John Richardson

Birth: 1787


John Richardson (1787-1865), arctic explorer and naturalist, was born at Nith Place, Dumfries, on 5 Nov. 1787. His father, Gabriel Richardson, for some time provost of Dumfries and a justice of the peace for the county, was a friend of Robert Burns, who from 1790 to 1796 spent his Sunday evenings at his Place. Richardson's mother was Anne, daughter of Peter Mundell of Rosebank, near Dumfries (Proceedings of the Royal Society, vol. xv. p. xxxvii).

Richardson was the eldest of twelve children, and was so precocious as to read well when four years old. Burns lent him Spenser's 'Faerie Queen,' and when, at the age of eight, he entered Dumfries grammar school, on the same day as the poet's eldest son, Robert, Burns is reported to have said to Gabriel Richardson, 'I wonder which of them will be the greatest man.' To the rough sports of his schooldays Richardson attributed the fact that even beyond the middle term of life he scarcely knew what fatigue was. In 1800 he was apprenticed to his uncle, James Mundell, a surgeon in Dumfries, and in 1801 he entered the university of Edinburgh.

In 1804 he was appointed house-surgeon to the Dumfries Infirmary, but returned to Edinburgh in 1806; and in February 1807, having qualified as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, was gazetted assistant-surgeon on the frigate Nymphe, which accompanied Lord Gambier's fleet to the bombardment of Copenhagen. He was present in August 1808 at the blockade of the Russian fleet in the Tagus, and was then transferred in quick succession to the Hibernia, the Hercule, and the Blossom. As surgeon on the latter sloop he was sent to Madeira and Cape Coast Castle, and in 1809 was engaged on convoy duty to Spain and to Quebec. Having in 1810 exchanged into the Bombay, he served at the siege of Tarragona, but then obtained leave of absence in order to study anatomy in London. His last service afloat was on the Cruiser in the Baltic fleet during 1813.

In February 1814 he was appointed surgeon to the first battalion of marines, then in North America, and he was with Sir George Cockburn at the taking of Cumberland Island and of St. Mary's, Georgia, in 1815. He then retired on half-pay, and returned to the university of Edinburgh, devoting considerable attention to botany, and studying mineralogy under Jamieson. He graduated M.D. in 1816 (his thesis dealing with yellow fever), and he then began, though with little success, to practice as a physician in Leith. In 1818 Richardson married for the first time, and in 1819 he was appointed surgeon and naturalist to Franklin's polar expedition, being specially commissioned to collect minerals, plants, and animals. This appointment introduced him to Sir Joseph Banks, and through him to Dr. John Edward Gray. After passing the winter of 1819 at Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan and traversing one thousand three hundred and fifty miles during 1820, they wintered at Fort Enterprise, and in June 1821 started down the Coppermine River in birch-bark canoes.

They reached the coast on 18 July, and penetrated Bathurst's Inlet and Melville Sound as far east as Cape Turnagain, 6 1/2° east of the river mouth. In the Barren Grounds they were reduced to great straits, and Richardson was compelled in self-defense to shoot the Iroquois voyageur Michel, who had murdered Robert Hood, a midshipman. On 7 Nov. they were rescued by the Indian Akaitcho, who brought them to Fort Providence. They reached Fort York in the following June, and arrived in England in October 1822, having traversed while in America over five thousand five hundred and fifty miles. In the 'Narrative' of the journey, which was published in 1823, and to which Richardson contributed notices of the fish collected, geognostical observations, and remarks on the aurora, Franklin writes: 'To Dr. Richardson the exclusive merit is due of whatever collections and observations have been made in the department of natural history, and I am indebted to him in no small degree for his friendly advice and assistance in the preparation of the present narrative.'

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Having taken up his residence at Edinburgh, where he had as a near neighbor and friend Francis Boott the botanist, Richardson next devoted himself to describing the mammals and birds in the appendix to Parry's 'Journal' of his second voyage (1821-3), which was published in 1824. In the same year Richardson was appointed surgeon to the Chatham division of the marines. He was, however, allowed to accompany Franklin on his second expedition to the mouth of the Mackenzie in 1825, taking with him Thomas Drummond as his assistant naturalist. After wintering at Fort Franklin on Great Bear Lake, having left Drummond at Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan, he and Franklin separated on 4 July 1826, Richardson being sent with eleven men to explore the nine hundred miles of coast from the Mackenzie eastwards to the Coppermine River in the two boats Dolphin and Union. This he accomplished by 8 Aug., and regained Fort Franklin on 1 Sept., having travelled nearly two thousand miles in ten weeks.

He then made a canoe voyage round the Great Slave Lake for geological purposes; and then, Franklin not having returned, started in December for Carlton House, where Drummond rejoined him in April 1827, with large botanical and other collections. On 18 June he and Franklin met once more at Cumberland House, and, after being much fêted in New York, they reached England in September 1827. While preparing his 'Narrative of the Proceedings of the Eastern Detachment of the Expedition,' and the 'Observations on Solar Radiation,' 'Meteorological Tables,' and other contributions to Franklin's 'Narrative' of his second expedition, Richardson was in London; but in 1828 he was back at his official duties at Chatham, where the Melville Hospital, of which he became chief medical officer, had just been built. All his spare time was devoted to the 'Fauna Boreali-Americana,' a government publication on a 'splendid' scale, in which he described the quadrupeds and fishes, and assisted Swainson with the birds, while the insects were described by William Kirby.

In 1838 Richardson was appointed physician to the Royal Hospital at Haslar. Here he was mainly instrumental in the establishment of the Haslar Museum, and persuaded the admiralty to introduce the mild methods of treating lunatics. Among his pupils was Thomas Henry Huxley, who stated 'that he owed what he had to show in the way of scientific work or repute to the start in life given him by Richardson;' and he was also frequently visited by Dr. (afterwards Sir Joseph) Hooker, who was then preparing to accompany Sir James Ross to the Antarctic regions. In 1840 Richardson became inspector of hospitals.

It having been decided in 1847 to send a search expedition after that of Sir John Franklin, Richardson was chosen to conduct it, and, with Dr. John Rae as his second in command, he sailed from Liverpool on 25 March 1848. Travelling by way of New York, Albany, Montreal, and the lakes to Sault Saint Marie, Fort William, and Norway House on Lake Winnipeg, they reached Cumberland House, two thousand eight hundred and eighty miles from New York, on 13 June, sixty-four days after starting, and the estuary of the Mackenzie, four thousand five hundred miles from New York, on 4 Aug. On 3 Sept. they were compelled by ice-floes to abandon their boats in Icy Cove, Union and Dolphin Straits, nine miles north of Cape Kendall. They then marched to Fort Confidence, on the north side of Great Bear Lake, and reached it after crossing the Richardson and Kendall Rivers on 15 Sept. During the winter they made hourly observations of the temperature, which for two days (17 and 18 Dec.) averaged 55 1/2° F. 'below zero,' besides noting the barometer, the wind, and the magnetic phenomena. In the following spring Richardson left Rae, who was twenty years his junior, in command, and returned to England, reaching Liverpool on 6 Nov. 1849. Owing to his excellent arrangements for food and conveyance during Franklin's second expedition and this search expedition, not only was there no loss of life, but there was not even any privation such as temporarily to endanger the health of the men. His 'Journal,' published in 1851, was 'a model of the journal of a scientific traveller ... abounding in varied information in relation to the geology of the country passed through, its natural productions, and inhabitants.'

Being refused the appointment of director-general of the medical department of the navy, on the ground of his age, Richardson now, after forty-eight years' service, retired and passed the greater part of his remaining years at Lancrigg, Grasmere, the property of his mother-in-law, Mrs. Fletcher, and, after her death in 1858, of his wife. Here he accomplished much literary work, writing the articles 'Ichthyology' and 'Franklin' for the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica' during the winter of 1856-7, and that on 'Polar Regions,' afterwards expanded into a volume, in 1859, and editing a second edition of Yarrell's 'British Fishes' in 1860. He also contributed to the 'Museum of Natural History,' and read Burns's works, Gawain Douglas's 'Virgil,' and Blind Harry's 'Wallace' for the Philological Society's 'Dictionary,' published by Oxford University. He gave medical aid to the poor, acted as a magistrate, and spent much time in gardening, while his characteristic energy was evinced almost to the last in a tour of the picture galleries of Paris, Florence, Rome, Naples, and Venice between November 1862 and March 1863.

Richardson died at Lancrigg on 5 June 1865, and was buried in Grasmere churchyard. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1825, and received the royal medal in 1856. He was knighted in 1846, made companion of the Bath in 1850, and received the degree of LL.D. from the university of Dublin in 1857.

Richardson was thrice married—first, on 1 June 1818, to Mary, daughter of William Stiven of Leith, who died on 25 Dec. 1831; secondly, in January 1833, to Mary, daughter of John Booth of Stickney, near Ingoldmells, Lincolnshire, and niece of Sir John Franklin, who died on 10 April 1845; and thirdly, on 4 Aug. 1847, to Mary, youngest daughter of Archibald Fletcher of Edinburgh and Eliza Fletcher By his second wife he had four sons and two daughters.

Richardson's chief works, especially as an ichthyologist, were his appendices to the official narratives of various voyages, which included, in addition to those of Franklin and Parry, already mentioned: 1. 'The Zoology of Captain Beechey's Voyage to the Pacific and Behring's Straits in H.M.S. Blossom,' 4to, 1839, in conjunction with E. T. Bennett, R. Owen, J. E. Gray, W. Buckland, W. Sowerby, &c. 2. The fish in 'Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Sulphur,' 4to, 1843. 3. 'The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Erebus and Terror, under Sir James Clark Ross, 1839-1843,' 2 vols. 4to, 1844-1875, in conjunction with J. E. Gray and others. 4. The fish in 'Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Samarang, under Sir Edward Belcher, 1843-1846,' 4to, 1848. 5. The fossil mammals in 'Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Herald, under Captain Henry Kellett, 1841-1845,' 4to, 1852. 6. 'Notes on the Natural History' in 'The Last of the Arctic Voyages (Sir E. Belcher's, in H.M.S. Assistance), 1852-1854,' 8vo, 1855, in conjunction with R. Owen, Lovell Reeve, Thomas Bell, and J. W. Salter. His other works included: 1. 'Icones Piscium,' pt. i., all published, 8vo, 1843. 2. 'An Arctic Searching Expedition: a Journal of a Boat-voyage through Rupert's Land and the Arctic Sea in search of the Discovery Ships under the command of Sir John Franklin; with an appendix on the Physical Geography of North America,' 2vols. 8vo, 1851. 3. 'Catalogue of Apodal Fish in the ... British Museum; translated from the German MS.,' 8vo, 1856. 4. 'Second Supplement to the first edition of William Yarrell's "History of British Fishes," being also a First Supplement to the second edition,' 8vo, 1860. 5. 'The Polar Regions,' enlarged from the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica' article, 8vo, 1861.


['Life' by John MacIlraith, 8vo, 1868; Allibone's Dict. of English Literature; Proceedings of the Royal Society, vol. xv. 1867; Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, vol. xxxvi. 1866.]

George Simonds Boulger, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 48. pgs. 233-235.

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