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John Bretland Farmer (1865-1944): botanist and cytologist. Knight, cr. 1926; FRS 1900. Member of the Governing Council of JIHI, 1909-1939.

Farmer was born at Atherstone in Warwickshire and for a while attended the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School there; later he was educated privately. In 1883 he went to Magdalen College, Oxford, gaining a first class honours in Natural Science in 1887. He was Demonstrator of Botany, University of Oxford, 1887-92, and Fellow of Magdalen College, 1889-97.

While at Oxford Farmer came under the influence of Isaac Bailey Balfour, who was Sherardian Professor of Botany at Oxford until 1888 when he left to take up the Professorship of Botany at Edinburgh. Balfour encouraged Farmer’s botanical studies and his enthusiasm for gardening. In 1892 Farmer was appointed Assistant Professor of Biology at the Royal College of Science, South Kensington (later Imperial College of Science and Technology, London). He became the first Professor of Botany in 1895 and from 1913 also Director of the Biological Laboratories at Imperial, where he remained until his retirement in 1929.

Farmer’s Professorship conferred membership of the Governing Council of the John Innes Horticultural Institution. At Imperial Farmer developed a department committed to the training of students in plant sciences that would fit them for applied botanical work abroad, especially to meet the needs of the plantation industries of the Empire. By 1929 these sciences included general botany, plant physiology, plant pathology, plant bacteriology, the technology of wood and fibres, and plant biochemistry.

Farmer’s research was for many years in the new and rapidly developing subject of cytology. His first cytological paper appeared in 1893 and in 1904 he coined the term ‘meiosis’. His work embraced both plants and (with co-workers) human cancer cells. Farmer was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1900, served on the Council in 1905-06 and was awarded the Royal Medal of the Society in 1919. From 1919-21 he served as Vice President of the Royal Society. Among his public appointments Farmer was a member of the Advisory Council of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, 1920-26, the Agricultural Research Council, 1931-36, and the governing body of Rothamsted Experimental Station. His Knighthood was for services to applied botany and to scientific education.

Farmer was an editor of Gardeners’ Chronicle (1904-07), Science Progress (1909-13), andthe Annals of Botany (from 1906-22). His books included A practical introduction to the study of botany. Flowering plants (1899), Elementary Botany (1904), and Plant life (1914). In the early 1900s Farmer experimented with the evening primrose Oenothera lamarckiana to try and disprove Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries’ theories of mutation and the origin of new species. In doing so he was in company with the biometricians Weldon and Pearson who believed that de Vries’ results were a threat to their own gradualist theories of variation and evolution. Farmer later changed his mind and in 1910-11 published a translation of Hugo de Vries’ Die Mutationstheorie (1900-03) with A. D. Darbishire, a biometrician who later went over to Mendelism. Farmer was a great support to William Bateson when he was setting up the JIHI but he was later in conflict with CD Darlington who said Farmer’s theory of chromosome behaviour ‘barred the way to any sensible chromosome theory of heredity’. Farmer believed that the chromomeres (darkly staining bands seen at intervals along chromosomes in a pattern characteristic for each chromosome), not the chromosomes, were the discrete units of heredity.

See also:

J. B. Farmer, ‘On the structural constituents of the nucleus, and their relation to the organisation of the individual’, Croonian Lecture, Proceedings of the Royal Society, B, 79 (1907): 446-464

V. H. Blackman, ‘John Bretland Farmer, 1865-1944’, Obituary notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, 5, 14 (1945): 17-31

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