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After his father’s death in 1814, George had wished to keep the Botanic Garden at Doohillock and work on it himself. However, his father’s creditors would not allow it. At age 16, he was considered too young and inexperienced for the job. He went on to work at Dickson’s Nursery in Edinburgh to complete his botanic training. By 1819 he moved to the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. While working there he was chosen to become the first professional plant collector for the Horticultural Society of London.
George’s journey for the Society started in November 1821 when he set sail on HMS Iphigenia as part of a large scientific expedition. Plant collecting started in the Canary Islands and Cape Verde, before reaching Freetown, in Sierra Leone. For nearly 2 months he collected in Sierra Leone, Gambia and Guinea. He then visited the St Thomas Islands and after collecting there for 8 days, returned to the ship and moved on. However George fell seriously ill with fever. He took some time to recover but the 2 marines who had accompanied him on shore both died. The next stop was at Ascension Island for more collecting.
George Don junior 1798 -
However, as the Wernerian Natural History Society was based in Edinburgh and so not subject to English law, they published his monographic work on Allium. Later the Linnean Society of London argued against the injunction and published his work on Combretum.
As well as the many orchids and exotic plants George brought back, he also introduced many ornamental Allium. Memecylon donianum, Polygala donii and Oncidium donianum are a few of the plants which bear his name.
George went on to become a fellow of the Linnean Society and to have a successful career in botanical writing. His major work, A General History of the Dichlamydeous Plants, Volumes 1 to 4, is a general history of gardening and botany. George never again took part in an expedition and he died in London in 1856.
George Don junior
George then set sail for Brazil on HMS Pheasant, another ship in the expedition, and his fever returned. Fortunately he recovered in time for landfall in the Bay of Salvador, Brazil. He made journeys ashore collecting as they travelled northwards along the coast. The journey continued by way of Trinidad, Jamaica, the Grand Cayman Islands, Cuba and then on to New York.
George had many tropical specimens to catalogue and care for but by the time New York was reached in December 1821, the temperature was below zero and George was worried about his tropical plants.
He arrived back in England in February 1823 and indeed many of his specimens had not survived. However, all during his trip he had been dispatching boxes of specimens back to the Horticultural Society in London and enough of the seeds, bulbs and plants survived to make this journey a successful plant hunting expedition.
It appears that George was not keen to write up his Journals for the Horticultural Society. It may be that they were in dispute about money as George had received only about the same amount of money for all his hardships and risk to his health, as a gardener would have received in a safe job in England. George also fell out of favour with the Society as he gave a specimen of a Pinus to Aylmer Bourke Lambert, his brother David’s employer. He then published work on Sierra Leone in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal. This was viewed by the Horticultural Society as a breach of contract and he was dismissed. They took out an injunction to prevent him publishing anything in England.