This obituary was published in the “Report and Transactions of the Penzance Natural History & Antiquarian Society. 1890–91”
Born 13th September, 1807; died 14th July, 1890.
All deaths are echoes but of His, in whom
The life and death which crossed each other made
The talisman of immortality.—Bailey.
To numbers of botanists, not only in England but abroad, the announcement of the death of Mr. John Ralfs, last July, must have come as a surprise; for he belonged to a generation of men who had reached the zenith of their fame at the middle of the century, and most of these have long since passed away. The hook which made his name famous throughout the botanical world, and by which he will be best remembered by the students of the future, was published forty-two years ago. During the succeeding twelve or fifteen years he stood in the very front rank of living botanists; but ill health and other causes compelled him to narrow down his sphere of action, and to leave unfinished much that would have added to his renown. Living in retirement in the old Cornish town he loved so well, among his books and his little circle of intimate friends, untroubled by domestic cares, and free from the worries of public or professional life, Mr. Ralfs passed the last quarter of his life in repose and quietness, occupying himself, as far as his health would permit, solely with work after his own heart; that is to say, first and foremost—the Penzance Public Library, which was unto him as a pet child; and, secondly, the compilation of an exhaustive Flora of West Cornwall, which unhappily he was not spared to complete.
Simple in his tastes, peaceful in disposition, tender-hearted and generous, always ready to lend a helping hand in any deserving cause, passionately fond of children, the shyest of whom made friends with him at first sight—he endeared himself to all by the genuine honesty of his character; his occasional taciturnity in the presence of strangers was simply due to an innate modesty and diffidence which even advancing age could not conquer. Nothing afforded him greater pleasure than to gather round him a few “kindred spirits,” and entertain them in his genial, homely way, comparing notes on matters scientific or literary, or discussing the current topics of the day; and he would enliven the conversation by relating in his own inimitable manner a few humorous incidents of early days, or an account of his walks and talks with scientific celebrities of a bygone generation. His fund of anecdote seemed almost inexhaustible, and few who participated in those pleasant gatherings will forget how rapidly the hours flew by.
I made the acquaintance of Mr. Ralfs early in the year 1879, and during my subsequent residence of seven years at Penzance it was my privilege to enjoy his intimate friendship. Few days passed without our having a walk or a chat and a smoke together; for he was an inveterate smoker, and when in good health could seldom get on long in comfort without having recourse to his pipe. Once I asked him if he would furnish me little by little with notes and materials for the composition, at some future date, of a biographical memoir; but his tone and manner so plainly showed that the suggestion was exceedingly distasteful, that I never repeated the request. Unknown to him, however, I contrived to preserve much of our conversation that was worth remembering, and in time my jottings grew into a volume, from which source I cull the short sketch which follows. But I never knew how imperfect my notes were until I set myself to accomplish this task.
John Ralfs was born at Hill House, Millbrook, near Southampton, on the 13th of September, 1807. He was the third child and younger son of Samuel and Mary Ralfs, and their home was at Mudeford, near Christchurch, where they owned some small property; but at this particular time Mrs. Ralfs was on a visit to her parents. The Ralfses were a Hampshire family, Samuel’s father being a native of the historically interesting village of Porchester; the name, however, always seems to have been an uncommon one. The other children were Henry John, the eldest, who became a lawyer, but died young; Anne Mary, who was day for day one year older than John; and Sarah Elizabeth, who was born about twelve months later. Mr. Samuel Ralfs, the father, died of typhus fever shortly before the birth of the youngest child, so that neither John nor Sarah could remember him. The curious circumstance that Anne and John were born on the same day of the same month, and consequently had but one birthday to celebrate between them, was the cause of much dissatisfaction among the children, since by that coincidence they were deprived of one lawful birthday party annually. The two youngest members of the family attained a very advanced age; Mrs. Casey (Sarah) died at her home in Australia only a few months before her brother John, who thus outlived them all, though he had been the weakling of the flock. [There is a suggestion from an ancestor that the biographer had here confused Sarah with Mary Anne. They both married Caseys but the latter went to Australia.]
As a boy John was excessively shy and reserved, as well as notoriously headstrong; at school he seems to have been distinguished for his obstinacy. No amount of ill treatment, such as being lifted off the ground by his hair, could make him cry, or do what he had made up his mind not to do. He was frequently punished, sometimes wrongfully, but he would never lie or “peach.” Peaceable by nature he avoided schoolfights, but once thoroughly aroused he would have gone on until death. He was fairly studious, but could not get on well with most of the other boys—he was too shy and too sensitive. After his father’s death the mother had removed with the children to Southampton to be near her parents, and the first school John was sent to was Dr. Buller’s, which he attended as a day scholar. The next was a boarding school at Bishop’s Waltham, under the management of a Mr. Jennings; here, however, his mother did not allow him to remain long on account of the insufficiency of the dietary, and the difficulty of making satisfactory arrangements to suit his peculiar case; for Ralfs never ate meat until he was eighteen years of age, when they compelled him to do so under medical orders, as he was believed to be in a decline.
The third and last school young Ralfs was sent to was at Romsey, under the head-mastership of the Rev. J. Jenvey, M.A. It was one of the good old-fashioned sort, of some renown in the county; and here the boy went through the usual course of instruction very creditably. He endeared himself to the Jenveys, and they remained firm friends in after life. It had always been the boy’s ambition to be a chemist, and accordingly his later studies were directed towards that object; but near the end of his school term an event happened which altered these plans. Whilst engaged in some outdoor game young Ralfs met with a serious accident; in leaping over a hedge he fell, dislocating his ankle besides sustaining a compound fracture of the leg. This laid him up for a twelvemonth. During his convalescence his medical attendant strongly advised him to study for the medical profession, which would prove in every way more advantageous than chemistry alone; and in the end it was decided that he should adopt this course. Accordingly he was articled to his uncle, a surgeon at Brentford, with whom he remained two years and a half, and afterwards spent a similar term at Winchester as pupil of Dr. Lyford, one of the leading practitioners in the county. He next went up to London, and entered Guy’s Hospital. Here he suffered a severe attack of typhus fever, which disabled him from doing any work for months, so that two years elapsed between the passing of the Apothecaries’ Hall and going before the College of Surgeons in 1832. Both at Hall and College he passed a brilliant examination, and was highly complimented by the examiners.
After obtaining his diploma, Ralfs engaged himself as assistant to a medical practitioner at Towcester, in Northamptonshire, with whom he stayed about a year, and then entered into partnership with a surgeon at the East End of London, where he practised for a couple of years or so. About this time the conviction pressed itself upon him with great force that he was in a consumption. He consulted an eminent London specialist, and received the opinion that his condition was indeed very precarious. A residence in South Devon or some similar warm locality was imperative, and might prolong his life for yet a couple of years, but beyond this there was little hope. Being fortunately possessed of a moderate competency, Ralfs threw up his practice, quitted London, and moved down to Torquay.
Thus ended his brief medical career. No doubt a man possessed of so much ability, energy, and perseverance, combined with an unwavering regard for truth, would have risen to distinction as a surgeon; but it is safe to affirm that botanical science has gained infinitely more than medical science has lost, through the circumstances which led John Ralfs to abandon his profession.
Even as a schoolboy his love of wild flowers often got him into trouble. He was punished for spoiling his books by drying plants between the leaves. And during his residence at Towcester the beautiful tree lichens in Whittlebury Forest riveted his attention, and made him yearn for an opportunity to collect and study them. For Ralfs was essentially a lover of the country. The town, as such, presented but small attractions to a man of his disposition and tastes. Whilst conscientiously carrying on his practice among London bricks and mortar he was still—
A lover of the meadows, and the woods,
And mountains, and of all that we behold
On this green earth.
And yet his bias towards botany was not inherited, nor was it acquired from others; it grew up spontaneously. No member of the family, none of his ancestors as far as he could trace, had ever evinced the slightest predilection in favour of natural history, and he could never account for its having developed so strongly in him. He was far advanced before he had made the acquaintance of a single person of kindred tastes.
The first one he became acquainted with was the Rev. M J. Berkeley, already a botanist of repute, whose brother was fellow-student with Ralfs at Guy’s Hospital. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship, though they never met in after life. Fifty years later, when Ralfs sent his photograph to his aged friend, Berkeley wrote “I recollect your coming with my brother Stafford (who has been dead more than forty years) to my mother’s in Mecklenburgh Street, but I have never seen you since.”
During his residence at Torquay Ralfs made the acquaintance of Miss Laura C. Newman, daughter of Mr. Henry Newman, of London, and after a short engagement, married that lady in 1835. In the following year a son was born John Henry, now residing at Liverpool. Not long afterwards Mr. and Mrs. Ralfs separated; and the latter with the young child joined her parents, who were at that time living in France, and there she died about ten years later.
It was in the autumn of the year 1837 that John Ralfs went down to reside at Penzance, which he made his home for fifty-three years. There must be very few persons now living who can recall to mind the tall young stranger of those early days—thin, pale, and haggard, for he was suffering from more than mere physical ailment; the invalid so frail, that when he went away for a change of air no one (as my old friend the late Mr. William Curnow has assured me) believed he would ever return to Penzance alive. His garden was his sole delight and pastime. He cultivated all sorts of curious plants. His flowers were his solace. One thing, however, caused him endless trouble, and that was the amazing numbers of snails which devastated his choicest beds. In vain he tried to exterminate them; they only seemed to increase in multitude; and years afterwards he discovered the cause. His kind-hearted neighbours, observing this poor sickly man assiduously gathering up snails day after day, supposed that he used them medicinally; so they collected as many as they could, and threw them over the wall each night, in order that the supply might not fail.
Little by little health improved, and with returning energy Ralfs plunged once more into botanical work. The seaweeds were especial favourites and almost new, so that a splendid field opened up on the rocky shores of his new Cornish home. His earliest lessons had been received at Torquay, under the able guidance of Mrs. Griffiths, “facile regina of British algologists,” as Harvey designated her. It happened one day as he was making a first start among the seaweeds on that lovely Devonshire coast, that a lady stranger came up and asked what he had found. Ralfs proudly showed the contents of his basket, which, as he thought, comprised some wonderful things. “Oh,” said the lady with a smile, “this is all worthless stuff;” and unceremoniously threw everything away, greatly to the young beginner’s vexation. “Take these instead,” she added. “They are really good specimens. You will find enough here to lay out properly for one day. Come down again to-morrow, and we shall find more.” This lady was Mrs. Wyatt, and through her Ralfs was soon introduced to Mrs. Griffiths, and they became friends. It was Mrs. Griffiths who induced him to write the first botanical paper he ever published, on the mode of growth of Alaria esculenta, a rare seaweed growing at St. Michael’s Mount.
In 1339 appeared the compendious and useful little Analysis of British Phœnogamous Plants and Ferns. In a French text-book which Ralfs was in the habit of using, there was an analytical key to the genera and species of flowering plants; this he translated and adapted to suit the English flora. Those persons to whom he occasionally lent this manuscript—among others his friend the Rev. H. Penneck, of Penzance—found it so helpful that they strongly urged him to print it, which at last he consented to do, after recasting the entire work. It may be mentioned here that Mr. Ralfs possessed a special aptitude for drawing up dichotomous keys from specific or generic descriptions. In his early papers we always find these keys employed, and also in the British Desmids; in fact, he usually constructed one for his own use whenever he was at work on a difficult genus. In his opinion no descriptive characters were accurate or sufficient unless they admitted of being skeletonised in this way.
Few botanists equalled Ralfs in a knowledge of the flora of Dartmoor, that great stony heart of Devonshire, which half a century ago was but little known, especially from a botanical point of view. It was one of the favourite hunting grounds in which he spent a portion of every summer during these early years. In his solitary rambles among the tors, searching after mosses and lichens, he was continually meeting with examples of the freshwater algæ, which seemed to defy identification, for at that period they were very imperfectly known, at least in this country, and the literature on the subject was most meagre. The more closely he examined the more confusing seemed to be existing descriptions, until at last he determined to devote special attention to this obscure group of plants, in order to clear up some of the difficulty. Silently and steadily he plodded on, accumulating material and storing up facts for future use, communicating his discoveries to his trusted friend Berkeley, with whom he kept up an active correspondence. By-and-by Berkeley advised him to prepare a paper for publication, assuring him that he unquestionably knew more about the Desmids and Diatoms than any other botanist in England. “So much has been done since then,” Mr. Ralfs used to say in his old age, in narrating these events, “that it is difficult to realize how little was known at that time.” Acting on his friend’s advice, a paper was written “On the Diatomaceæ,” and another entitled “Remarks on Species of Desmidieæ,” and forwarded to the Botanical Society of Edinburgh. These appeared in the Transactions early in 1843, with the accompanying plates of figures, and were received with acclamation, as well they might be, for the bulk was altogether new matter, and several of the species previously undescribed. Encouraged beyond his expectations, Ralfs went on contributing papers on these and allied subjects for the next three years or so.
During this time a young botanist Mr. A. H. Hassall, was collecting materials for a monograph of the British freshwater algæ, and he wrote to Ralfs begging his assistance. The latter complied on the basis of a division of labour; he would place in Mr. Hassall’s hands the whole of his collected material and notes on the subject, with the exception of the Desmids and Diatoms, which he desired to reserve for himself; and if Hassall would agree on his side to hand over his results in those two families, and leave them out of his projected monograph, it would be a fair exchange on both sides.
This arrangement was agreed to, and correspondence followed briskly; but after a while Hassall’s prospectus appeared, announcing the forthcoming publication of his complete monograph of the freshwater algæ, including the two reserved sections. Of course, Ralfs felt deeply hurt, and broke off all further correspondence with Mr. Hassall. In 1845 the work appeared, and in the preface the studied omission of the name of Ralfs, among those to whom the author returns his acknowledgments for assistance rendered, is the more conspicuous as his name is so frequently mentioned in the descriptive text.
Angered at the thought that the accumulated labour of years had been thus unfairly appropriated, Ralfs wrote off a letter to his good friend Mr. William Borrer, stating he believed he had still in hand sufficient matter for an independent work of his own on the Desmids. No reply was received to this for a couple of months, and then came a letter from Borrer saying he had spoken to his friends and started a list of subscribers, adding, in his jocular way, “So you see you’ve committed yourself, and I’ve nailed you.” A prospectus of the projected monograph of British Desmids was prepared and largely circulated, mainly through the exertions of Mr. Borrer and Mr. Edward Jenner, with the result that the subscription list attained considerable dimensions, comprising, in fact, some three hundred names.
It speaks much for the regard in which Mr. Ralfs was held by European algologists that Kützing, who was preparing a work on the Desmids of the world, and Brébisson, who was also engaged on something of the same kind, both handed over to him voluntarily and unconditionally the whole bulk of their notes and drawings; and so did Professor Bailey of New York. The papers in the Transactions of the Edinburgh Botanical Society, and the Annals of Natural History had made their mark.
The monograph of the British Desmidieæ—one of the finest scientific works that has ever been issued from the press—was published in 1848. Only five hundred copies were struck off, of which three hundred were subscribed for. Although it contained a good deal of matter not contracted for, so to speak, viz., descriptions and figures of all known ultra-British species, so that in fact it was a monograph of the Desmids of the world—the terms of the prospectus were adhered to, and the price remained one guinea. Nowadays a secondhand copy can but rarely be purchased for five times that amount. More than forty years have elapsed since its publication, and yet it remains unrivalled in clearness of style, terseness of specific definition, and beauty of illustration. When the author took up the study of these microscopic plants barely half a dozen were known to be natives of this country; seven years of patient research sufficed to raise the number of British species to nearly two hundred, besides adding immensely to what was known with regard to their mode of reproduction. The preface is worth perusal as exhibiting the author’s characteristic fidelity in recording and gratefully acknowledging his indebtedness to all who even in the smallest degree assisted him in his scientific pursuits.
Whilst this work was in progress Prof. William Smith was prosecuting his researches among the allied family of Diatomaceæ, and a few years later published the results in another excellent monograph of two volumes. After acknowledging his obligations to several eminent botanists, Prof. Smith recognises “the labours of my predecessors, more especially those of Mr. Ralfs and Mr. Thwaites, to whom is due nearly all that has been known of our British species of Diatomaceæ. How much is owing to the accurate and laborious researches of Mr. Ralfs will be better seen in my second volume, which will embrace the greater number of the genera to which he has directed his attention.”
About the year 1856 Mr. Andrew Pritchard resolved to bring out a fourth edition of his History of the Infusoria, and Ralfs engaged to revise and bring down to date the section dealing with the Diatoms. A long illness, however, impeded the progress of the work, and delayed the publication of the book, which came out in 1861. This compilation, which was nothing less than a descriptive catalogue of every known Diatom, recent and fossil, involved an immense amount of labour, and admirably exemplifies the author’s critical knowledge of the subject, as well as his native talent for condensation. Even in its compressed form it had still to be curtailed and in some measure mutilated in order to bring it within specified limits. Much the introductory portion relating to Diatoms is also from same experienced pen.
This work gave an enormous impulse to the study of these marvellously beautiful flinty organisms. New species were continually being discovered on our own shores, and in river mud and estuaries; whilst every gathering brought from abroad yielded something fresh. A host of undescribed forms of wondrous beauty were brought to light by Greville in the famous Barbadoes deposits. The journals were half filled with descriptions and figures of new Diatoms, so that very soon a supplement was required to include all the species described since the publication of the Infusoria. Again Ralfs set to work on the preparation of this supplement. He was fitted for the task, for he had been commonly regarded of late years as the leading English authority on the Diatoms, besides being in regular communication with all the best workers abroad. But, alas! the strain had told its tale with terrible effect—the sight of one eye was completely gone! So the microscope was put away, the pen laid down, the supplement remained unwritten; and from that day to this no one has been found with sufficient ability and courage to undertake a task which Mr. Ralfs was pre-eminently qualified to carry out.
During the years which followed but little botanical work was accomplished. Seasons of protracted illness and mental depression left him no heart for study; and the imperative necessity of safeguarding the eye which remained unimpaired precluded the use of the microscope. And to all this there was yet a deeper sorrow superadded, which darkened the remaining years of his life like a thick black cloud. A crushing blow, terrific and sudden, had shattered his hopes, and left him bruised and spiritless, almost to the verge of despondency. But one great source of pleasure remained undiminished, and that was, to impart to others some of his stores of knowledge, and encourage them in their studies and no one who asked for help or guidance was ever sent empty away. Many of those who came down to West Cornwall to botanize were surprised to find at Penzance two such active veterans as Mr. Ralfs and Mr. Curnow, both of whom had at their fingers’ ends the entire flora of the district, cryptogamic as well as phanerogamic, and who were always ready and willing to point out to a stranger more botanical rarities in a single day’s excursion than he could have found by himself in a month.
The Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society, which had been inactive for some years, was resuscitated in 1880, mainly through the efforts of Mr. Ralfs; and until he became enfeebled by age he was one of its staunchest friends and supporters, contributing to its Transactions a number of papers of great local and general interest. He was elected President of the Society in 1883. For several years at this period he devoted himself to a careful study of the Fungi of West Cornwall, of which he recorded over seven hundred species, many being either new to Britain or altogether undescribed. The various papers and lists on this subject in the Society’s Transactions are among the most valuable products of his pen during the latter years of his life.
It is greatly to be hoped that the Society, for which Mr. Ralfs did so much, will see its way to publish in extenso and in proper form the manuscript Flora of West Cornwall, upon which he spent so many years of unwearying labour. The work was begun nearly twenty years ago, and occupied his leisure until he had passed the age of fourscore. The flowering plants occupy four volumes; the mosses, hepaticæ, and lichens three more. These, neatly written in his fine, clear handwriting, were presented by him to the Penzance Public Library. The remaining sections, comprising the fungi, marine and fresh water algæ, desmids and diatoms, are roughly drafted in book form; but the venerable author was unable to fair copy them for presentation. These are now in the possession of his son, Mr. J. H. Ralfs. Not only are all known West Cornwall species recorded in these volumes, with habitats and other local memoranda, but they are enriched with critical and analytical notes, and unpublished views as to nomenclature and classification; so that the entire work, if published, would be an invaluable addition to botanical literature.
More than forty years ago Berkeley established the genus Ralfsia to include certain lichenoid marine algæ, of which a few representatives occur on the British coast; and as a specific name, the terms Ralfsii and Ralfsiana will be found among the hepaticæ, lichens, fungi, seaweeds, freshwater algæ, diatoms, and desmids; so that the name of our distinguished friend will be perpetuated in the annals of botany.
In 1889 the Royal Microscopical Society conferred on him (a little late in the day perhaps) the honour of electing him an Honorary Fellow, in recognition of his signal attainments as a microscopist. And it is not generally known that, shortly after the publication of the British Desmidieæ, the Linnaean Society made him the offer of an associateship, but for reasons best known to himself he declined to accept it.
During the last two years of his life Mr. Ralfs physical and mental powers became more and more feeble. His deafness gradually increased, until it became almost impossible to communicate with him by word of mouth. And towards the end his memory failed altogether, until—“last scene of all”—he passed away quietly to his rest at his home, No. 15, St. Clare Street, Penzance, on July 14th, 1890, in his eighty-third year. His remains were followed to the grave by many who silently mourned the loss of a respected neighbour, a valued friend, and a thoroughly upright and conscientious man.
It is not necessary that I should enumerate in this place the various scientific papers of which Mr. Ralfs was the author. They make a pretty long list; most of the earlier ones relate to the algæ, and even at this distance of time they may be studied with much profit. To several guides and handbooks connected with Cornwall he also contributed articles on local natural history; in fact he neglected no opportunity of imparting useful information on his favourite pursuit, because, as he used to say, he had himself as a young beginner received so much kind assistance, that he felt it to be a duty as well as a pleasure to help others whenever the occasion presented itself. Among the many old acquaintances to whom he had been largely indebted in many ways there was one of whom he always spoke in terms of affectionate regard, amid that was Mr. William Borrer, the genial Sussex botanist. To him Ralfs dedicated his magnum opus. The way in which they became acquainted is worth recording, especially as it contains a moral. During a visit to Cornwall Mr. Borrer stayed some time with the Vicar of Sancreed, an old friend of his, although no botanist. In the course of his rambles Borrer alighted upon the beautiful moss Hookeria lætevirens in a cave at Mousehole; and after his return home wrote to his clerical friend requesting him to gather a few additional specimens of this moss, as it was new to England and not known in any other habitat. The clergyman found the cave, and had no difficulty in distinguishing the desired plant, since nothing else grew on the perpendicular wall. But just here his zeal outran his discretion, for he calmly set to work to strip the wall bare, lest, as he explained, any other person but Mr. Borrer should possess even a scrap of such a prize! Borrer’s feelings may be imagined. He sent a specimen to Mrs. Griffiths, of Torquay, who at once informed Mr. Ralfs of the important discovery. The latter gentleman reminded her that he had sent her specimens months before from the Mousehole cave; but that by an oversight it had been described as growing on the right side of the cave instead of the left. This led to a discussion, in the course of which Borrer wrote to Ralfs direct. The result was the discovery that both had found the Hookeria, but in different caves, from one of which it was now and for ever eradicated The moss continues to grow in Ralfs’ cave, which remains to this day its only known English habitat.
It will appear almost incredible to the young microscopist of to-day that the whole of the work of the British Desmidieæ should have been done with a simple microscope; but it was, and the instrument was a gift from Mr. Borrer. When they were in Wales together on a botanizing excursion early in the “forties,” Borrer was in the habit of carrying about in his pocket an excellent triplet by Ross, a powerful but very small and compact affair, which he constantly used. When they parted he pressed Ralfs to accept it, and it was the only microscope the latter possessed until long after the monograph was written. This historical little instrument is now in the possession of the present writer, to whom Mr. Ralfs presented it some years ago, with these words “I wish you to accept this little microscope of mine as a memento of me when I am gone. I had intended leaving it to you at my death, but I may just as well have the pleasure of giving it to you now. You must remember that it was with this that I did the whole of my work—all my papers and my Desmids—so you see it has a history.”
The remarkable clearness with which Ralfs discriminated closely-allied forms is abundantly evident in all his writings; but the quickness and accuracy with which he did so was yet more striking to those who, like myself, had opportunities of working with him personally. He seized in a moment, as if by intuition, the one needful distinctive character, and fixed it in a single compact phrase. It was a special gift with him. At Aberfraw, in Wales, he found a curious foliaceous hepatic, which he perceived was new. Specimens were sent to Mr. William Wilson and to Dr. Taylor, who were at that time the two highest authorities on the hepaticæ. Both pooh-poohed it, saying it was only a peculiar form of Fossombronia pusilla. An epistolary battle ensued, but Ralfs vanquished his opponents, and the plant was very properly named Jungermannia (Petalophyllum) Ralfsii. So again with regard to the astonishing discovery at Penzance of Liparogyra a singular Diatom growing amongst moss on trees, which Ehrenberg had recorded from Brazil. Ralfs had a whole battalion of diatomists arrayed against him; but he succeeded in convincing them all that his view was correct, and they owned him victorious. One of his most formidable antagonists in this and one or two other instances was Dr. G. Walker Arnott, and he always regarded it as a prodigious triumph that he had defeated that redoubtable algologist on his own ground.
During his working years Ralfs kept up a very large correspondence. There was probably not a single British botanist of repute with whom he was not in communication at some period or other; and after his publications became known he entered into regular correspondence with all the leading algologists abroad.
In France there were De Brebisson, Chauvin, Montague, le Normnand, Decaisne, De Bary, and Thuret, several of whom he knew personally, having visited them at their invitation in 1851; and his recollection of the weeks he spent with them supplied him with material for many an interesting anecdote. In Germany his principal correspondents were Kützing and Braun; in Sweden he had Areschoug and Agardh; in Switzerland, Naegeli; in Italy, Meneghini; and in America, Professor Bailey, of New York. Most of these wrote their letters in French or Latin, both of which languages Ralfs read with fluency; but badly written German proved beyond his powers of decipherment, and until he could get Latin substituted he was obliged to get these comrnunications translated by some friend, as his knowledge of German was very rudimentary. He himself never wrote except in English, and he rarely read over his letters after they were written.
I have made an indirect allusion to Mr. Ralfs’ eccentricity, but he cannot fairly be described as eccentric; simply he was careless in his dress, and utterly unmindful of personal appearance. He would walk down a street with his coat disfigured with fresh mud, or his ample waistcoat buttoned all awry, or may be, as once happened, with his collar and necktie gone, without dreaming that anything was wrong. But he never forgot a promise, or failed to keep an appointment with rigid punctuality. In an obituary, published in the Journal of Botany for October, my friends, Messrs. H. and J. Groves, alluding to the time when Mr. Ralfs was assisting me in beetle collecting, have depicted him to the life in the following lines: “It was amusing to notice the wonder of a passer-by at seeing this grave-looking old gentleman, in the old time professional swallow-tail coat and black stock (which he never relinquished), squatting down by a roadside pool, eagerly examining the contents of his dredging net, and utterly oblivious of the muddy water dripping over his clothes.” It was his unbounded enthusiasm and absorption in his pursuits that made him forgetful of everything else-even of his meals.
His sitting-room was a typical naturalist’s den, in which it was at times no easy matter to find a vacant seat; for, like that of Wordsworth’s Solitary—
Scattered was the floor,
And, in like sort, chair, window, seat, and shelf,
With books, maps, fossils, withered plants and flowers
And tufts of mountain moss.
Occasionally things got inconveniently lost amid the general litter. One evening a gentleman called to see Mr. Ralfs and sent in his card, which somehow slipped out of sight before the name had been read. They passed a few pleasant hours chatting. The stranger was an agreeable conversationalist, and being interested in the botany of the Land’s End, which he purposed visiting on the morrow, it was arranged that they should walk out together. The stranger was a famous walker, so at Tolpednpenwith they parted, he going on round the Land’s End, and Ralfs returning home alone, pleased with the walk, but dreadfully fatigued, and still without the faintest idea who his companion was. Some days afterwards he was asked if his friend was “the great Mr. Mill.” The room was at once ransacked to search for the lost card, which at last was found. To his amazement it bore the name of John Stuart Mill. Years afterwards Mr. Ralfs used to say, that had he known his companion was the celebrated logician, it would have made him extremely nervous and uncomfortable, and he would certainly have said but little during their walk.
One of Mr. Ralfs’ main characteristics was thoroughness. Whatever he happened to be engaged upon, whether a game of whist or chess (and he was an excellent player of both) or the arrangement of a children’s party, or the composition of a botanical paper—whatever it was received for the time being his whole energy and undivided attention. It was a favourite saying of his, that he could never manage to do more than one thing at a time, but that whatever he undertook he wished to carry through to the very best of his ability. It always afforded him pleasure, even from his boyhood, to put any theory to a practical test; but he strongly deprecated all kinds of experiments on living creatures; and whilst readily admitting that the question of pain in the lower animals was unsolved and unsolvable, he maintained that at least it could do no harm to suppose they do feel pain, though no doubt in a lesser degree than ourselves. I observed that Mr. Ralfs would leave off whatever he was doing to release an insect struggling at the window, or liberate a stray beetle; and when he aided me in my entomological work it was his habit to bring home the specimens alive in boxes and bottles in order that if not wanted they might be set at liberty. He always seemed to sympathise with dumb creatures even more than with human beings. The latter, he said, could make known their pain, and by that means obtain some sort of relief; but we could never know what a horse or a dog suffered.
Mr. Ralfs was no ardent politician. I never heard him seriously discuss politics with any one, at least to any length; and I remember that during an election at Penzance a few years ago be said to me: “I am glad I have no vote, for if I had I am much afraid that local and personal, rather than political, considerations would influence me.” He made no display of his religions views, and rarely conversed on the subject; but he deplored the spread of agnosticism, and the atheistic tendencies of the literature of the day.
Here I bring to a close a very imperfect sketch of the life and career of John Ralfs, the botanist. To him I am indebted beyond measure for kindly help and encouragement in my studies; and I feel grateful that this opportunity has been afforded me of paying a humble tribute to the memory of one to whom I was attached by the strongest ties of personal esteem and affection.
Ernest D. Marquand.
Guernsey, December, 1890.