Thomas Drummond was born in 1793 in the rural parish of Inverarity, Forfar, in the County of Angus, Scotland. He was baptised and married at Inverarity Parish Church. Thomas was the son of the head gardener on the Fotheringham Estate, the youngest of four children, following his father and older brother James into horticulture and botany.
He started work at the Elysian Botanic Garden, Doohillock near Forfar, in 1814. During his spell there, he published a book on Scottish mosses, Musci Scotici. Orthotrichum Drummondii and Equisetum Drummondii have been named in honour of him.
Sir William Jackson Hooker, Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow, recommended his appointment as Assistant Naturalist (1825-1827) to Sir John Franklin who was organising a second Arctic expedition.
The expedition went via the Hudson Bay route with the party splitting up in Saskatchewan. Franklin went on to map the coast of the Arctic Ocean and Drummond exploring the Canadian Rockies.
He found the bears very ferocious. When they attacked, he drove them off by rattling his specimen box. Wolverines were also a nuisance, stealing drying specimens. While crawling along a narrow ledge of rock, he was nearly knocked off by flocks of mountain sheep.
To rejoin the main party of the expedition, Thomas walked 200 miles on snow-shoes. Quite by chance, he met an old acquaintance, David Douglas from Scone near Perth, Scotland. Douglas was collecting in Columbia, Canada, for the Horticultural Society and was impressed with Drummond’s specimens.
56 years later came the official naming of Mount Drummond and the Drummond Icefield in Banff Park, Alberta and the yellow mountain flower Dryas Drummondii. Many new species of flowering plants were named in his honour.
Returning back from Canada, he became the first Curator of the Belfast Botanic Garden from 1828 – 1831 and published work on Canadian and Scottish mosses which caused him to be nicknamed as the “Great Scottish Muscologist”.
His brother James was the Curator of the Cork Botanic Garden from 1809 – 1829 and is credited with the discovery of several rare species. James left Cork in 1829, for a new job as Government Botanist on the Swan River Colony, Western Australia.
Thomas also had a great “yen” for exploration. The leading scientific minds of the time thought Thomas Drummond could be more gainfully employed investigating some of the lesser known parts of the Southern and Western States of North America and the mountainous regions of Mexico and California.
In the spring of 1831, he arrived in New York, leaving behind his wife Isabella and young family in Glamis, having sent two tons of paper to New Orleans for preserving plants before exploring Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and Washington.
Early in 1833, undaunted by the brewing Texas Revolution and the raging conflicts between Indians and settlers, he took a ship from New Orleans to Velasco in Texas at the mouth of the River Brazos. He still found Texas’ most beautiful plants, sending to Hooker 750 species, many of which now bear his name.
Determined to see the coast that winter, he navigated an old canoe 100 miles to Galveston Island by himself with hardly any provisions due to the famine. He spent the winter on the uninhabited Galveston Island and with difficulty procured enough to eat, nearly starving again while waiting for migrating birds with the weather so bad that it rained incessantly for three months.
Before returning to New Orleans to travel to Mexico, he joined a wagon bound for Gonzales. The journey nearly killed him through sunburn.
December 1834, he arrived in New Orleans and came down with a bout of fever. In a letter exchange with Hooker, Thomas wrote of bringing his family from the village of Glamis to Texas where he would buy some land and have the opportunity to explore from Texas to Mexico and on to the Pacific.
He made for home, although still sick with the fever, via a route exploring Florida. His last letter dated 9th February 1835 was sent from Apalachicola in Florida where he was meant to leave for Havana.
Thomas Drummond never made it back to his family in Glamis, dying in Cuba in unknown circumstances in March 1835.
The seeds of a plant sent to Glasgow in February, 1835, was planted in the Glasgow Botanic Gardens. Professor Sir William Hooker called it Phlox Drummondii in honour of Thomas.
Thomas’s brother James saw the plant seven years later growing in a garden in Western Australia pointing out that his brother had discovered it. James continued to keep in touch with Sir William Hooker and other leading lights of botanical world, keeping them abreast with news of his own expeditions in Australia.
James kept the Drummond name to the forefront over the next 28 years in the botanical world. Thomas and James followed the same careers and their names have been given to mountain peaks in Canada and Australia, and, of course, to numerous plants.
The Drummond brothers feature in the commemorative Explorers Scottish Plant Hunters Garden at Pitlochry Festival Theatre.
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Bob Douglas unless otherwise stated.
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