Botany – a lifelong passion

As a recent graduate of archaeology, I was slightly worried when I started my botany internship at LMDC that I simply wouldn’t know enough about plants and would, as a result, lose interest in the collection I was working on. I needn’t have worried, the botanist whose collection I was sifting through left many little clues and notes in his work which allowed me not only to better understand the fascinating world of botany, but also how he lived his life and his story.

I knew from his obituary already that William Arthur Sledge was born in 1904 and died in 1991. He was a pupil at Leeds Grammar School, then at the Department of Botany at Leeds University where he later became a Senior Lecturer. He was associated with the university for 69 years, and was clearly a well respected member of the botanical community. However, it is the letters from fellow botanists, his little notes and hidden away photographs and newspaper cuttings that give a more personal view.

The first I came across was a letter from a Mr A J Willmott of the British Museum in 1940. From the looks of things, Mr Wilmott was rather forgetful (as later letters also reveal), and Sledge had to write to him in order to get some of his precious specimens returned. Wilmott talks of the confusion at the BM, presumably from the bombing which damaged the museum and surrounding areas, and apologises for the late response. He writes again in 1942, thanking Sledge for another loan of specimens, then again in 1944 apologising profusely for another lapse in memory and for keeping his collection of Rhinanthus for so long. Wilmott was a forgetful soul, whereas Sledge clearly never forgot anything to do with his beloved collection. It is a shame we don’t have Sledge’s letter to Wilmott, but this one side of correspondence shows a fair deal about both men’s character.

There are many other letters and notes sent from other botanists, and I know through another intern’s work that he sent out letters himself clarifying identifications and so on. For his studies he travelled all over the world, to New Zealand and to Ceylon and Samoa, his knowledge of the flora of these countries was highly respected and sought after by many in his field.

However, the most personal thing I have so far discovered is a couple of his old books, dated in his own hand, to 1918. We discovered a book in the library here called ‘Illustrations of the British Flora: A series of wood engravings, with dissections, of British plants’, which was presented to Sledge by the Master of his Grammar School as a prize from the Midsummer Examination of 1918, for ‘proficiency in botany (senior prize)’. This book is clearly something he cherished throughout his life, its pages are filled with photographs, dried cuttings and newspaper clippings dating right up to the 1950’s, many of them with no date are possibly later then that. It has been well used, its spine falling apart and its pages very well thumbed.

In a world before Google to help identify species (it’s been a life-saver for me during my time here!) and without email to request the return of loaned out plants or to help others, books, letters and newspaper articles were essential in the life of a botanist. And they give us a wonderful insight into the man behind the collections. His obituary calls him ‘The botany man’, and he truly was just that, from his childhood right up until his death, he was a botanist through and through.

Posted by Clare but written and researched by Hana Makin who worked diligently on the wonderful plant collections at Leeds Museum Discovery Centre over summer 2011.

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