Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

R. E. Holttum


Richard Eric Holttum was born on 20th July 1895 at Linton, Cambridgeshire, England. At school in Saffron Walden, he had his first exposure to natural history, influenced by his naturalist-ecologist teacher, George Morris. This childhood exposure led to his reading botany (and chemistry and physic) when he entered St. John’s College, Cambridge in 1914. He was to graduate only in 1919 as the Second World War started soon after. He obtained first class honours in botany, and winning the university prize for botany at the same time. His first job as Research Assistant to A. C. Seward, his botany professor, was to study fossil deposits in western Greenland. It was there that he was exposed to the tropical fern Gleichenia, albeit in fossil forms.

At the age of 27 years he joined the Colonial Office and took up the post of Assistant Director, Singapore Botanic Gardens. There, he was to start his lifelong research on tropical ferns. Four years later he took over the directorship when H. M. Burkill retired.  During his tenure with the Gardens, he traveled the region extensively, collecting specimens and in the process build up the herbarium collection as well as the living collection. These collections were to serve him well during the Japanese Occupation of 1942-1945. Fortunately for him and for the collections, he was not interned but instead placed under house arrest. He was allowed by the occupying forces to continue working in the Gardens together with E. J. H. Corner, the Assistant Director.

Free from the daily administrative duties that came with the post of Director, he worked tirelessly on his main research interests – ferns, as well as orchids, gingers and bamboos of the Malaya Peninsular. He completed the draft manuscripts on ferns and orchids during these years, to eventually published the two monographs on ferns and orchids after the war.  

Holttum regained his position of Director, Singapore Botanic Gardens after the war until his retirement in 1949 when he was appointed Professor of Botany in the newly formed University of Malaya in Singapore. He was conferred the degree of D.Sc. honoris causa by the University just before his second retirement in 1954. Back in England, he settled in Kew where he continued his research until his death in September 1990 at the ripe old age of 95.

In the field of orchids, Holttum is most known for his introduction of aseptic culture of orchid seeds. Hans E. N. Burgeff (1883-1976) had just published a book on root-fungi of orchids and another on raising tropical orchids from seeds. Thus when Burgeff visited Holttum around 1927 or 1928, the former was able to brief him on the growing of orchid seedlings under aseptic conditions using Lewis Knudson’s (1884-1958) nutrient solution in agar. The first flowering of a hybrid orchid raised under such a method was achieved in 1931, followed by many other hybrids in the ensuing years. This opened the way to widespread orchid hybridisation that in turn laid the foundation to commercial orchid growing in the region and the subsequent thriving orchid cut flowers trade.

In 1928 he formed the Malayan Orchid Society that was to become the current Orchid Society of South East Asia. The society organised the first ever orchid show that was held three years later and every year thereafter, until 1938 when it morphed into a flower show organised in conjunction with the Singapore Gardening Society. This gardening society, formed in 1936, was also the initiative of Holttum.

His enthusiasm on gardening saw him publishing Gardening in the lowlands of Malays, the first and only book on local gardening, again for many years to come. The manuscript was also written during the occupation years and published soon after the end of the war. An improved and expanded Gardening in the tropics was published in 1991, written during his retirement years in collaboration with Ivan Enoch, his colleague from the Department of Botany days. This latter publication is to become the definitive guide for local gardeners even after more than two decades. His other work, Plant Life in Malaya became a standard text for his students in the Department of Botany for many years to come.

In his retirement Holttum was busy revising the families and orders of ferns. He traveled extensively visiting herbaria to examine specimens and at the same time publishing his work. He contributed extensively to the pteridophyte section of Flora Malesiana that covers the ferns of Malaya, Indonesia, New Guinea, northern Queensland and the Philippines.


Selected References:

Holttum, R. E., 1953a. Gardening in the lowlands of Malays. Straits Times Press, Singapore.

Holttum, R. E., 1953b. A revised flora of Malaya. I Orchids of Malaya. Govt. Printing Office, Singapore.

Holttum, R. E. 1954. Plant life in Malaya. Longmans, Green & Co.. London.

Holttum, R. E., 1954. A revised flora of Malaya. II Ferns of Malaya. Govt. Printing Office, Singapore.

Holttum, R. E. & I. Enoch, 1991. Gardening in the tropics. Times Editions, Singapore.

Stearn, W. T., 1997. Richard Eric Holttum (1895-1990) botanist and religious thinker. In: Johns, R. J.  (ed.). Holttum memorial volume. Pp. 1-5. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

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