Milestones in Botany


This year marks the two hundredth anniversary of the launch of the HMS Beagle – the ship that carried Charles Darwin on his global journey of biological and anthropological exploration. This course considers the significance of botanical observations made during the New Zealand part of that journey. More widely, it examines milestones in botanical science since the seventeenth century, like Hooke’s invention of the microscope, the gradual unlocking of the secrets of photosynthesis, Linnaeus’s development of taxonomy and Mendel’s experiments on inheritance among pea plants.

You will also explore the latest innovations and technology advancements in the world of plants as botanists have continued to build our understanding of the structure, behaviour, and cellular activities of plants, and the interaction between them. The development of better crops and more sustainable crop management systems, and new medicines, are dependent on such understanding.

Target audience:
This course will be of interest to any plant lover who is also interested in science, particularly botany and/or history.

Learning objectives:
By the end of this course, you will have:

  • examined the discoveries that have increased our knowledge and understanding of plants
  • be aware of the dramatic increase in detailed knowledge of the plant world over the last four centuries
  • strengthened your appreciation of the value of science-based evidence.

Course outline:
This session covers a selection of botanical highlights of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Seventeenth Century:

  • measurement, by van Helmont, of water uptake by trees, and his suggestions about the mechanism of action
  • invention of the microscope, by Hooke, and the discovery that plant tissue is made of ‘cells’
  • viewing of living cells for the first time, by Leeuwenhoek
  • the publication, by Ray, of Historia Plantanum, a significant step towards modern taxonomy
  • the establishment of plant sexuality by Camerarius, who talked of the ovary being ‘prepared’ by the pollen.

Eighteenth Century:

  • plant physiology successfully established, by Hales, as a science
  • formalisation of binomial nomenclature by Linnaeus, who established himself as the ‘Father of Taxonomy’
  • laying of the foundation for chemical analysis of plant metabolism, by Priestley
  • the numerous educated women who became more widely involved in botanical education, collection of herbarium specimens, and botanical art.

This session examines important botanical developments of the 19th and 20th centuries and the early 21st century.

Nineteenth Century:

  • the discovery of chlorophyll
  • acceleration of the study of plant diseases in the wake of the potato blight in Ireland
  • elucidation, by Mayer, of the process of photosynthesis, including the discovery that starch is synthesised in green cells only in the presence of light
  • proposal of the theory of evolution and adaptation, by Darwin
  • the performance of experiments on inheritance among pea plants, by Mendel, the ‘Father of Genetics’.

Twentieth and early Twenty-first Centuries:

  • discovery of the all-important processes of nitrogen fixation, nitrification and ammonification
  • discovery that chlorophyll has two types, a and b.
  • strengthening of our understanding of the structure, behaviour, and cellular activities of plants, and the interaction between plants
  • latest innovations, breakthrough discoveries, and technology advancements in the world of plants.

There is a short break halfway through the lecture presentations, and you are welcome to bring your own refreshments if you wish.

Reg Harris completed a BSc in botany major at University of Otago and Bachelor in Forestry Science from Australian National University, which are augmented by his enduring interest in botany and associated sciences. He has played a central role in bringing Wellington Botanic Garden and Victoria University of Wellington together in the interests of higher education. He and a fellow Wellington Botanical Garden guide/botanist run ‘outdoor labs’ each year for 250-260 biology students studying diversity in plant form, function, survival and reproduction.

In the mid-1980s, and after studying business management for three years at Victoria University of Wellington, he began consulting work, specialising in industry development in the metals, food, chemicals, energy, transport, horticulture, science and other sectors. In 2006, partly on the back of this, he was awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship to review the evolution of ‘Centres of Excellence’ for advanced manufacturing in the UK.

He is involved with the Consortium for Medical Device Technologies (CMDT) and is an Associate Investigator with the Medical Technologies Core of Research Excellence (MedTechCoRE). Since 2006, he has focussed on the advancement of Regenerative Medicine in New Zealand. The field brings together life sciences and engineering in the development of biological substitutes for the replacement and repair of human cells, tissue and organs damaged by trauma and age-related afflictions.

In 2012-2016 he was a member of a four-country (UK, NZ, Portugal and The Netherlands) EU-funded project, code-named skelGEN, which sought to strengthen understanding of human skeletal regeneration and to expedite the movement of new products and therapies to the clinic. He is now involved in work that follows on from this.

Relevant links:
Faculty of Science
Wellington Botanic Garden

For further information:
Continuing Education, Victoria University of Wellington, PO Box 600, Wellington 6140.
Phone 04 463 6556,  Email:

Please note: Courses need a minimum number of enrolments to go ahead. If your course doesn’t reach the number required, we’ll have to cancel it. If this happens, we’ll contact you by phone or email about a week before the scheduled start date and arrange a full refund. Please check your emails regularly.