Richard Chandler Alexander Prior (1809–1902) does not (yet) appear in the pages of the ODNB, though his day may come. He knew and corresponded with many of the great scientists of the nineteenth century; he was a physician whose health did not allow him to practice, but who was fit enough to undertake long and probably uncomfortable journeys in pursuit of botany; in mid-life he changed his name to inherit a fortune; and he published on ancient Danish ballads, croquet and the names of British plants.
Born in Wiltshire, R.C. Alexander, as he was then, was educated at the Charterhouse and at Wadham College, Oxford. He studied medicine at St George’s Hospital, London, in Berlin and in Edinburgh, qualifying for an Oxford M.B. in 1835. In 1840, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, and was one of the twenty eminent persons photographed in 1855 by Maull and Polyblank as ‘The Literary and Scientific Portrait Club’.
Others included Richard Owen, Charles Darwin, J.D. Hooker, Charles Cardale Babington, Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, and two women, both, alas, ‘unknown’. By the time of this photo, Prior had spent three years in Graz, studying the plants of Styria, travelled in Italy and Sicily, and in 1846 had undertaken a two-year study of South African plants, travelling by ox-wagon, amassing an important collection, and discovering the tree Sterculia alexandri, named in his honour by the Irish botanist W.H. Harvey. He also visited North America, Canada, Jamaica, Norway and ‘other countries’, according to his obituary in The Lancet in 1903.
In 1859, Prior inherited property in the village of Halse in Somerset from a maternal uncle, on condition that he added ‘Prior’ to his existing name, and thereafter divided his time between London and the countryside. The Wiltshire Council Archive holds some of his papers, including ‘a rough draft and a final version of a short biographical sketch’, to which the obituary apparently refers.
His 1863 work, On the Popular Names of British Plants, was very successful, and was followed by further editions in 1870 and 1879. He uses a wide range of documentary sources, from J.C. Adelung’s 1775 Wörterbuch, via Clusius, Gerard, Parkinson and William Turner (who he denotes as the father of English botany) to Wright and Halliwell’s Reliquiae Antiquae of 1841–3.
The earliest work in Prior’s bibliography is the Ortus Sanitatis: de herbis et plantis, de animalibus et reptilibus, de avibus et volatilibus, de piscibus et natatilibus, de lapidibus et in terra venis nascentibus, de vrinis et earum speciebus, tabula medicinalis, cum directorio generali per omnes tractatus, ‘by Cuba’, for which he gives the date of 1486, though the earliest edition I can find was printed in Mainz, 1491, by Jacob Meydenbach. (The author ‘Cuba’ is unknown.) The most recent are two dictionaries: the 1862 Dictionary of English Etymology of Hensleigh Wedgwood (grandson of Josiah I and cousin of Charles Darwin) and the (also 1862) Dictionnaire d’étymologie française d’après les résultats de la science moderne, by the Belgian philologist Auguste Scheler.
What I am not in a position to determine is how good Prior’s own etymological scholarship is. For example, he is aware that the alleged derivation of ‘fritillary’ from the Latin fritillus = a chequer-board is incorrect, as in fact it means ‘dicebox’, but he doesn’t explain the leap between the two which would justify the supposed connection. He seems more confident in tracing words to a German or Scandinavian root that he does when trying to take a link back to Sanskrit via Latin and Greek, which would make sense given that Danish was one of his other great interests.
One great thing about the book is that Prior tries to connect traditional English (and Scottish and Welsh) plant names with their Linnaean binomial, and this occasionally leads to some (for me) startling revelations (see below). Another is that he explains things that I have never had the wit to ask about. For example, why the common prefix ‘dog’ or ‘dog’s’?
Prior says that ‘In composition with plant-names it implied worthlessness’ (sorry, hounds!), and goes on to give some cogent examples: dog’s-chamomile (Anthemis cotula, also known as stinking chamomile) as opposed to ‘real’ chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla); dog’s-mercury (Mercurialis perennis) versus mercury (Chenopodium bonus-henricus, also Good-King-Henry, poor-man’s asparagus, goosefoot); the scentless dog-violet (Viola canina – in fact, three different scentless violets, plus the American Viola labradorica, are recognised today) versus sweet violet (Viola odorata).
He also claims that dogwood has nothing to do with dogs, but with skewers: