Dr Archibald Hewan

The Life and Achievements of Dr Archibald Hewan

  • In the spirit of Black History Month, we are sharing the story, otherwise untold, of Dr Archibald Hewan, a 19th century Black doctor and naturalist.   Dr Hewan studied botany at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, establishing a link with the Garden that still exists today in our archives and herbarium.

    Born in Jamaica in the 1830s, the young Archibald grew up on the Hampden sugar plantation. Unlike previous generations of enslaved and free children at Hampden, he was able to attend church and gain an education.

    At the age of 19, he travelled to Britain with the help of the Scottish Missionary Society to train as a doctor. During his medical studies, Hewan attended botany classes at the Garden and met Regius Keeper Professor John Hutton Balfour. This connection led to the exchange of letters and plant specimens which we hold in our archives and herbarium. 

    In 1854, Hewan was awarded a licentiate by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and a year later, he left for Old Calabar, west Africa to work as a Christian missionary doctor. A letter in our archives addressed to Professor Balfour tells of Hewan seizing the chance to join an expedition to collect plants. 

    He wrote: “The only thing I had into which to press plants was a book which I had taken with me. I soon made it my storehouse and very soon it was choke full.  I then stuffed whatever I could lay my hands on of any particular interest into the lining of my hat, my carpet bag …” 

    The results of Dr Hewan’s efforts are recorded and held in our herbarium where we have 13 known specimens of the plants he collected. 

    Dr David Harris, herbarium curator and deputy director of science at the Botanics says: “These specimens were one of the main ways that the scientific community was able to have a global understanding of plants. On reading Dr Hewan’s letter, I can feel the enthusiasm of a botanist sharing his findings with a colleague.”

    Dr Hewan’s plant specimens have now been digitised and high-quality scans can be downloaded from the RBGE online catalogue so that new generations of biodiversity students across the world can have access to this data.

    Read the full story of Dr Hewan on Botanic Stories.

    We are interested in discovering more about Dr Hewan and if you have further information, please email publications@rbge.org.uk

    Banner Image:  The uplands of Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea, 2012 © Zachary Kingdon, senior curator, African collection, National Museum of Scotland