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Essondale to UBC

John Davidson (August 6, 1878–February 10, 1970)

John Davidson was a botanist who popularized nature study through illustrated public lectures. He created the Vancouver Natural History Society and the University of British Columbia’s herbarium and botanical garden. Today, many consider Davidson an environmental folk hero for his conservation efforts.

Davidson gets a job

In his 1911 search for employment, John Davidson visited Victoria and met with the provincial secretary and minister of education, Dr. Henry Esson Young. At their meeting, Davidson proposed conducting a provincial botanical survey. Young was impressed and, mere weeks later, created a provincial botanical office headed by Vancouver landscape architect and civil engineer G.K. MacLean. Davidson became MacLean’s field assistant.

In Davidson’s day, provincial ministers had the power to initiate projects and to spend money much more freely than they do now. Young created the Botanical Office on Vancouver’s West Pender Street without the approval of the provincial legislature. As a result, the office was not protected by legislation and was responsible to the minister rather than to the legislature. Because of this arrangement, MacLean and Davidson could do whatever they wanted — as long as they had Young’s permission and as long as Young remained a provincial minister.

MacLean’s Botanical Office did not have a clear mandate. Young knew that soon there would be a provincial university but its location was still a matter of debate. One of the Botanical Office’s tasks included preparing specimens for use by the future university because, no matter where the university would ultimately end up, its botany department would need teaching specimens. MacLean and Davidson intended to collect live British Columbia plants in a botanical garden and preserve dried specimens in an herbarium.

Until the university could be built, Young arranged for temporary housing at Essondale (a name created from Young’s middle name, Esson). Essondale (later called Riverview) was home to the British Columbia Provincial Hospital for the Insane and the adjoining Colony Farm.

According to Davidson, Essondale’s botanical garden had three broad aims:

  1. To “assemble a representative collection of plants from all parts of the Province”
  2. “To grow sets of species belonging to ‘critical’ genera for study and research, [and] to determine accurately their species and apply their valid names”
  3. To “create an outdoor museum, to provide living material for teaching, and a source of supplies for undergraduate laboratory work, as well as for post graduate research.”