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Mr Richard Spruce

Richard Spruce (1817–1893) was a pioneering British botanist traveller, writer, plant collector and explorer renowned for his significant contributions to the understanding of the flora, ethnobotany, and ecosystems of South America. Born on September 10, 1817, in Ganthorpe, North Yorkshire, Spruce developed an early passion for plants, leading to a lifelong dedication to botanical exploration.

Spruce embarked on his first major expedition in 1849, setting sail for South America. Over the course of nearly 15 years, he traversed the Amazon rainforest, the Andes Mountains, and various regions of Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia. His expeditions were characterized by their extensive duration and meticulous documentation of plant species, their uses by indigenous communities, and the ecosystems he encountered.

One of Spruce's most significant achievements was his collection of botanical specimens, amassing over 30,000 plant specimens, many of which were previously unknown to science. His attention to detail and thorough documentation laid the groundwork for numerous botanical discoveries and furthered scientific understanding of South American flora. Spruce is also noted as being one of those responsible for providing the British government with seeds of the Cinchona tree, the bark from which the drug quinine was made, and for his helping to establish plantations from it in the British colonies, thus assisting millions of people in the fight against malaria.

Throughout his travels, Spruce engaged deeply with indigenous cultures, learning their languages and customs. He documented the medicinal properties of plants used by these communities, providing valuable insights into traditional medicine and ethnobotany. His studies on the properties of quinine, derived from the cinchona tree, greatly contributed to the understanding and subsequent use of this plant in treating malaria.

Spruce's botanical explorations were not without challenges. He endured harsh conditions, navigated treacherous terrain, and faced health issues, including bouts of malaria and other tropical diseases. Despite these adversities, his commitment to scientific inquiry remained unwavering.

In 1893, Richard Spruce passed away in Coneysthorpe, Yorkshire on 28 December 1893, leaving behind an unparalleled legacy in the field of botany. His extensive collections and detailed accounts continue to be invaluable resources for botanists, ecologists, and ethnobotanists studying the diverse flora and cultures of South America.


  1. Anderson, R. (1984). Richard Spruce: A Collector's Botanist. The Geographical Journal, 150(2), 174-180.
  2. Hemsley, W. (1894). Obituary: Richard Spruce. Journal of Botany, British and Foreign, 32(381), 97-99.
  3. Moore, H. (2004). The Well-Collected Life: Richard Spruce and Victorian Science. Historical Records of Australian Science, 15(3), 391-404.
  4. Spruce, R. (1908). Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon & Andes: Being Records of Travel on the Amazon and Its Tributaries, the Trombetas, Rio Negro, Uaupés, Casiquiari, Pacimoni, Huallaga and Pastasa, as Also to the Cataracts of the Orinoco, Along the Eastern Side of the Andes of Peru and Ecuador, and the Shores of the Pacific, During the Years 1849-1864. Macmillan and Co., Limited.

Natural History Museum, 'Richard Spruce Collection' < > [accessed 7 December 2008]

Further Reading:

Boulger, G.S., ‘Spruce, Richard (1817-1893)', rev. Ian Francis Locke, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2008) < > [accessed 7 December 2008]

National Archives, National Regsister of Archives, Person Details, 'Spruce, Richard (1817-1893) Botanist, GB/NNAF/P126875' < http://www.nationalarchives.go... > [accessed 7 December 2008]