) and Keeper of the Royal Botanic Gardens

Thereafter the two positions stayed combined as an automatic joint appointment.

Professor of Botany and King's Botanist (Keeper of the Royal Botanic Gardens)

Thereafter the Chair was once again separated from that of Keeper of the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Professors of Botany


  • Ronald M. Birse, Science at the University of Edinburgh 1583-1993 : an illustrated history to mark the centenary of the Faculty of Science and Engineering 1893-1993 (University of Edinburgh, 1994)
  • University Calendar