Last updated: March 5, 2019
By Jack Nisbet
A young graduate of the University of Edinburgh medical school with an itch for travel - he had recently missed an opportunity to join an expedition to Africa - Meredith Gairdner signed on to serve as a surgeon at Fort Vancouver in fall 1832. He intended to devote his spare time to natural history, especially geology and general physics. His broad interests were shared by his fellow traveler William Tolmie, another young physician bound for the Columbia; before boarding their ship in London, the two made a visit to the Royal Horticultural Society Gardens to view plants sent from the Northwest by the collector David Douglas.
Upon their arrival at Fort Vancouver in May 1833, they took up lodging in the fort's Apothecary's Hall and toured fields of blooming lupines and camas. After a week, Tolmie departed for Fort Nisqually, leaving Gairdner with a dead skunk to dissect and a seasonal outbreak of intermittent fever (probably malaria) to treat. His patients included Chief Factor Dr. John McLoughlin and family, workers at the fort, and Indigenous people from the lower Columbia. When not treating the ill, Gairdner took a turn in the trading room, for his contract with the Hudson's Bay Company included part-time service as a clerk. These duties did not leave as much leisure time for exploration as he had hoped. “Opportunities of visiting even the environs of the Fort are few and far between,” he wrote a few months after his arrival. “My collections of plants in N.W. America are as yet but small having made but one small journey into the country of the Walamet river, ground already traversed by Douglas.”
That August, David Douglas himself arrived at Fort Vancouver, and for two months Gairdner had the pleasure of a fellow naturalist's company. Douglas shared his notes on some new species of pines he had collected, and they were planning an assault on Mount St. Helens when an eruption ensued. After listening to tales of the botanist's adventures, Gairdner concluded: “The true method of examining this country is to follow the plan of Douglas, whether with the view of investigating the geognostic, botanical or zoological riches of the country.”
Between 1833 and 1835, Gairdner spent his small amount of free time examining the country near Fort Vancouver. He studied the salmon species that frequented the Columbia. He sent a number of bird skins to the Edinburgh Museum, including “a little Columbian owl” and four different woodpeckers. He developed an interest in ethnography, compiling a “List of nations on the lower part of the Columbia” that grouped people by language families and dialects—a testimony to the diversity of local tribes.
In the fall of 1834, Gairdner mailed “a small case of novelties” to his mentor William Jackson Hooker in Scotland. In addition to plants from the environs of the fort, it contained cordage woven from the local iris, fishing nets, edible roots, and seeds of a sedge “used by the Chinooks for the manufacture of baskets.”
The following spring, Gairdner contracted tuberculosis, and that fall sailed for Hawai'i to recuperate. He passed away there before he could fulfill his ambition of returning to the Columbia to make scientific explorations in the spirit of Douglas.
Gairdner, Meredith. “Observations During a Voyage From England to Fort Vancouver, on the North-West coast of America.” Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal. 16 (1834): 290-302
_________. Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, 19, no. 37 (July 1835) p. 1
_________. “ Notes on the Geography of the Columbia River." Journal of the Royal Geographic Society 11 (1841): 250-257.
_________. Letter to William Jackson Hooker, November 7, 1843. William Jackson Hooker Papers. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, England.
Watson, Bruce. Lives Lived West of the Divide. Vol 1. Kelowna, B.C.: University of British Columbia Okanagan, 2010.