Richard Eric Holttum

Richard Eric Holttum (b. 20 July 1895, Linton, Cambridgeshire, England - d. 18 September 1990, London) was the Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens from 1926 to 1949. He assumed directorship in 1925 when I. H. Burkhill retired but was only officially appointed as Director in February 1926. Holttum was instrumental in raising the interest and involvement in horticultural activities in the region. He helped form two gardening societies, namely Singapore Gardening Society and the Orchid Society of South East Asia (originally the Malayan Orchid Society). The study of tropical ferns as well as orchids, ginger and bamboo were to dominate his entire scientific career. Holttum was known for his rigorous, systematic and precise taxonomic research as well as his ability to reach to the amateur gardener.

Early life
Holttum attended the Friends School at Saffron Walden, Essex, before going on to Bootham School in York. He entered St. John's College, Cambridge in October 1914 but interrupted his university education to serve with the Friends' ambulance unit in France during the war, for which he was awarded the La Croix de Guerre. He finally completed his studies in 1920 and graduated with First Class Honours in Botany.

In 1922, Holttum was appointed by the Colonial Office as Assistant Director of the Botanic Gardens. I. H. Burkill, then Director of the Botanic Gardens, proposed that he work on the little-known ferns of the Malay Peninsula.

When he first arrived in Singapore, there were only a few Chinese commercial gardens growing orchids and some flowering and foliage plants in the Orchard Road, Thomson Road, Newton and Bukit Timah areas. He developed friendships with the Chinese gardeners and discussed horticultural matters with them regularly. He also observed that the gardeners employed Chinese traditional methods for growing plants such as the use of burnt clay as a potting medium. Though public interest in gardening was keen at that time, there was no authority on the subject to guide them. Responding to this need, Holttum helped form two major societies, one for orchids and another for gardening. Together with John Laycock and Emilie Galistan, the Malayan Orchid Society (now the Orchid Society of South East Asia) was formed in 1928. A few years later, the Singapore Gardening Society was formed in 1936 with monthly meetings at the Director's House. Under the guidance of Holttum, these two societies flourished and played a major role in the promotion of orchid growing and gardening in the region. The first orchid show organised by the Malayan Orchid society was held on 27 and 28 of March 1931 at the YMCA Building in Stamford Road. The flower show continued annually until 1938 when the first flower show on ornamental and orchid plants was jointly organised by the Malayan Orchid Society and the Singapore Gardening Society on 6 to 8 April at the New World Stadium. This annual event continues up till today. The Eric Holttum medal is awarded every year for the best locally produced orchid hybrid during this event.

Perhaps of greater significance, was Holttum's introduction of the Knudson method of asymbiotic flask culture of growing orchids to the region. In 1928, pioneer orchidist Professor Hans Burgeff of Wurzburg visited Singapore and shared with Holttum a relatively new and easy method of germinating an orchid seed in a laboratory. With the popularity of the Vanda Miss Joachim, Holttum had been exploring a way to increase the range of orchids which can flower regularly throughout Singapore's seasonless tropical climate through hybridising. After learning of this method, he embarked on a hybridisation programme in the Botanic Gardens' laboratories and introduced it for the first time to the Singaporean and Malaysian horticulture communities during the orchid flower show of 1931. This laid the foundation for the growth of commercial orchid cultivation in Southeast Asia and stimulated the local orchid nursery industry in Singapore. Today, commercially grown orchids have become a thriving Singapore export commodity.

Scoring many firsts, Holttum was also the first Gardens' administrator to recruit local officers for horticultural training. In 1940, three local officers, K.C. Cheang, A.G. Alphonso and N.V. Lange were recruited. In the past, horticulturists were expatriate officers recruited from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. These three officers went on to become Curators in their different departments.

Without a doubt, Holttum's greatest legacy and contribution to the Malayan region as well as the international scientific community lies with the numerous scientific and research papers, and books which he wrote. During the Japanese Occupation, Holttum was placed under house arrest and ordered to continue his work in the Botanic Gardens. During this time, isolated from the outside world and relieved from the daily administration of the Gardens and its many visitors, Holttum was able to concentrate on his research and prepared drafts of a number of books which were later published after the war. These include The Ferns of Malaya, The Orchids of Malaya, Plant Life of Malaya and Gardening in the Lowlands of Malaya. Holttum also contributed actively to the Malayan Orchid Society's journal, the Malayan Orchid Review, the Gardens' Bulletin (the official publication of the Singapore Botanic Gardens), the Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society and the Malayan Agri-Horticultural Association magazine.

Holttum retired from the Botanic Gardens in 1949 and was appointed as Professor of Botany at the newly formed University of Malaya in Singapore. He proved an excellent teacher and generous in imparting his knowledge with many of his students having since become competent botanists. During his 32 years of service to Singapore, many flowering and ornamental plants from other regions were introduced to the Gardens and the parks and roadsides of Singapore.

Holttum returned to England in 1954 and settled in Kew. Home to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew was to become his second home where he continued to work tirelessly on the taxonomy and systematics of ferns, the result of which was published in the impressive Ferns volume of Flora Malesiana. Many of his works have been revised and reprinted through the years and are still referred to today by both scholars and gardening enthusiasts.

The Linnean Gold Medal.
The Victoria Medal of Honour of the RHS.
Gold Medals from the American Orchid Society, the Malayan Orchid Society and the Royal Horticultural Society.
President of the British Pteridological Society.
President of the International Association of Pteridologists.
Honorary Research Fellow Associate of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

Some thirty odd plants have also been named after him.

Holttum's deep knowledge of tropical plants, his gentle, unassuming modesty, as well as his willingness to share his gardening knowledge earned him the admiration of Singaporeans and the international horticultural and botany community alike.  In his later years, Holttum began to lose his hearing and learned to lip-read at the age of 75. After a brief illness, Holttum passed away in London on 18 September 1990, aged 95.

Wife: Ursula Massey (d. 1987), an artist (m. 1927).
Children: Two daughters.

Gracie Siew Kheng Lee

Cheang, K.C., Alphonso, A.G. (1977, October 15). Holttum's contribution to horticulture in the Malaysia-Singapore region. The Gardens' Bulletin: A special issue to mark the eightieth birthday of R.E. Holttum, 1975. 30, 9-12.
(Call no.: RCLOS 581.05 SIN)

Tinsley, B. (1989). Visions of Delight: The Singapore Botanic Gardens through the ages (pp. 28-32). Singapore: The Gardens,
(Call no.: RSING 580.74459597 TIN) 

Obituary: Richard Eric Holttum. Malayan Orchid Review, 24 (90), 8-9.
(Call no:. RCLOS 584.15 MOR) 

Robert, J. (1990, September 28). Obituary of Professor RE Holttum: Botanising in Malaya. The Guardian, London.

Stern, W. T. (1990, September 28). Obituary: Professor Eric Holttum. The Independent (London), Gazette Page, p. 15.

Eric Holttum. (1990, September 25). The Straits Times, Features!.

The information in this article is valid as at 2002 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Botanic Gardens (Singapore)
Holttum, R. E. (Richard Eric), 1895-1990
Science and technology>>Botany>>Horticulture
Botanical garden directors--Singapore
Colonial administrators
Personalities>>Biographies>>Colonial Administrators

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