Blind botanists, Iraqi mulberries and the Cowthorpe Oak

During my botany internship at the Discovery Centre I have been working on the collection of Mr John Grimshaw Wilkinson (1856 – 1937). This contains many samples of plants from the Leeds area, as well as others from around the world. Some of the most interesting examples include twigs from what was the largest oak in England, at Cowthorpe, near York, and two Mulberry samples from Basra, Iraq. I find these items interesting because each is accompanied by an old photograph, so it is easier to imagine exactly how the plants would have looked when growing, and what kind of places they grew in. It is also interesting looking at the work of John Wilkinson because he had a difficult life but was still extremely accomplished.
Wilkinson started his working life as a grocer, however, after a severe illness left him blind at the age of 22 he went on to become a well-known and respected botanist, identifying his samples through touch and smell. According to a friend of his, his usual method of identification was to lick the edges of leaves to check their shape, which can’t always have been a pleasant experience. He was also known for his excellent memory and advised on the planting of several parks in Leeds. In 1915 the University of Leeds awarded Mr Wilkinson an honorary Msc degree in recognition of his work. Mr Wilkinson lived in Leeds for his whole life but the collections in the Discovery Centre show a wide range of contacts from across the world including Iraq, Canada and Australia. Even as someone who doesn’t really know a lot about plants, I find it inspiring to think about how much effort Mr Wilkinson must have made in order to overcome his blindness and build such a large and varied collection.
The object to the left is a sample from the famous Cowthorpe Oak which was about 20m in circumference. There are even records of 70 people (mainly children) fitting inside the hollow of its trunk at one time, although some must have sat on each others’ shoulders to fit in. By the 1800’s the oak was already in decline but there are records that in the early 1700’s the branches spread to cover over half an acre (about 1/4 of a full-sized premiership football pitch). The sample in our store was taken by Mr Wilkinson on 1st August 1916, although it has since died completely. In the photograph below it is just possible to see Mr. Wilkinson standing in front of the tree. The branch supporting beams shown in the sketch can also be seen.  
The Mulberry samples to the right were collected in Makina Masus, Basra, Iraq in 1918 by H. Whitehead (Bsc) and sent to Mr Wilkinson. Whitehead was obviously also a keen botanist as he is mentioned as a collector in several botanical journals such as the Kew Bulletin (1957, 12:2). British troops were posted in Basra to protect oil supplies during WW1, although we do not know whether Whitehead was there with the armed forces or independently. The attached photograph presumably shows the area they were picked from. These are just a few examples of items with interesting back stories, but it is amazing how the little clues scattered throughout the Wilkinson Collection build up to form a picture of the friendships and acquaintances of one man, and how his work was known across the world in the days before instant communication.

Posted by Clare but written and researched by Kim Hemming (biology intern, Summer 2011) who worked diligently on the wonderful herbarium collection held at Leeds Museum Discovery Centre.

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