Humphrey Gilbert-Carter

Humphrey Gilbert CarterFirst academic Director of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden 1921 – 1950
Botanist, philologist, author, lecturer

“Gilbert-Carter was unique. He was a trained medical doctor. He had an amazing knowledge of plants, an amazing knowledge of languages. Anyone who has read his book on the Garden or his book on trees and shrubs can see this immediately.  His quotations from Virgil, the early use of tree names etc.”
Professor Donald Pigott, 2013

Education & Career
Tonbridge School, University of Edinburgh,
University of Marburg, University of Cambridge
1913 – 1921    Economic Botanist, Botanical Survey of India
1921 – 1950    Director Cambridge Botanic Garden & Curator, Cambridge Herbarium
1930 – 1950    Cambridge University Lecturer in Botany

Gilbert-Carter published the first Guide To The  Botanic Garden Cambridge in 1922 (and updated it in 1947) followed by Descriptive Labels for Botanic Gardens in 1924.

Humphrey Gilbert-Carter (1884 – 1969) the son of Sir Thomas Gilbert-Carter, KCMG, was educated at Tonbridge School and Edinburgh, Marburg and Cambridge Universities. Gilbert-Carter was employed as an Economic Botantist in India during WWI.  During his time in the sub-continent Gilbert-Carter learned Hindi, Urdu, Persian and Arabic to add to his knowledge of Latin, Greek and Danish. He returned to Britain in 1921 to take over as the first Academic Director of the Botanic Garden in Cambridge at the age of 37. The University Botanic Garden, along with many other organisations, had suffered from the shortages incurred during the First World War.IMG_0678 Humphrey Gilbert-Carter’s friendship with Reginald Cory, an alumnus of Trinity College bore fruit for the Botanic Garden.  Reginald Cory provided much needed funds to help pay the wages of the horticulturalists.  In 1924, a further generous donation enable the construction of Cory Lodge, designed by M H Baillie-Scott, as a residence for the Director. This was named after its benefactor.

After Reginald Cory’s sudden death in 1934, it was discovered that a substantial bequest had been made to the Botanic Garden. Nevertheless Cory’s money was not made available to the Garden until after WWII, by which time Gilbert-Carter was about to retire after 29 years as Director. It seems that Gilbert-Carter had mixed feelings about reclaiming the allotments in the ‘new area’ in the eastern section of the Botanic Garden.  He is recorded as being sorry that the allotment holders were to lose their plots. It was to be the task of his successor, John Gilmour, to begin to incorporate the ‘new area’ into the Botanic Garden of today.


‘The new Director [Gilbert-Carter] took all these duties seriously; he enjoyed a routine which normally consisted of a visit to the office to deal with his correspondence, followed by an appearance in the Botany School Herbarium from which he regularly adjourned with colleagues (by no means exclusively botanists) to the adjacent Bun Shop for a glass of beer before lunch. After lunch, followed, at least in his later years, by a siesta, he did his daily inspection of the Garden before tea, and any offending plant label, incorrectly worded or placed, would be ostentatiously turned around – a sign by which the Garden staff would know that they must consult the Director himself to correct the fault. This personal concern with the accuracy of the labelling, combined with a real love of the plants, set a standard for which the Garden has been and still is quite famous.’    Max Walters, Shaping of Cambridge Botany

Gilbert-Carter Memorial Area
In memory of its first academic Director, a woodland and meadow planting was created near the Old Pinetum in the western Botanic Garden.

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The woodland reflects Gilbert-Carter’s passion for catkin-bearing trees, such as the Cambridge Oak Quercus x warburgii, along with other British woodland trees – such as Acer sempervirens and Acer campestre – and other flowering trees such as the Judas Tree Cercis siliquastrum and the Chinese Bitter Orange Poncirus trifoliat).

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Below the trees are under-plantings of cow parsley, flowering herbs and long grasses, which are allowed to grow to encourage wildlife, in particular insect life in the Garden.

Professor Donald Pigott came up to Cambridge as an undergraduate after WWII in 1946 to study Botany and was taught by Gilbert-Carter.  Over the following decades the two men became friends, despite their age difference.

Garden Voices Listen to Donald Pigott talking about his mentor, Gilbert-Carter.

“I was very glad to include something he [Humphrey Gilbert-Carter] said to me during teaching very early on in my book [on Tilia]: ‘When you got into a wood, always look up first and see what the trees are.’  Most botanists walk looking down and see what plants they can see on the floor of the wood.  And I looked up.  For me, he was a brilliant teacher.  Many people found his lectures rather difficult to cope with; he had an amazing fund of knowledge, on masses of things other than botany.  I just got on with him wonderfully.”   Professor Donald Pigott

(Left) Humphrey Gilbert-Carter (1921 – 1950) from the frontispiece to Humphrey Gilbert-Carter: A Memorial Volume edited by John Gilmour and Max Walters in 1975(Right) A section on the Walnut tree Juglans from Gilbert-Carter’s Guide to the Botanic Garden, 1922, containing quotes from the Roman poet, Virgil as well as Persian script.


Gilbert-Carter, H. (1913) Genera of British Plants
Gilbert-Carter, H. (1917) Report on the Industrial Section of the Indian Museum for the year 1916 – 17, Calcutta
Gilbert-Carter, H. (1917) Some Plants of the Zor Hills, Koweit, Arabia. Records of the Botanical Survey of India, 6, (6): 172-206. Calcutta
Gilbert-Carter, H. and D N Carter, Useful Plants of the District of Lakhimpur in Assam, Records of the Botanical Survey of India, 6 (9): 353-420. Calcutta
Gilbert-Carter, H. (1924) Descriptive Labels for Botanic Gardens, Cambridge, University Botanic Garden
Gilbert-Carter, H. (1930) Our Catkin-bearing Plants: An Introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Gilbert-Carter, H. (1932) Our Catkin-bearing Plants: An Introduction, Oxford University Press, Edition 2, Oxford
Raunkiaer, C., F. N. Egerton, M. V. Fausbøll, edited by H. Gilbert-Carter, (1934) The Life Forms of Plants and Statistical Plant Geography (collected papers), History of Ecology Series, Ayer Co Publishing, Oxford. Translation from the Danish of C Raunkiaer
Gilbert-Carter, H. (1936) British Trees and Shrubs, Clarendon Press
Gilbert-Carter, H. (1947) A guide to the University Botanic Garden, Cambridge, Cambridge, University Botanic Garden
Gilbert-Carter, H. (1950) Glossary of British Flora, Cambridge University Press, Edition 1, Cambridge
Gilbert-Carter, H. (1955) Glossary of British Flora, Cambridge University Press, Edition 2, Cambridge
Gilbert-Carter, H. (1964) Glossary of British Flora, Cambridge University Press, Edition 3, Cambridge
An alphabetic glossary giving the meaning, pronunciation and derivation of the generic, trivial and varietal names of plants mentioned in British Floras.  “It should become a small but essential reference book to all users of floras, including beginners in botany, whether students or amateurs.”  Preface by Charles E Raven.  Volume Two is edited by Roy Clapham, Tom Tutin and Heff (EF) Warburg.
Botanical contributions to the Cambridge Italian Dictionary, editor B Reyonolds, Vol 1, 1962, vol 2
Obituaries & Portraits
Nature v 221 (1969) 497-498
Nature in Cambridgeshire No 12 (1969) 4-5
Times, January 1969
Watsonia 1970 71-74
Who was Who 1961 – 1970 427
Gilmour, J.S.L. and S. M. Walters (editors) (1975) Humphrey Gilbert-Carter: A Memorial Volume, Cambridge, University Botanic Garden, Cambridge
Portrait:  M Hadfield et al (1980) Br. Gdners 1980 133
Portrait: Walters, S. M., Shaping of Cambridge Botany (1981) 95-103
Portrait: Plants from Canaries, Madeira and Britain at Cambridge