BARNSTON, JAMES, physician, botanist, and professor; b. 3 July 1831 at Norway House (Man.), eldest child of HBC fur trader George Barnston* and Ellen Matthews; m. 5 May 1857 Maria Anne McDonald, daughter of HBC fur trader Archibald McDonald, in St Andrews (Saint-André-Est), Lower Canada, and they had one child; d. 20 May 1858 in Montreal.
Named after Hudson’s Bay Company clerk James Hargrave*, a close friend and colleague of his father, James Barnston benefited early in life from the elder Barnston’s professional advancement and social connections. Educated first at the Red River settlement (Man.) from 1840 to 1845 and then privately for two years at Lachine, Lower Canada, James began medical studies at the University of Edinburgh in 1847. He showed considerable promise both as a physician and as a botanist. He passed his medical examinations in 1851 while still too young to practise, and received his diploma in the spring of 1852. Specializing in midwifery, he was house-surgeon at the Royal Maternity Hospital and also assisted a physician with an extensive practice at Selkirk, Scotland. In 1852 he spent a year visiting hospitals in Europe, principally in Paris and Vienna, to broaden his medical experience, and returned to Edinburgh in 1853 with the highest certificates of merit from the medical directors under whom he had worked.
During his sojourn at Edinburgh, Barnston also deepened the love of natural history he shared with his father. A prize-winning student of botany, he was greatly influenced by the teachings of John Hutton Balfour, dean of the medical faculty at the University of Edinburgh and one of the foremost British botanists of the day. Balfour impressed upon Barnston not only the importance of the study of natural history, especially botany, but also the vital roles played by scientific associations, by the presentation of lively formal lectures supplemented by popular field excursions, and by the use of the microscope in the successful pursuit of scientific studies.
Barnston returned to Canada in October 1853 and established a medical practice in Montreal. Convinced that the province was “rich in Plants yet to be made known,” he started also to collect and catalogue a herbarium, beginning with plants found on Mount Royal but aiming ultimately for a complete Canadian collection by extending the work begun by Andrew Fernando Holmes. Dismayed by the lack of general interest in natural science in Montreal, in 1854 Barnston started lobbying for a chair in natural history to be established at McGill College. By the summer of the following year he had also begun organizing the Botanical Society of Montreal under the auspices of the Natural History Society of Montreal, with hopes not only of completing the herbarium but also of establishing a museum of Canadian vegetable products and of publishing a circular for the new society. Barnston was encouraged by influential acquaintances such as William Edmond Logan*, the provincial geologist and a former schoolmate of his father, and by John William Dawson*, principal of McGill and later president of the Natural History Society of Montreal. During the winter of 1855–56, Barnston delivered a well-attended series of lectures on structural botany in Montreal.
In 1857 Barnston was appointed the first professor of botany at McGill. He was increasingly active in the Natural History Society, delivering papers on botany and serving as curator and librarian. He was also “the most active member” of the editing committee of the Canadian Naturalist and Geologist. But before the end of his first course of lectures to both arts and medical students at the college, he was “prostrated by a severe and lingering illness” from which he never recovered; he died within a year. The untimely loss of the “quiet, unassuming, gentle” young physician, not yet 27 years old, was a tragic one for Canadian science. Barnston had made brilliant beginnings in the reinterpretation of the flora of the Canadian wilderness as a unique and orderly environment with much of both intellectual and practical value to offer even the amateur observer. He was buried on the side of Mount Royal, which he had so often traversed in search of botanical specimens.
James Barnston is the author of “General remarks on the study of nature, with special reference to botany,” “Hints to the young botanist, regarding the collection, naming and preserving of plants,” “Introductory lecture to the course on botany, delivered before the students of arts and medicine, McGill College, session, 1857,” and “Catalogue of Canadian plants’ in the Holmes’ herbarium, in the cabinet of the University of McGill College,” in Canadian Naturalist and Geologist . . . (Montreal), 2 (1857): 34–40, 127–35, 335–45, and 4 (1859): 100–16 respectively.
PAC, MG 19, A21, ser.1 . Royal Botanic Gardens (Edinburgh), J. H. Balfour corr., 2, 7 Sept. 1853; 30 Oct. 1854; 4 March 1855; 4, 29 Dec. 1856. Royal Botanic Gardens (London), North American letters, 64: 16, 269. Pilot (Montreal), 31 March 1858. Montreal Transcript, 8 May 1857, 21 May 1858. A. N. Rennie, “Obituary: James Barnston, M.D.,” Canadian Naturalist and Geologist . . . , 3 (1858): 224–26.