John Ralfs: Penzance Botanist
by Jan Ruhrmund
This article was published in the West Briton newspaper on 18th December 1986, as part of the Nature Scene in Cornwall series.
For many people the opportunity to transform their hobby into a life’s work would be considered a remarkable stroke of good fortune. However, for John Ralfs distinguished 19th Century botanist the freedom to pursue his botanical interests was facilitated by considerable misfortune.
Born in 1807, the son of a Hampshire yeoman, Ralfs was a frail child, and illness was to dog him throughout the 83 years of his life. A brief but very promising medical career was finished by the suspicion of incipient tuberculosis and, like many invalids of the time, he was directed to the South-West to recover. He lighted upon Torquay, but a brief and unhappy marriage provoked another move. In the autumn of 1837 John Ralfs chose Penzance as his new home, and remained there for the rest of his life.
He had developed an enthusiasm for the non-flowering plants in particular, and at last he had a chance to study the mosses, lichens. fungi and seaweeds of West Cornwall. The subject of his first botanical paper was Alana esculenta. a large edible brown seaweed which he found growing at St. Michael’s Mount. It is a northern species, and although never common in Cornwall, its increase in recent years reflects a general lowering of temperature.
Uncharted territory attracted Ralfs. and he is most remembered for founding the study of Desmids, microscopic freshwater Algae which lack the flinty skeleton of Diatoms, which also interested him.
Ralfs’s monograph of the “British Desmidieae” appeared in 1848, “one of the finest scientific works that has ever been issued from the press”. His painstaking research had raised the number of known British species from a meagre six to nearly 200 and firmly placed the Desmids in the plant world; it had been thought they were animals.
Illness was to impede his work on Diatoms, but not before he had stimulated others to take up this obscure study, one of his contributions being the discovery of a species previously known only from Brazil. growing in moss on trees at Penzance. Failing eyesight forced an end to microscopical research. Ralfs turned his attention to the Fungi, recording over 700 species in West Cornwall, many new to Britain.
Many years were spent compiling an exhaustive “Flora of West Cornwall”, the manuscript volumes of which he presented to his beloved Penzance Library in the Morrab Gardens; sadly, this remains unpublished. The “Flora” gives a hint that Ralfs was not a committed evolutionist, despite corresponding with Darwin!
He criticizes the botanists of the day for their tendency to sub-division, so that even the trivial variety is considered important because it may be the ancestor of a future species.
Superficially, Ralfs appeared a grave, unapproachable man as he strode around Penwith with his swallow-tailed coat often dripping with pond water. Although shy his friends, especially children, knew him to be a genial conversationalist and patient teacher.
He readily invited people into his naturalist’s den, where he sat in a haze of tobacco smoke, surrounded by plant specimens. Considered less praiseworthy today was his habit of introducing alien plants, such as the Large-flowered Butterwort. to the Penzance district.
His distinction was such that John Stuart Mill, the philosopher and political economist, visited him they walked towards the Land’s End, Ralfs oblivious of his companion’s identity until a visiting card was “unearthed” days later.
In tribute, a contemporary wrote that, with good health, “John Ralfs would have ranked as one of the greatest botanists of the century”.