Edward M Holmes: A prescriber of salves for both bodies and hearts

“…all-round naturalist and a born collector”: The correspondence collection of Edward Morell Holmes

Published on 6th January 2021

Edward Morell Holmes
Edward Morell Holmes

Edward Morell Holmes (1843 – 1930) was an algologist, pharmaceutical botanist, lecturer and curator of the Museum of the Pharmaceutical Society.

In his lifetime, Holmes had many notable achievements in the field of pharmacy. Starting his career off as an apprentice to a chemist at the age of 14, Holmes became the youngest person to pass the Minor Examination in pharmacy. He continued his studies in pharmacy and was appointed as the curator of the Museum of the Pharmaceutical Society in 1872, which he held for 50 years. Three years later he was elected into the Linnean Society where he remained a Fellow for 50 years. He also lectured at the Pharmaceutical Society's School and is believed to have contributed around 600 papers to the Pharmaceutical Journal.

In recognition of his work he was awarded the International Flückiger Medal in 1897 and then the International Hamburg Gold Medal in 1915, and was the botanical referee for the British Pharmacopoeia Committee of the General Medical Council, as well as the President at the Pharmaceutical Conference in London, 1900. He also was a keen collector and had various collections of botanical specimens, butterflies, shells and beetles. Sadly, he had to have his leg amputated at the age of 78 due to being run over by a motor car, but despite this he remained in good spirits and continued his studies in pharmacy until the day he died (September 10th 1930).

During his time at the Linnean Society Holmes, he exhibited a variety of specimens, including a series of microscopic slides of rare British Lichens, Hepaticae and Algae, and specimens of flowers, leaves and a section of trunk from a Brazilian tree called the Andria araroba, which also contained Goa powder (Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, Vol. 88-92, Issue 1, 1879-1880, pp 1). He also supported the motion to protest the intention to dismantle the British Museum and the Natural History Museum in order to use them as Government offices during the First World War (Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, Vol. 130, Issue 1, 1917-1918, pp 5-6). Many Museums had been closed during the War, and there were shared concerns among Fellows over the Government’s lack of appreciation of scientific institutions and their research.

Holmes’ enthusiasm for collecting plants, especially seaweeds, lichen, algae and mosses, spread to others and generated an interest in the study of marine flora in the country. Many individuals corresponded with and sent specimens to Holmes who did the same in return. The letters he received from correspondents have been kept together, arranged alphabetically by surname and catalogued as part of the Society’s manuscript sequence.

During the months of the Covid lockdown, the Collections Team saw this as the perfect opportunity to work on the Holmes archive and, using photocopies of the finding aid associated with this collection, we have been able to add summaries of each letter into the Society’s Archive catalogue. These are now live and fully searchable.

Letters by Holmes
Letters by Holmes

The subjects discussed in the letters largely revolve around the finding of and deliveries of moss, lichen and algae specimens, giving us an insight into the activities of botanical collectors and how they shared information of ideal locations for finding specimens and storing them properly. One example of this can be seen in a letter written by W.B. Waterfall, another Fellow of the Society, where he discusses hunting specimens in Cornwall and seeks Holmes’ advice on the storing of his moss collection (MS/235/18, Waterfall, W.B., letter 2). Some of the correspondents went to great lengths to acquire specimens, like the open boat expedition to Ramsay that G.W. Traill went on while there was a fierce gale (MS/235/16, Traill, G.W., letter 58).

Letter written by W.B. Waterfall
Letter written by W.B. Waterfall

As well as exchanging helpful advice for locating specimens, these letters sometimes took a more personal tone and revealed the struggles some of Holmes’ friends. For instance, one of Traill’s letters describes how he went on holiday to relieve himself from his wife’s wastefulness, extravagance and petty jealousies, but she had turned everyone against him, including their children, who would not speak to him for weeks at a time and this impacted his health and mood (MS/235/16, Traill, G.W., letter 98).

The result is that I am left quite alone in my house, in my sitting room; there is never a word spoken to me for weeks at a time – or months – rarely even on merest pursuits.

Traill's letter
Traill's letter

When responding to these types of letters Holmes didn’t shy away from offering help to his friends. As a medical professional, he would also offer his medical expertise and prescribed treatments, as mentioned in another letter from Traill, regarding his daughter’s health (MS/235/16, Traill, G.W., letter 44).

To find out more about the life and work of this interesting man, see the newly added summaries of his letters on our archive catalogue.

As part of the update to the Society’s Archive catalogue we have written a few blogs on notable Fellows whose collections have recently been added and can now be read about online. Details of Holmes' correspondence collection (MS/235) are now available to view online and the material can be consulted once the library reopens.

By Luke Thorne, Assistant Archivist