Farmer | Sir | John Bretland | 1865-1944 | professor, Imperial College of Science and Technology, London (England)

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Sir John Bretland Farmer (1865-1944) was an important botanist at the Royal College of Science (now Imperial College, London) who pioneered the teaching of skills useful for applied botany in the British colonies, transformed his university department and was responsible for a number of scientific studies into chromosomes, cancer and plant physiology.

While studying at Magdalen College, Oxford, Farmer was influenced by Isaac Bayley Balfour (1853-1922), who was at the time the Sherardian professor of botany. Balfour encouraged Farmer to concentrate on botany, which he did. He graduated with first class honours in Natural Science in 1883.

A formative experience in Farmer's life was his trip to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). During this journey, in which he gained experience of the agricultural systems in use in the colonies, and the problems faced by mass agriculture in a tropical climate, he became convinced of the necessity of teaching students the practical details of botany, as well as the theoretical approach, so that they could be of use to this industry. When he took charge of the botany section at the Royal College of Science, he became the first to teach in this unconventional manner.

Among the subjects discussed in his publications were cancerous tissues. Farmer argued that cancerous tissue was made up of cells that had developed into "gametoid" form - they had taken on characteristics of reproductive (gametogenic) cells. Another of his publications reported an experiment he had conducted which showed that certain oxygen-requiring biological processes in plants could continue without an external source of oxygen, providing they were illuminated. This he explained by the production in the plants by respiration of oxygen from carbon dioxide. In other works, Farmer coined the terms 'meiosis' and 'meiotic', investigated wood's ability to conduct water and disproved (in association with Miss L. Digby a theory relating the size of chromosomes with the type of animal.

Farmer was appointed by the government to investigate the workings of the agriculture departments of Britain's non self-governing colonies. The recommendations he made, based in part on his experiences of Ceylon and his experience as professor of botany, made a considerable impact on the agricultural techniques of these territories.


Sir John Bretland Farmer was influenced while at university by Isaac Bayley Balfour (1853-1922)

Other Significant Information


Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1883: Awarded First Class Degree, Magdalen College, Oxford

1892: Appointed Assistant-Professor of Botany, Royal College of Science

1895: Appointed Professor of Botany, Royal College of Science

1900: Elected Fellow of the Royal Society

1919: Awarded Royal Medal of the Royal Society

1919-1921: Elected Vice-President of the Royal Society

1926: Awarded Knighthood


List of sources for the biographical information:

Royal Society, Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society 1945-1948, (London, Royal Society, c1948)

Concise Dictionary of National Biography, ( London (England), Oxford University Press, 1992)

Black, Adam, Black, Charles, Who Was Who 1941-1950, (London, A & C Black, 1952)