John Scouler

Quick Facts
Place of Birth:
Glasgow, Scotland
Date of Birth:
December 31, 1804
Place of Death:
Glasgow, Scotland
Date of Death:
November 13, 1871
Place of Burial:
Kilbarchan, Scotland

By Jack Nisbet

John Scouler was nineteen years old when he accepted the post of surgeon aboard the Hudson's Bay Company's annual supply ship bound for the Columbia River in July of 1824. Shipmate David Douglas, an acquaintance from Glasgow botanical circles, described Scouler as "a man skilled in several, and devotedly attached to all, branches of Natural History." During the nine-month voyage, in addition to treating injured sailors, Scouler enthusiastically examined insects, arthropods, mollusks, jellyfish, flying fish, marine mammals, rocks, and birds.

Upon disembarking at the mouth of the Columbia, Scouler explored the river mouth for several days, taking particular interest in the fossil shells along the beaches. Scouler joined Douglas at Fort Vancouver between May 2 and May 11, 1825, and the pair made excursions to Menzies Island, where they found a new forget-me-not. On the plain between the post and the river, they spotted coralroot and calypso orchids, and watched American Indian women harvest edible plants. "The margins of this prairie abounded in the beautiful Phalangium exulentum [camas]," Scouler wrote, "whose roots are so much used by the Indians as a substitute for bread, while the tubers of a species of Sagittaria [wapato], which grows on the marshy banks of the river, affords an agreeable substitute for potatoes. In the neighboring woods we found some of the choicest plants the N.W. [Northwest] coast can boast of."

After a fruitful summer coasting off British Columbia, cataloguing everything from intertidal seaweeds to local salmon varieties, Scouler returned to Fort Vancouver for a few days in early September and helped Douglas arrange plant specimens to send back to England. On his way downstream to board his ship home, Scouler stopped at Mount Coffin, a well-known tribal cemetery at the mouth of the Cowlitz River. There he stole bones and artifacts from burial canoes. Like many scientists of his time, Scouler viewed such remains as items of scientific interest, and later published a paper on two skulls he had collected.

Although Scouler's time in the Pacific Northwest was brief, British taxonomists attached his name to an impressive variety of species, including a moss, red algae, fern, willow, a Pacific salmon, and many flowering plants, including the beautiful campanula still known as Scouler's harebell.


Douglas, David. "Sketch of a Journey to the North-western Parts of the Continent of North America, During the Years 1824, 5, 6, and 7." Companion to the Botanical Magazine 2 (1836): 82-177.

Nelson, E. Charles. John Scouler, Scottish Naturalist: A life with two voyages. Glasgow: Glasgow Historical Society, 2014.

Nisbet, Jack. Visible Bones. Sasquatch Books 2003.

______. "Remarks on the Form of the Skull of the North American Indian." Zoological Journal 4 (1829): 304-309. 

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site

Last updated: March 1, 2019