Henry Nicholas Ridley was born on 10 December 1855 in Norfolk, England. He entered Exeter College, Oxford, in 1875 and obtained a second class in science in 1878. He was also awarded the Burdett-Coutts Scholarship in geology in the following year.
Ridley’s first appointment was in the Botanical Department of the British Museum and he remained there for eight years, during which he published a number of papers both zoological and botanical. During the period when he was at the British Museum, Ridley developed his interest in the distribution of plants.
In 1888, Ridley came to Singapore and was appointed the Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens (SBG), where he worked for the next 23 years. He was one of the first to make extensive collection trips around Southeast Asia, to study the little-known flora. On these trips, he collected living plants for the gardens and dried plants for the Herbarium, which he established at the Botanical Gardens. It was during his retirement years that he published his monumental five-volume Flora of the Malay Peninsula (1922–1925). In 1891, Ridley also established the Agricultural Bulletin of the Malay Peninsula that continues today as the Gardens’ Bulletin Singapore.
Ridley is most famously known as the man responsible for establishing the rubber industry in the Malay Peninsula. During the 1890s and early 1900s, Ridley devised successful propagation methods and also discovered a way of harvesting commercial quantities of latex without harming or killing the rubber trees. He advocated the large-scale cultivation of rubber in Malaya just before the demand for rubber soared. As Ridley had turned the forest clearings and wasteland in the SBG over to growing rubber, he had a ready source of seeds when demand surged. Indeed, credit for the establishment of the rubber plantation industry was due to Ridley and this was acknowledged in 1914 when he was awarded the Rubber Planters Association Gold Medal. It was also Ridley who in 1907 advocated the possibilities of the Oil Palm (Elaeis guinensis), a native of tropical Africa, as a plantation crop.
Ridley was particularly interested in orchids and had collected and described more than two hundred which were new to science. It was also during Ridley’s administration that Singapore’s national flower, Vanda Miss Joaquim, was discovered. Other families to the knowledge of which he added extensively were Gesneriaceae, Araceae, and Zingiberaceae.
Although best known for his botanical achievements, Ridley’s first interest was in zoology. While in Singapore, he published important studies of birds, mammals, reptiles, various insects, and after his returned to England, he combined his botanical and zoological interests in the Dispersal of Plants throughout the World (1930). Ridley's two most important works dealt with the dispersal of plants and nearly half were devoted to dispersal by animals.
Ridley was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1907, four years before he retired from the Directorship of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. He then went to live Kew, Surrey, England, where he eventually passed away on 24 October 1956.
Until he was 96, Ridley continued to visit the Kew Herbarium almost daily and up to 1945 kept the records of the bird life in the Gardens, and making notes and drawings of the magnolias that fruited there. Having produced over 500 books, papers and notes on biological matters during his 63-year career, he can justifiably be described as Malaya’s greatest naturalist.
Ridley, H. N., 1907. The oil palm. Agricultural Bulletin S.S. & F.M.S., 6(2): 37–40.
Ridley, H. N., 1909. Various notes (on rubber cultivation). Agricultural Bulletin S.S. & F.M.S., 4: 134–136.
Ridley, H. N., 1910. Historical notes on the Rubber industry. Agricultural Bulletin S.S. & F.M.S., 9(6): 201–213.
Ridley, H. N., 1910. Symbiosis of ants and plants. Annals of Botany, 2: 457.
Ridley, H. N., 1922. The Flora of the Malay Peninsula: Volume 1 Polypetalae. L. Reeve & Co Ltd., London, 918 pp.
Ridley, H. N., 1923. The Flora of the Malay Peninsula: Volume 2 Gamopetalae. L. Reeve & Co Ltd., London, 672 pp.
Ridley, H. N., 1924. The Flora of the Malay Peninsula: Volume 3 Apetalae. L. Reeve & Co Ltd., London, 406 pp.
Ridley, H. N., 1924. The Flora of the Malay Peninsula: Volume 4 Monocotyledons. L. Reeve & Co Ltd., London, 383 pp.
Ridley, H. N., 1925. The Flora of the Malay Peninsula: Volume 5 Monocotyledons (concluded), Gymnospermeae, General Indices. L. Reeve & Co Ltd., London, 470 pp.
Ridley, H. N., 1930. The Dispersal of Plants throughout the World. Reeve & Co., Kent, 744 pp.
A full bibliography of Ridley's works can be found here.
National Library Board, Singapore. 2004. Sir Henry Nicholas Ridley. http://infopedia.nl.sg/articles/SIP_518_2004-12-28.html. (Accessed January 2013).
Ng, P. K. L., L. K. Wang & R. T. Corlett, 2011. History of Biodiversity Research. Pp. 122–133. In: Ng, P. K. L., R. T. Corlett & H. T. W. Tan (editors), Singapore Biodiversity. An Encyclopedia of the Natural Environment and Sustainable Development, Editions Didier Millet, Singapore, 552 pp.
Salisbury, E. J., 1957. Henry Nicholas Ridley. 1855-1956. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 3: 141–159.