E. J. H. Corner
Edred John Henry Corner (b. 12 January 1906, London, England–d. 14 September 1996, Great Shelford, England) was a renowned botanist and Assistant Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens from 1929 to 1945. His extensive knowledge and research on fungi earned him international acclaim. Corner protected the Gardens and Raffles Museum from looters during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–1945) and did much to advance understanding of tropical botany through his exhaustive fieldwork. His landmark book Wayside Trees of Malaya is considered a classic and has gone through three editions.
Corner attended schools in London and Hertfordshire before entering Rugby School in 1919, where he became interested in plants. He won a scholarship to read botany at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and graduated in 1928.
Fieldwork in Singapore and Malaya
In March 1929, Corner was appointed Assistant Director of the Botanic Gardens in Singapore. Although hired for his expertise in tropical fungi, it was his fascination with Malaya’s extraordinary trees that persuaded him to remain. Very few botanists studied both fungi and seed plants but Corner travelled throughout Singapore, Malaya and their islands, collecting thousands of specimens and discovering many new species of trees and plants.
Concerned about the threat of logging to these exceptionally rich forests, he sought to raise awareness and record as much as possible. Corner studied and thoroughly photographed one of Singapore’s last swamp forests at Jurong before it was cleared around 1932. He nearly died of river fever after exploring a similar environment in Johor. His research was published in The Freshwater Swamp-forest of South Johore and Singapore in 1978.
In 1937, Corner and his assistant pioneered canopy ecology by purchasing trained macaques, used by villagers to harvest coconuts, to pick items like seeds, fruit, ferns and leaves from treetops as high as 50 m. The Straits Government contributed M$127 annually for the upkeep of each monkey. The monkeys were given Malay names, kept leashed and fed with rice, bananas and raw eggs. Corner released the last of his macaques when the Japanese invaded Singapore in 1942.
Together with Director of the Botanic Gardens Richard E. Holttum, Corner persuaded the government to maintain Bukit Timah forest as a reserve. He, together with another assistant, risked physical harm by loggers in order to thwart illegal logging in the forest before such activities were finally suppressed by the authorities. He also successfully lobbied to create two reserves in Johor.
Corner and Holttum helped establish the Malayan Nature Society in 1940, which later split up to become what is now the Malaysian Nature Society and the Nature Society (Singapore). Corner encouraged scientific education by leading an evening course for school teachers on Malayan plant life. He also taught biology for a year at the King Edward VII College of Medicine.
Wishing to increase public understanding of Malaya’s forests, Corner toiled for six years on his first major publication: the two-volume Wayside Trees of Malaya published in 1940. Much of the effort arose from taxonomical problems that Corner aimed to resolve. He described about 950 tree species based entirely on field observations rather than dried specimens – unusual for such a comprehensive book – and drew or photographed all the illustrations. It became a standard reference work and more than 45 years later, Corner returned to Malaysia to update material for a third edition.
Protecting scholarship in wartime
During World War II, Corner worked as a food supply officer and food production officer in Singapore. He was exempted from serving in the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force following a serious monkey bite that disabled his right arm. This injury saved him from being interned in Changi Prison during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–1945).
Corner appealed to the Japanese invaders to preserve Singapore’s scholarly collections. Corner and a newly arrived Japanese scientist secured the Botanic Gardens and the Raffles Museum and Library against looters, thus protecting them from the fate suffered by similar institutions elsewhere in Singapore. He also helped safeguard other resources such as Singapore’s largest private law library and British symbols, including the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, which was temporarily displayed at the Raffles Museum during the Occupation.
While the Botanic Gardens deteriorated somewhat, its herbarium and precious research collection were untouched. Freed from administrative tasks and as a civil internee in the Gardens, Corner, with Holttum and Director of Fisheries William Birtwistle, conducted valuable scientific research that was published in the following decades. Corner was one of the few British officials not interned in a prison camp during the Occupation.
After the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, Corner supervised the Gardens under a New Zealand colonel and prevented it from being used as a transport depot and the herbarium as a barracks. Corner was dismissed following a disagreement with the Colonial Office and returned to England that November.
After leading a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) project in Brazil, Corner taught at Cambridge University between 1949 and 1973, mentoring and inspiring many future leading botanists. He became the university’s first professor of tropical botany in 1965 and subsequently emeritus professor in 1974.
Corner published many acclaimed books based on his research in Singapore including: The Life of Plants (1964), which was translated into French, German, Italian and Japanese; The Natural History of Palms (1966); and The Seeds of Dicotyledons (1976). Corner’s original, thought-provoking work sometimes stirred controversy, most famously his "Durian theory" of flowering plant evolution in which he argued that the durian was among the most primitive fruit trees.
In 1961 and 1964, Corner led the Royal Society’s expeditions to Mount Kinabalu and completed the first exploration of the long and challenging eastern ridge. He named some peaks and pinnacles, and took the first photographs from the eastern summit. This project helped influence the decision to make Kota Kinabalu Sabah’s first national park in 1964. He also led or joined expeditions to the Solomon Islands and Brazil, and occasionally visited Singapore.
In 1977, the Botanic Gardens marked Corner’s 70th birthday with a commemorative publication prepared by his former research students. It was presented to him at Wadham College, Oxford.
Corner continued to correspond with his former Japanese colleagues for years and eventually wrote a book, The Marquis: A Tale of Syonan-to, in 1981 about his wartime experiences. However, his willingness to cooperate with the Japanese during the war was highly controversial. Many former British internees loathed him and viewed him as a collaborator, though proof later emerged that Governor Shenton Thomas had consented to him helping the Japanese preserve Singapore’s scholarly collections.
Corner received many high honours in Britain and from abroad. He travelled and wrote into his eighties, producing numerous publications on fungi, many of which were deemed controversial. He died of old age in England in 1996.
Legacies and tributes
Corner’s drawings and specimen collections were donated to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, while Cambridge University Library received his photographs, which included over 1,000 pictures taken in Singapore and Malaya. Duplicates of his herbarium specimens at the Singapore Botanic Gardens can be found in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Admirers named dozens of seed plants and fungi after him, and his former residence in the Singapore Botanic Gardens was named E.J.H. Corner House. It received conservation status in May 2008 and currently houses a French fine-dining restaurant, Au Jardin.
Parents: Dr Edred Corner, surgeon and Henrietta (née Henderson).
Spouses: Sheila Kavanagh (married 1939, later divorced), Helga Dineson (married 1953).
Children: Two daughters, one son.
Awards and honours
1955: Fellowship of the Royal Society.
1960: Darwin Medal, Royal Society.
1966: Patron’s Medal, Royal Geographical Society.
1970: Gold Medal, Linnean Society.of London.
1972: Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).
1974: Victoria Medal of Honour, Royal Horticultural Society.
1981: Allerton Award, Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden, Hawaii.
1985: International Prize for Biology, Japanese Academy.
1985: Golden Key to the City of Yokohama.
1985: First Japanese International Prize for Biology.
1996: First de Bary Medal, International Mycological Association (joint winner).
1940: Wayside Trees of Malaya.
1964: The Life of Plants.
1966: A Monograph of Cantharelloid Fungi.
1966: The Natural History of Palms.
1972: Boletus in Malaysia.
1976: The Seeds of Dicotyledons.
1978: The Freshwater Swamp-forest of South Johore and Singapore.
1981: The Marquis: A Tale of Syonan-to.
A wartime controversy. (1982, February 20). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Botanist—and Malayan monkeys—to get a Royal Society award. (1960, November 18). The Singapore Free Press, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Botanist gets award for durian tree studies. (1960, December 2). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Corner, E. J. H. (1978). The freshwater swamp-forest of South Johore and Singapore. Singapore: Botanic Gardens, Parks & Recreation Department.
(Call no.: RSING 581.52632 COR)
Corner, E. J. H. (1981). The marquis: A tale of Syonan-to. Singapore: Heinemann Asia.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57023 COR -[HIS])
Corner, E. J. H. (1988). Wayside trees of Malaya. Kuala Lumpur: Malayan Nature Society.
(Call no.: RSING 582.1609595 COR)
Corner, E. J. H. (c1992). Botanical monkeys. Edinburgh: Pentland Press.
(Call no.: RSING 599.8 COR)
Corner proposed durian-evolution theory. (2001, June 10). The Straits Times, p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Holttum, R. E. (1932). Annual report of the director of Gardens for the year 1931 (p. 1) [Microfilm: NL 15270]. Singapore: Government Printing Office.
Holttum, R. E. (1933). Annual report of the director of Gardens for the year 1932. (pp. 1-2) [Microfilm: NL 15270]. Singapore: Government Printing Office.
Holttum, R. E. (1934). Annual report of the director of Gardens for the year 1933. (p.1) [Microfilm: NL 15270]. Singapore: Government Printing Office.
Holttum, R. E. (1936). Annual report of the director of Gardens for the year 1935. (p. 6) [Microfilm: NL 15270]. Singapore: Government Printing Office.
Holttum, R. E. (1937). Annual report of the director of Gardens for the year 1936. (pp.2-4) [Microfilm: NL 15270]. Singapore: Government Printing Office.
Holttum, R.E. (1938). Annual report of the director of Gardens for the year 1937. (pp. 6, 8-9) [Microfilm: NL 9936]. Singapore: Government Printing Office.
Holttum, R. E. (1939). Annual report of the director of Gardens for the year 1938. (p. 3) [Microfilm: NL 9936]. Singapore: Government Printing Office.
Lum, S. & Sharp, I. (Eds.). (1996). A view from the summit: The story of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. Singapore: Nanyang Technological University and Singapore National University.
(Call no.: RSING 333.78095957 VIE)
Mabberley, D. J. (1999, November). Edred John Henry Corner, C.B.E. In Biographical memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society (Vol. 45, pp. 80–89). London: Royal Society. Retrieved April 2, 2013, from JSTOR.
Mabberley, D. J. (2000, July). A tropical botanist finally vindicated. The Gardens’ Bulletin, 52(1), 1–4. Singapore: Botanic Gardens.
(Call no.: RSING 581.05 SIN)
Mandalam, K. R., Davison, G. W. H. & Regis, P. (Eds.). (2005). East Kinabalu: Royal Society expeditions 40th anniversary monograph. Kota Kinabalu: Sabah Society.
(Call no.: RSEA 508.5953 EAS)
Mr E. J. H. Corner marries. (1939, February 14). The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Nature Society (Singapore). (2011). History and accomplishments. Retrieved from http://www.nss.org.sg/about.aspx?id=2
Schilthuizen, M. (2008). The loom of life: Unravelling ecosystems (pp. 28-29). Berlin: Springer. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2F978-3-540-68058-1_3
The Singapore Botanic Gardens during 1941-46 [Microfilm: NL 6575]. (1947, September 30). The Gardens’ Bulletin, 4(11), 263-65. Singapore: Botanic Gardens.
Tinsley, B. (1989). Visions of delight: The Singapore Botanic Gardens throughout the ages. Singapore: Singapore Botanic Gardens.
(Call no.: RSING 580.74459597 TIN)
Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A history of Singapore, 1819-1988. Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR [HIS])
Whitmore, T. C. (1996, September 21). Obituary – E.J.H. Corner. The Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-professor-e-j-h-corner-1364297.html
Wee, L. (2001, June 10). Botanist dogged by spy rumours vindicated? The Straits Times, p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Wong, K. M. & Phillips, A. P. W. (1996). Kinabalu: Summit of Borneo. Kota Kinabalu: Sabah Society.
(Call no.: RSEA 508.5953 KIN)
Corner, E. J. H. (1961). Evolution. In MacLeod, A. M. & Cobley, L. S. (Eds.). Contemporary botanical thought. Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd.
(Call no.: R 580 CON)
Corner, E. J. H. (1964). The life of plants. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson.
(Call no.: RCLOS 581 COR)
Corner, E. J. H. (1966). A monograph of cantharelloid fungi. London: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: R 589.222 COR)
Corner, E. J. H. (1966). The natural history of palms. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson.
(Call no.: RCLOS 584.5 COR)
Corner, E. J. H. (1972). Boletus in Malaysia. Singapore: Government Printing Office.
(Call no.: RCLOS 589.222 COR)
The information in this article is valid as at 4 April 2013 and correct as far as we are able to 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.