Praeger, Robert Lloyd (1865–1953), naturalist, author, and librarian, was born 25 August 1865 at the Crescent, Holywood, Co. Down, second son among five sons and one daughter of Willem Emilius Praeger (1835–81), linen merchant, and Maria Praeger (d. 1930; née Patterson). His father, a Dutch presbyterian, and son of thriving linen exporter David Praeger and his wife Sophia, was born in The Hague, Holland, but moved (1860) to Belfast in his mid twenties, where he ran a linen export business in partnership with his brother in Holland. Two years later (1862) he married Maria Patterson, daughter of Belfast mill-furnisher and amateur naturalist Robert Patterson (qv) (1802–72) and his wife, the poet Mary Elizabeth Ferrar (c.1807–89), daughter of the Belfast magistrate William Hugh Ferrar, and granddaughter of printer and historian John Ferrar (qv) of Limerick. The Belfast element of the Patterson family had for a century produced successful businessmen, antiquarians, and naturalists, and were a major influence on the young Robert (‘Robin’) Praeger and his siblings. His elder brother, Willem Emilius Praeger (1863–1936), later emigrated to the US and became professor of biology at Kalamazoo College, Michigan, where he specialised in plant ecology and physiology.
Childhood influences After their marriage Praeger's parents lived in a terraced house at the Crescent, Holywood, where their first three children were born, before moving (1868) to Woodburn, Croft Road, a handsome semi-detached villa in the same neighbourhood, where the family remained for the next twenty-three years. Robert and his siblings spent their childhood exploring the glens, woods, and streams of the surrounding countryside. Holywood, only four miles from Belfast, was still rural in character at that time. An interest in natural phenomena was part of daily life and was encouraged by Praeger's mother and her extended family. She tolerated the experiments of her children, their country exploits, and their ensuing lateness for meals. On one occasion Praeger and a companion collected and kept the bodies of nine dead cats, to see if the rotting corpses would eventually explode through putrefaction. In such a close family, there was always someone with whom to discuss an interesting find. Though Praeger was only seven when Robert Patterson died, he remembered his grandfather on Saturday afternoon rambles, dressed in top hat and frock coat, and pointing out insects to the delighted children.
His uncle Robert Lloyd Patterson (qv) (1836–1906), (apprenticed (c.1852) to the linen firm of John Praeger & Co., Belfast, before commencing (1858) his own successful linen business) carried on the natural history interests of his father. Patterson was elected president (1881–3, 1894–6) of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society and published The birds, fishes and Cetacea of Belfast Lough (1880). After his retirement he moved (1888) with his wife, Frances Sarah Caughey, to the large residence of Croft House, adjacent to the Praegers, where he pursued his interests in sailing, hunting, natural history, and collecting art: his paintings were later bequeathed to the Ulster Museum, along with £6,000 to aid their exhibition. He was elected president of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce on three occasions and was knighted for civic services (1902). After the early death (1868) of Willem Praeger from diabetes, he acted as informal guardian to his nephews and niece and later helped the young Praeger through college.
But it was his older uncle William Hugh Patterson (1835–1918) whom Praeger credited as his ‘first tutor in natural science’ (Praeger (1941), 43). William, one of the founder members (1863) of the Belfast Naturalists Field Club (BNFC), secretary (1884–5) and president (1885–6) of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, and MRIA (1873), was also interested in literature, archaeology, and folklife. He wrote two books on local dialect, including A glossary of words in use in the counties of Antrim and Down (1880). Praeger summarised his own passion for nature, initiated as a child: ‘It was from the beginning a way of flowers and stones and beasts. When I was old enough to toddle, my father had to put a garden fence around a garden patch in front of the house, because I picked all the blossoms; and I knew harebells and belemnites and flint-flakes before I was five. That obsession remained with me throughout my life’ (Praeger (1937), 1).
Education At four years of age Praeger entered the primary school run by the unitarian minister Charles McAlester, situated almost opposite Woodburn. He proceeded to the local private Sullivan Upper School (January 1878–June 1881) and, in keeping with family tradition, attended RBAI, where his grandfather and uncles had also received their secondary schooling. Here the emphasis was on classical and modern languages, literature, and mathematics. For Praeger geography became the only subject bearing any relation to natural history, after he had fled in terror from the strictly theoretical botany class. Regarding himself as idle and inattentive at school, he made no secret that he hated the whole experience. He held a lifelong abhorrence of examinations and was happier learning by observation and deduction. A pacifist by nature, he disliked rows of any kind and described himself as a cowardly boy, ‘surviving the combative years of childhood without ever striking or receiving a blow’ (Praeger (1941), 37), though his large frame may have helped matters somewhat.
In 1877, at the age of 11, he was encouraged by his father and paternal grandfather to join the BNFC, and Praeger admitted that the prizes for collections of natural objects were an early attraction. Though his membership lapsed for a number of years, this connection with the club and its members (many of whom were remarkable amateur naturalists) remained a strong force in his life. In particular he was befriended by Samuel Alexander Stewart (qv) who, as guide and inspiration to the younger man, influenced his future greatly. Family holidays were spent on the wild Antrim coast exploring the cliffs, glens, and moors, whetting Praeger's appetite for landscape exploration. His interest in field botany was further stimulated by a visit to Cumbria at the age of 14, where he came across enthusiastic followers of the Victorian fern craze. Through the field club he built up contacts with some of the great horticulturists of the 1880s, and at the age of 17 was asked to judge ferns at the Royal Horticultural Society's spring show (forerunner of the Chelsea Flower Show) at the Temple Gardens, London.
University and engineering Steering clear of the natural science courses at university, where there was no fieldwork element, he proceeded (1882) to QCB to study arts and engineering. He received scholarships (1884, 1885) and was awarded BA (1885) and B.Eng. (1886). During his time at university he rejoined the BNFC and became a keen member, winning several prizes for his collections of ferns, flowering plants, fossils, and fungi. He regarded the club as a ‘second university’, where he acquired a sound knowledge of field botany, zoology, and geology, and formed many warm friendships. Though he felt the lack of scientific training, he said he ‘always preferred the field as a laboratory. I have continued to have a wonderfully good time without it’ (Praeger (1937), 7–9). He published his first article on observations at Lough Sheelin in the field club proceedings in 1885, the year in which he was elected to the committee of the club.
After graduating Praeger worked as a civil engineer with the Belfast city and district water commissioners on the construction of Alexander Dock during the enlargement of Belfast harbour. Taking advantage of sediments exposed during the excavation, he carried out his first major research study, which linked the occurrence of fossil shells in the clays to changes in sea level and climate during the postglacial period. This led to the first (1886) of many publications on quaternary geology, characterised by a thoroughness and attention to detail. His natural flair for organisation allowed him to take an increasingly active role in organising BNFC field trips and exhibitions, as well as producing his first substantial publication, ‘The ferns of Ulster’ (1887), with the botanist and businessman William Henry Phillips (1830–1923). His reputation grew and he was held in high regard by members of the Irish scientific community, demonstrated by the invitation from the RIA to take part in the deep water dredging expedition off the south-west of Ireland, organised by William Spotswood Green (qv) and Alfred Cort Haddon (1855–1940), in 1888, when he was 23.
Turning point As his involvement in natural science deepened, Praeger became disillusioned with the sporadic nature of his engineering work. Reaching a turning point in his career, he declined an engineering position (1888) that offered several years’ steady income but little free time, and unsuccessfully applied for a job in the natural history section of the Dublin Science and Arts Museum. For the next five years he survived on occasional engineering contracts, and his activities in natural history gathered momentum. He continued investigating the post-glacial raised beaches of north-east Ireland, and published The marine shells of the north of Ireland (1889). He later (1903) gave scientific evidence in the Broighter gold ornaments trial. His organisational abilities led to his election (1890) as secretary of the BNFC. On field outings he was remembered for keeping to a tight agenda and controlling the mixed crowd of wandering naturalists with the not infrequent use of a whistle. In 1891 he was invited to catalogue the vast natural history collection (60,000 specimens) of his friend Canon John Grainger (qv), of Broughshane, Co. Antrim, prior to its donation to the city of Belfast. His interests turned increasingly towards botany, and he carried out extensive fieldwork on the plants of the north of Ireland.
Praeger's contributions to natural history led to his election as MRIA (1891). With his good friend and collaborator George Carpenter (qv), who had been awarded (1888) a position in the Natural History Museum, Dublin, he founded and co-edited (1892) the Irish Naturalist. Providing an outlet for the observations and discoveries of the numerous amateur naturalists field clubs existing around the country, it also published the minutes of the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland and the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society. The journal was a great success and appeared nearly every month for the next thirty-three years until 1924. In later years it ran into financial difficulties, and was at one stage subsidised personally by Richard Manliffe Barrington (qv). In September 1925 it was replaced by the Irish Naturalists’ Journal, which continues to serve Irish naturalists.
Dublin and the National Library Concluding this busy but precarious period, Praeger spent time in London (1893) helping F. J. Hanbury complete his Monograph of the British Hieracia. His commitments with the Irish Naturalist meant that much of his time was spent in Dublin, though the work was of a voluntary nature. Encouraged by Robert Francis Scharff (qv), of the Natural History Museum, he applied (1893) for a vacancy as assistant librarian in the NLI. Having no library experience, he was surprised to be awarded the position. William Archer (qv), director of the library (1877–95), may have been sympathetic to his situation. As a fellow naturalist and botanist in his own right, Archer had procured his position with the NLI (previously the library of the RDS) with the help of friends, after he had turned down a professorship in botany at the Royal College of Science.
After some apprehension, Praeger soon became deeply committed to his new duties and brought his great organisational abilities to the job. The NLI, a popular institution central to Dublin literary and scientific life at the time, employed a diverse and interesting group of librarians, including William Kirkpatrick Magee (qv), and Richard Irvine Best (qv). Praeger worked conscientiously and rose through the ranks, reaching the position of chief librarian (1920) before retiring (1924) at the age of 59. His calm manner and matter-of-fact outlook complemented the more excitable nature of the new director, Thomas William Lyster (qv). Ahead of his time in many ways, Praeger improved the efficiency of the library and prepared informative guides to various collections. Among his most important contributions were the arrangement of the library's vast collection of maps, and his Index to scientific periodicals in Dublin libraries (1929). After his retirement he retained close links with the library and served as an adviser both to British and to Irish governments on library matters.
His move to Dublin provided ideal conditions for the pursuit of his many interests. Lyster allowed him flexibility to attend scientific meetings and go on extended weekend field trips, as long as he completed his library tasks. The RIA provided a supportive environment and Praeger became a founder member of the RIA fauna and flora committee (1893). He was made secretary of the Dublin Naturalists’ Field Club almost as soon as he joined (1893). The city was home to a vibrant scientific community, the members of which he met regularly. A favourite lunchtime meeting place was the bun-shop of the Misses Gardiner at Lincoln Place, frequented by scientists such as William Johnson Sollas (qv), Alfred Cort Haddon, Grenville Cole (qv), Thomas Preston (qv), Richard J. Moss (qv), George F. Fitzgerald (qv), John Joly (qv), Joseph Larmor (qv), and Henry Dixon (qv).
Field clubs and surveys It was the golden era of field clubs, and Praeger initiated and organised the Irish Field Club Union conference, first held in Galway (1895) and continued tri-annually in various locations until 1910. These events brought together large numbers of naturalists from all over Ireland and Britain. In 1896 he took part in the RIA expedition to Rockall. After publishing ‘The flora of the county of Armagh’ (1893), and ‘A major supplement to the flora of the north-east of Ireland’ (1895) with Stewart, he embarked (1886) on the remarkable task of surveying the distribution of vascular plants in Ireland, a subject that remained a passion for the rest of his life. Dividing the country into forty divisions, and with the aid of maps, and plant lists he proceeded meticulously to survey the mountains, rivers, bogs, and seashore of each region, looking at the range of every flowering plant. Although receiving help from other naturalists, during five years he personally surveyed thirty-three of the divisions in 200 days of fieldwork. A day's work consisted of twelve hours in the field, covering 30–40 km. The results were published in one of his most important works, Irish topographical botany (1901). Five thousand sheets of specimens from the survey are preserved in the herbarium of the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin.
In 1901, on a trip to Germany to visit his friends John and Emily Tatlow, with whom he had lodged (1895–1900) at Delbrook, Dundrum, Co. Dublin, Praeger met his future wife, Hedwig (‘Hedi’) Elena Ingeborg Meta Magnusson, daughter of the artist Christian Carl Magnusson of Schleswig-Holstein. At the end of the two-week holiday they became engaged, though he had no German and she had little English. They married in the spring of 1902 and moved to Lisnamae, Zion Road, Rathgar; they had no children. She became his ‘dear companion in many wanderings’ (Praeger (1937), dedication) and up to her death (1952) they were inseparable. An excellent organiser, she was a stalwart supporter of her husband's work and assisted in the smooth running of excursions and surveys.
Lambay and Clare Island surveys Praeger's experience and ability to organise large multi-disciplinary groups led to the successful Lambay Island survey (1905), where twenty naturalists studied the geology, botany, and zoology of the island, then owned by Cecil Baring. Praeger's more ambitious Clare Island survey (1909–11), on the nature and origin of the island's flora and fauna, involved 100 field workers during a three-year period, and surveyed not just the island, but an area of Co. Mayo from Achill Head to Killary Harbour and eastward to Castlebar. Volunteers from England, Scotland, Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark, as well as Ireland's leading naturalists, took part in what was the largest amateur natural history survey ever made in Ireland. The work was carried out with the support of the RIA and the results were published in its Proceedings in sixty-seven reports (1911–15), all edited by Praeger in his spare time. The advent of the first world war heralded the end of such large projects. The economic and political climate, as well as the increasing specialisation within natural history and the development of improved courses in universities, contributed to the decline of field clubs in Ireland. Praeger published little during this time, and his work became more solitary. Having a foreign-sounding name and a German wife brought some suspicion on him, and it is said that only representations to the government saved the Praegers from being interned for the duration of the war (Collins (1985), 66).
Horticultural interests An avid gardener with a keen interest in rock gardening (he had over 2,000 species in his back garden), Praeger turned his investigations to horticulture and taxonomic botany. Undertaking a revision of the genus Sedum (stonecrops), he began travelling widely in Europe, collecting plants and visiting herbaria and botanic gardens. His findings were published (1921) in a special volume of the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, for which he received the Veitch gold medal. Taking advantage of an offer of early retirement, he retired on full pension (1924). Moving to an apartment at 19 Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin, he pursued his research on the Sempervivums (house leeks), backed by the Linnean Society's Percy Sladen fund. In characteristic fashion, he took the boat from Ireland at 7 p.m. on the day of his retirement, having left his desk at the library at 5 p.m. on the same day.
Praeger spent a large part of the next three years on fieldwork, travelling to the Canary Islands, Madeira, and the mountainous regions of Europe in the company of his wife. She appears to have had few problems adjusting to the sometimes rudimentary arrangements of sleeping in the open fields and sandy beaches of the Canaries, having previously slept in sheds on offshore Irish islands. Her knowledge of languages aided Praeger greatly on his travels, as he was a poor linguist. His findings were published in the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society (1932), and he received a silver (Veitch) medal and £50. This was one of his last extensive projects. He returned to Ireland to resume study of his other passion, Irish plants and their distribution, and continued fieldwork into his eighties.
Writings A prolific writer, Praeger published over 800 papers and articles and twenty-four books during his lifetime. Though his major contribution to science was in botany, he made significant contributions to Irish archaeology, ecology, zoology, geology, and history. He had investigated the major cave systems in Ireland with Robert Francis Scharff (qv), and studied many archeological sites with R. A. S. MacAlister (qv). A strong believer in education and making new information accessible, he wrote a number of general botanical books illustrated by his sister, the artist and sculptor Sophia Rosamond Praeger (qv). Many articles and books included illustrations by his friend, the Belfast photographer Robert John Welch (qv), a keen member of the BNFC. In his later years Praeger began writing books of reminiscences, and it is for these that he is best remembered by the general reader. Encouraged by his neighbour and friend Æ (George Russell) (qv), he first contributed a series of essays to the Irish Statesman, later published as a collection, Beyond soundings (1930). A narrative of his travels both in Ireland and abroad, it highlighted his fascination with islands and travel, and was written in what became a characteristic popular style. The botanist in Ireland (1934), his last major scientific work, and a reference book for botanists, brought together fifty years of experience, observations, and records of field work in Ireland, and gave an account of each geomorphological region and its accompanying flora. However it is the partly autobiographical and highly successful The way that I went (1937) that captures the essential spirit of Praeger and his love of nature and the Irish countryside. Written in a lucid, evocative, and at times whimsical style, it records observations on natural history and topography as he traversed Ireland ‘to and fro from end to end and from sea to sea’ (p. 2). A populous solitude (1941), Some Irish naturalists (1949), and The natural history of Ireland (1950) followed.
Organisations and committees A robust and energetic man, Praeger was an excellent organiser, whose abilities came to the fore in whatever society or organisation he joined. He had a long association with the RIA, where he held various offices and played a major part in framing academy policy; being elected to the council (1903), and becoming a member of the publications committee and editor of the Proceedings (1903–45), librarian (1905–34), and president (1931–4), and initiating the committee for quaternary research (1934). A keen committee man and successful chairman, he was also an active member of several other societies: the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland (hon. sec. 1931, president 1941), the Geographical Society of Ireland (founder member and first president 1934), the Bibliographical Society of Ireland (president 1918), the Library Association of Ireland (founder member and first president 1928), the British Ecological Society (president 1923), the Royal Horticultural and Arboricultural Society of Ireland (editor 1934–48, president 1949–50). He received honorary doctorates from QUB (1922), Dublin (1938), and the NUI (1941), and was elected an associate of the Linnean Society, London (1947), first president of An Taisce (1948), vice-president of the RDS (1950), and honorary life member of the Botanical Society of the British Isles (1951). He received a gold medal from the BNFC (1927) in recognition of his services to Irish botany.
A tall, well built man, Praeger was remembered for his gruff, and somewhat abrupt manner. His habit of ‘blustering’, as he himself called it, caused many who did not know him well to regard him with awe and even to call him rude, and he could be short with those he thought insincere or inept (Irish Naturalists’ Journal (1954), 143). However, his reserve and brusqueness covered a friendly heart, and his behaviour may have developed to cover a romantic sentimentality he felt inclined to hide. He helped and encouraged younger scientists and was particularly fond of children.
Death and legacy Praeger's later years were plagued by arthritis and deafness, limiting his mobility and augmenting his gruffness. After the death of his wife in 1952, he donated his scientific papers to the RIA, and moved from Dublin to live with his sister at Rock Cottage, Craigavad, Co. Down. He died 5 May 1953 at a Belfast hospital, aged 87 years. He worked up until his death, and a last booklet, The Irish landscape (1953), was published a few months later. He was buried alongside his wife in Deansgrange cemetery.
In his will he bequeathed his estate to the RIA Robert Lloyd Praeger Fund for the study of field natural history, with a life interest in the income to his sister. The fund had previously been set up by his friends to honour his eightieth birthday (1945). The fund continues to support fieldwork in Irish natural science. In his honour Rowland Southern (qv) dedicated the name Praegeria to a polychaete worm discovered during the Clare Island survey, though the name has now been superseded by Pisione. The Bangor Heritage Centre has a small exhibition space entitled ‘Robert Lloyd Praeger's study’. A bronze bust, made by his sister Sophia, adorns the staircase of the RIA. The RIA initiated a new Clare Island survey (1991–8) to chart changes that may have taken place during the intervening eighty years.