Richard Eric Holttum



Richard Eric Holttum (b. 20 July 1895, Linton, Cambridgeshire, England1–d. 18 September 1990, London2) was director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens from 1925 to 1949.3 He assumed directorship in 19254 when I. H. Burkill retired.5 Holttum was instrumental in raising interest and sparking involvement in horticultural activities in Singapore and Malaya. He helped form two gardening societies: Singapore Gardening Society6 and Orchid Society of South East Asia (originally known as the Malayan Orchid Society7).

Early life
Holttum entered St John’s College in Cambridge to read botany, chemistry and physics in October 1914. However, he interrupted his university education in 1916 to serve with the Friends Ambulance Unit in France during World War I, for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government.8 Holttum eventually completed his studies in 1920 and graduated in botany with first-class honours.9


Career and contributions
In 1922, Holttum was appointed by the Colonial Office as assistant director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens.10


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. Holttum also observed that the gardeners employed Chinese traditional methods for growing plants such as the use of burnt clay as a potting medium.11

Formation of societies
Although public interest in gardening was keen then, 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 1928.12 The Singapore Gardening Society was subsequently formed in 1936, with the first general meeting held at the Director’s House.13 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 Young Men’s Christian Association Building on Stamford Road. The orchid shows continued to be an annual affair until 1934, 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.14 The flower show is still held today, with the Eric Holttum Gold Medal awarded during the event for the best locally produced orchid hybrid.15

Orchid cultivation
Another significant contribution by Holttum was his introduction of the Knudson method of asymbiotic flask culture of growing orchids to the region in 1928.16 It was pioneer orchidist Hans Burgeff of Würzburg, Germany, who shared with Holttum a relatively new and easy method of germinating an orchid seed in a laboratory when he visited Singapore.17 With the popularity of the Vanda Miss Joaquim, Holttum had been exploring a way to increase the range of orchids that can flower regularly throughout Singapore’s tropical climate through hybridising.18 After learning of this method, he embarked on a hybridisation programme in the Gardens’ laboratories and introduced it for the first time to the Singapore and Malaysian horticulture communities during the orchid flower show of 1931.19 This laid the foundation for the growth of commercial orchid cultivation in Southeast Asia and stimulated the local orchid nursery industry in Singapore. Since then, commercially grown orchids have become a thriving Singapore export commodity.20

Training local horticulturists
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. Prior to that, horticulturists were expatriate officers recruited from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England. These three officers were appointed as curators and went on to become heads in their respective departments.21

Research and publications
One of Holttum’s greatest legacies and contributions to the Malayan region as well as the international scientific community was his numerous scientific research papers and books.22 During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–45), Holttum was placed under house arrest.23 Isolated from the outside world and relieved from the daily administration of the Gardens, Holttum was able to concentrate on his research and prepared drafts of a number of books that were published after the war.24 These include Gardening in the Lowlands of Malaya25 and the first two volumes of A Revised Flora of Malaya.26 His other publication, Plant Life in Malaya,27 was used a text for his students in the Department of Botany.28

Holttum also contributed actively to the Malayan Orchid Society’s journal, Malayan Orchid Review, as well as the Malayan Agri-Horticultural Association magazine. During his 27 years working at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, many flowering and ornamental plants from other regions were introduced to the Gardens as well as the parks and roadsides of Singapore.29

Retirement
Holttum retired from the Botanic Gardens in 1949 and was appointed as the first professor of botany at the newly established University of Malaya in Singapore.30 He was said to be an excellent teacher and generously imparted his knowledge to his students.31


Holttum returned to England in 1954 and settled in Kew. Home to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew became his second home where he continued to work on the taxonomy and systematics of ferns and contributed to the Pteridophyta in the Flora Malesiana project.32

Awards and appointments
Holttum’s contributions to the horticulture studies have been recognised with the Linnean Medal, bestowed by the Linnean Society of London,33 and gold medals conferred by the American Orchid Society, Malayan Orchid Society and the Royal Horticultural Society.34 Besides his appointment at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, he also served as president of the British Pteridological Society35 and of the International Association of Pteridologists,36 and was an honorary research fellow associate of the Kew Gardens.37


Death
In his later years, Holttum began to lose his hearing and subsequently, his failing health interfered with his daily visit to Kew’s Herbarium.38 After a brief illness, Holttum passed away in London on 18 September 1990, aged 95.39


Family
Wife: Ursula Massey (m. 1927;40 d. 198741), an artist.42

Children: Two daughters.43



Author

Gracie Lee



References
1. Obituary: Richard Eric Holttum. (1990). Malayan Orchid Review, 24(90), 8. (Call no.: RCLOS 584.15 MOR); Warren H. W., Jr. (1969, January–March). Richard Eric Holttum, distinguished pteridologist. American Fern Journal, 59(1), 1. Retrieved from JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
2. Father of S’pore orchid, RIP. (1990, October 12). The New Paper, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Tinsley, B. (2009). Gardens of perpetual summer: The Singapore Botanic Gardens. Singapore: National Parks Board; Singapore Botanic Gardens, p. 50. (Call no.: RSING 580.735957 TIN)
4. Untitled. (1925, March 14). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Obituary: Richard Eric Holttum. (1990). Malayan Orchid Review, 24(90), 8. (Call no.: RCLOS 584.15 MOR)
6. Holttum, R. E. (1985). Recollections. In A. Tofield (Ed.), Golden gardening: Fifty years of the Singapore Gardening Society 1936–1986. Singapore: Singapore Gardening Society, p. 5. (Call no.: RSING 635 GOL)
7. Cheang, K. C., & Alphonso, A. G. (1977). Holttum’s contribution to horticulture in the Malaysia-Singapore region. The Gardens’ Bulletin (Special Issue), 30, 9. Available via PublicationSG.
8. Tinsley, B. (1990, October 29). A rare bloom. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. (n.d.). The DNA of Singapore: R. E. Holttum. Retrieved 2016, August 25 from Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum website: http://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/dna/people/details/63
9. Barnes, R. (1982, July 3). Profile of a botanist. The Straits Times, p. 1; Mainly about Malayans. (1939, July 2). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Obituary: Richard Eric Holttum. (1990). Malayan Orchid Review, 24(90), 8. (Call no.: RCLOS 584.15 MOR)
11. Cheang, K. C., & Alphonso, A. G. (1977). Holttum’s contribution to horticulture in the Malaysia-Singapore region. The Gardens’ Bulletin (Special Issue), 30, 9. Available via PublicationSG.
12. Cheang, K. C., & Alphonso, A. G. (1977). Holttum’s contribution to horticulture in the Malaysia-Singapore region. The Gardens’ Bulletin (Special Issue), 30, 9. Available via PublicationSG. 
13. Looi, E. S. (1984). Introduction. In A. Tofield (Ed.), Golden gardening: Fifty years of the Singapore Gardening Society 1936–1986. Singapore: Singapore Gardening Society, p. 2. (Call no.: RSING 635 GOL)
14. Cheang, K. C., & Alphonso, A. G. (1977). Holttum’s contribution to horticulture in the Malaysia-Singapore region. The Gardens’ Bulletin (Special Issue), 30, 9–10. Available via PublicationSG. 
15. Orchid Society of South-East Asia. (n.d.). About us. Retrieved 2016, August 25 from Orchid Society of South-East Asia website: http://www.ossea.org.sg/index.php/about; Orchid Society of South-East Asia. (n.d.). Eric Holttum Gold Medal. Retrieved 2016, August 25 from Orchid Society of South-East Asia website: http://www.ossea.org.sg/index.php/about/eric-holttum-gold-medal
16. Cheang, K. C., & Alphonso, A. G. (1977). Holttum’s contribution to horticulture in the Malaysia-Singapore region. The Gardens’ Bulletin (Special Issue), 1975, 30, 10. Available via PublicationSG.
17. Tinsley, B. (2009). Gardens of perpetual summer: The Singapore Botanic Gardens. Singapore: National Parks Board; Singapore Botanic Gardens, p. 50. (Call no.: RSING 580.735957 TIN); Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. (n.d.). The DNA of Singapore: R. E. Holttum. Retrieved 2016, August 25 from Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum website: http://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/dna/people/details/63
18. Tinsley, B. (2009). Gardens of perpetual summer: The Singapore Botanic Gardens. Singapore: National Parks Board; Singapore Botanic Gardens, pp. 50, 174. (Call no.: RSING 580.735957 TIN)
19. Cheang, K. C., & Alphonso, A. G. (1977). Holttum’s contribution to horticulture in the Malaysia-Singapore region. The Gardens’ Bulletin (Special Issue), 30, 10. Available via PublicationSG. 
20. Tinsley, B. (2009). Gardens of perpetual summer: The Singapore Botanic Gardens. Singapore: National Parks Board; Singapore Botanic Gardens, p. 50. (Call no.: RSING 580.735957 TIN); Perkins, J. (1979, December 31). Where history is planted on jungle. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved on NewspaperSG.
21. Cheang, K. C., & Alphonso, A. G. (1977). Holttum’s contribution to horticulture in the Malaysia-Singapore region. The Gardens’ Bulletin (Special Issue), 30, 11. Available via PublicationSG. 
22. Cheang, K. C., & Alphonso, A. G. (1977). Holttum’s contribution to horticulture in the Malaysia-Singapore region. The Gardens’ Bulletin (Special Issue), 30, 11. Available via PublicationSG.
23. Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. (n.d.). The DNA of Singapore: R. E. Holttum. Retrieved 2016, August 25 from Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum website: http://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/dna/people/details/63
24. Tinsley, B. (2009). Gardens of perpetual summer: The Singapore Botanic Gardens. Singapore: National Parks Board, Singapore Botanic Gardens, p. 56. (Call no.: RSING 580.735957 TIN)
25. Holttum, R. E. (1953). Gardening in the lowlands of Malaya. Singapore: Straits Times Press. (Call no.: RCLOS 635.09595 HOL-[RFL])
26. Holttum, R. E. (1953). A revised flora of Malaya: An illustrated systematic account of the Malayan flora, including commonly cultivated plants. Vol. 1. Orchids of Malaya. Singapore: Govt. Print. Off. (Call no.: RCLOS 581.9595 HOL); Holttum, R. E. [1953–71]. A revised flora of Malaya: An illustrated systematic account of the Malayan flora, including commonly cultivated plants. Vol. 1. Ferns of Malaya. Singapore: Govt. Print. Off. (Call no.: RCLOS 581.9595 HOL)
27. Holttum, R. E. (1954). Plant life in Malaya. [?]: Longmans, Green & Co. (Call no.: RCLOS 581 HOL)
28. Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. (n.d.). The DNA of Singapore: R. E. Holttum. Retrieved 2016, August 25 from Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum website: http://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/dna/people/details/63
29. Cheang, K. C., & Alphonso, A. G. (1977). Holttum’s contribution to horticulture in the Malaysia-Singapore region. The Gardens’ Bulletin (Special Issue), 30, 10–11. Available via PublicationSG.
30. Obituary: Richard Eric Holttum. (1990). Malayan Orchid Review, 24(90), 8. (Call no.: RCLOS 584.15 MOR); New varsity professor. (1949, May 11). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Cheang, K. C., & Alphonso, A. G. (1977). Holttum’s contribution to horticulture in the Malaysia-Singapore region. The Gardens’ Bulletin (Special Issue), 1975, 30, 10, 12. Available via PublicationSG.
32. Obituary: Richard Eric Holttum. (1990). Malayan Orchid Review, 24(90), 9. (Call no.: RCLOS 584.15 MOR)
33. Jermy, A. C. (1977). Holttum’s contribution to horticulture in the Malaysia-Singapore region. The Gardens’ Bulletin (Special Issue), 30, 7. Available via PublicationSG.
34. Obituary: Richard Eric Holttum. (1990). Malayan Orchid Review, 24(90), 9. (Call no.: RCLOS 584.15 MOR); A double orchid tribute for Dr. Holttum. (1963, October 12). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
35. Jermy, A. C. (1977). Holttum’s contribution to horticulture in the Malaysia-Singapore region. The Gardens' Bulletin (Special Issue), 30, 7. Available via PublicationSG.
36. Gomez, L. D., & Jermy, A. C. (1983, February). Bulletin of Pteridology. Taxon, 32(1), 142. Retrieved from JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/ 
37. Elliott, J. (2016, February). The Holttum orchids, and the need for conservation of heritage plants. Gardenwise, 46, 18. (Call no.: RSING 580.7445957 G)
38. Tinsley, B. (1990, October 29). A rare bloom. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
39. Obituary: Richard Eric Holttum. (1990). Malayan Orchid Review, 24(90), 8. (Call no.: RCLOS 584.15 MOR); Tinsley, B. (1990, October 29). A rare bloom. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
40. Marriages. (1927, July 19). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
41. Sands, M. J. S., & Flower, H. (Compilers). News of Kewites at home and abroad in 1987. Retrieved 2016, August 25 from The Kew Guild website: http://www.kewguild.org.uk/media/pdfs/v10s92p608-64.pdf; Obituary: Richard Eric Holttum. (1990). Malayan Orchid Review, 24(90), 9. (Call no.: RCLOS 584.15 MOR)
42. Mohlman, K. (2003, July). Casting light on the history of the Sundial Garden. Gardenwise, 21, 15–17. (Call no.: RSING 580.7445957 G)
43. Father of S'pore orchid, RIP. (1990, October 12). The New Paper, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 2016 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.

 

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