Ridley, Henry Nicholas (1855-1956)
After reading natural sciences at Oxford University, having a great interest in animals, Ridley applied for a post in the zoology department of the British Museum (Natural History). His application was unsuccessful, but before long he was offered a position in the department of botany. Thus botany went from one of his minor interests to his main pursuit and he became an expert on tropical flora, especially monocots, to which subject he was assigned at the museum. He published many papers on African monocots and monographs on two orchid genera within his first decade at the museum, and in 1887 travelled to the island of Fernando de Noronha off the coast of Brazil, afterwards publishing works on its botany, zoology and geology.
Promoted in 1888 to Director of Gardens and Forests, Straits Settlements, Ridley found himself in charge of botanic gardens at Singapore and Penang and forests in Malacca, to which he travelled at every opportunity to study their cultivated plants. Ridley made his first trip to Singapore in the year he took up his new post, where he found seedlings of Hevea brasiliensis trees sent from Kew, a crop that would become his chief interest over the coming years. He was also interested in other economic plants including rattan and tropical timbers and made extensive collections of dried and living plants, sending many of these to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He also studied and collected insects and other animals. With the growing demand for rubber at that time, however, Ridley saw a great opportunity for plantations in Malaya. This became his preoccupation, though it took him several years to persuade anyone to begin the first planting on his behalf. This took place in 1906 in Malacca, followed by a great boom in the industry. Although Ridley supplied the seeds for the industry, he did not personally profit from the enterprise, but sold the rubber produced to fund maintenance of the gardens in his charge. His services in establishing the rubber plantation industry earned him the gold medal of the Rubber Planters' Association in 1914 and his scientific endeavours were recognised by the Royal Society, of which he was made a Fellow in 1907.
From his extensive collections, mostly from Malaya, he described hundreds of new orchids and more than 50 species in the Zingiberaceae. He maintained an interest in zoology all his life, too, and completed many papers on entomology dealing with topics such as the pollination of orchids by insects and controlling measures for the destructive coconut beetle. In 1930 he published a substantial book on the dispersal of fruits and seeds by birds and mammals (The Dispersal of Plants throughout the World). His Flora of the Malay Peninsula appeared in five volumes between 1922 and 1925, though he fell so ill while in the process of producing it that he feared he would not complete it. His health did recover, however, and he lived to receive a Linnean Medal in 1950 at the age of 95 (he was a Fellow of the Linnean Society for 75 years in total). Another of his lifelong interests was psychic phenomena; Ridley was a founder member of the Society for Psychical Research. He died in his 101st year at his home in Kew. On his previous birthday the distinguished botanist had received greetings from Her Majesty the Queen, from Chief Ministers of Singapore and the Federation of Malaya, and from the President of the Royal Society.
R.E. Holttum, 1957, "Henry Nicholas Ridley, CMG, FRS, 1855-1956", Taxon, 6(1): 1-6
E.J. Salisbury, 1957, "Henry Nicholas Ridley, 1855-1956", Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 3: 141-159.
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