Livingstone Online

Explore the manuscripts of David Livingstone

 

Sir John Kirk

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Surrey: Herbarium and library.
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Surrey: Herbarium and library.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

John Kirk was born on 19 December 1832 at Barry, Forfarshire, the second of four children of the local minister and his wife. He studied medicine in Edinburgh and, in 1854, graduated MD, unusual for a medical student in his day. He took a keen interest in botany as an undergraduate and was elected a fellow of the Edinburgh Botanical Society. After a year spent at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary he served on the civil medical staff in the Crimean War. He was posted to the Dardanelles where he hunted and pursued his botanical and photographic interests. He returned to England in 1857 and was appointed chief medical officer and economic botanist to the Zambesi Expedition on the recommendation of Sir William Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and John Hutton Balfour, Queen's Botanist to Scotland. For this post Kirk was well qualified by his youth and his travelling and collecting experience in addition to his academic credentials.

Kirk, diplomatic to the last, got on reasonably well with Livingstone on an expedition notable, to put it mildly, for its frictional relationships although, as the expedition was coming to its end, he confided to his journal "Dr L. is out of his mind" and on another occasion he recorded that Livingstone's head was "cracked" (Jeal, pp. 261, 264). This view was mainly based on Livingstone's lack of a capacity to plan and organise. Kirk also had a poor opinion of Charles Livingstone although the grounds here were moral rather than administrative. Kirk collected extensively during the expedition laying the foundations for his very successful future career as a diplomat and adviser on scientific matters.

The Ma Robert
The Ma Robert
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

On 21 December 1858 David Livingstone and Kirk navigated the steamer the Ma Robert up the Shire River and made a preliminary exploration of the region. On 14 March 1859 they returned, explored the highlands and visited Mount Zomba and Lake Shirwa. In 1860 with Charles and David Livingstone he travelled up the Zambezi and on his return in November nearly drowned in the Kebrabasa rapids.

Molluscs, including the barnacle or goose-mussel, conch, mussel and limpet
Molluscs, including the barnacle or goose-mussel, conch, mussel and limpet
Credit: Wellcome Library, London
In 1861 Kirk and others travelled the length of Lake Nyassa and Kirk botanized and collected aquatic specimens, notably mussels. During his travels Kirk wrote to Richard Owen and to Joseph and William Hooker and sent specimens home.

After the recall of the expedition, Kirk settled briefly in England. In 1868 he returned to Africa and took up the position of medical officer to the Zanzibar Agency and in the same year he was appointed vice-consul and married Helen Cooke with whom he had one son and five daughters. Kirk remained in the consular service in Zanzibar until 1886. During his time there he promoted trade and in 1873 he persuaded the Sultan to sign an anti-slavery treaty. He had a very poor relationship with Henry Morton Stanley who accused him of failing to organize proper assistance for Livingstone in his last years.

Sir Henry Morton Stanley
Sir Henry Morton Stanley
Credit: Wellcome Library, London
Following his retirement Kirk returned to England but remained extensively involved in African affairs.

Kirk was widely honoured by scientific societies and universities and elected a fellow of the Royal Society becoming its vice-president in 1894. He was knighted in 1881. Kirk's published extensively on natural history, mainly, but not only, on botany. His considerable botanical collections were the foundation of the ongoing Flora of tropical Africa (1868-). The National Library of Scotland has a large collection of Kirk manuscripts and letters

Bibliography

  • R. Coupland, Kirk on the Zambesi (Oxford, 1928).
  • Lawrence Dritsas, 'From Lake Nyassa to Philadelphia: a geography of the Zambesi Expedition, 1858-64', British Journal for the History of Science, 2005, 38: 35-52.
  • Reginald Foskett (ed.), The Zambesi doctors: David Livingstone's letters to John Kirk, 1858-1872 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1964).
  • Reginald Foskett (ed.), The Zambesi journal and letters of Dr. John Kirk, 1858-63 (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1965).
  • Tim Jeal, Livingstone (London: Pimlico Press, 1996).

Learn about our Editorial Policies