Humphrey Morrison Burkill

Singapore Infopedia


Humphrey Morrison Burkill (b. 8 December 1914, Singapore1–12 July 2006, Plymouth, United Kingdom2) was the director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens from 1957 to 1969. He was the son of former Gardens director Isaac Henry Burkill. In 1992, the Director’s House in the Gardens was renamed Burkill Hall in honour of the only father and son who were both directors of the Gardens.

Early life
Burkill’s mother was Ethel Maud Morrison.3 His father, Isaac Henry Burkill,4 was the director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens from 1912 to 1925.5 Burkill was born in 1914 in the Director’s House on the grounds of the Gardens and lived there until he was four.6 He received his Bachelor of Arts (Natural Sciences Tripos) from Cambridge University in 1936 and obtained his postgraduate degree in crop husbandry in 1939.7 He then left for Malaya as an understudy to a field research officer in 1938.8 In 1948, after the war,9 he transferred to the Botanical Division of the Rubber Research Institute of Malaya.10

From 1954 to 1957, Burkill was assistant director to J.W. Purseglove, who had been the Gardens director since 1954.11 After Burkill was appointed director in 1957, he stayed in the Director’s House for 12 years.12 

Burkill’s administration saw the Gardens overcome a crucial transition period – from British rule to being part of Malaya. At the time, the Gardens was seriously short-staffed, with only three officers to cover nine senior posts in 1957. With the help of the University of Malaya, the Gardens came up with a scheme that enabled them to attract more foreign botanists.13

Burkill oversaw the first serious investigation of Malayan seaweeds.14 At the 4th World Orchid Conference in 1963, the first time it was held in Singapore,15 Burkill delivered a paper on the role of Singapore Botanic Gardens in the development of orchid hybrids in Singapore.16 He also wrote for The Gardens’ Bulletin, a publication of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. In his article “The Botanic Gardens and Conservation in Malaya” published in the 1959 centenary issue, he wrote about his view on nature conservation: “a complementary anodyne for a modern society in the age of concrete”.17

On 1 January 1970, Burkill was awarded the O.B.E. by the U.K. government.18 By then he was working at the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, after his retirement from the Singapore Botanic Gardens in 1969. Burkill contributed to the influential six-volume publication Useful Plants of West Tropical Africa, which covers 5,300 species and was published by Royal Botanic Gardens between 1985 and 2004.19 For his work from 1969 to 1998, he was awarded the Kew Medal for Excellence in 1998.20

In recognition of Burkill’s and his father’s contributions to botany, the Singapore Botanic Gardens renamed the restored Director’s House (a bungalow built in 186621) as Burkill Hall. On 1 October 1992, Burkill and his wife returned to Singapore to attend the naming ceremony.22 To date, they are the only father and son duo to have both held the title of director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens.23

Burkill married Joan Bloomer on 28 June 1946.24 They had a son and a daughter.25

1. Humphrey Morrison Burkill, “The Burkills of Burkill Hall,” Gardenwise 23 (July 2004), 16. (From BookSG)
2. “Obituary: Humphrey Morrison Burkill,” Gardens’ Bulletin, Singapore 58, no. 1 (18 December 2006), 134,
3. “Obituary: Humphrey Morrison Burkill,” 134.
4. Obituary: Humphrey Morrison Burkill,” 133.
5. Bonnie Tinsley, Gardens of Perpetual Summer: The Singapore Botanic Gardens (Singapore: National Parks Board, Singapore Botanic Gardens, 2009), 176. (Call no. RSING 580.735957 TIN)
6. Humphrey Morrison Burkill, oral history interview by J Lim, 1 October 1999, transcript and MP3 audio, 19:48, National Archives of Singapore (accession no.  002152/9/1), 1.
7. Burkill, oral history interview, 2–3.
8. Burkill, oral history interview, 6.
9. “Obituary: Humphrey Morrison Burkill,” 134.
10. Burkill, oral history interview, 10.
11. Tinsley, Singapore Botanic Gardens, 60.  
12. Tinsley, Singapore Botanic Gardens, 176.
13. Tinsley, Singapore Botanic Gardens, 60.  
14. Tinsley, Singapore Botanic Gardens, 60.  
15. “3½ Years' Preparation for This Conference,” Straits Times, 2 October 1963, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Orchid World Comes to Spore,” Straits Times, 2 October 1963, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Humphrey Morrison Burkill, “The Botanic Gardens and Conservation in Malaya,” Gardens’ Bulletin, Singapore 17, no. 2 (5 December 1959), 204,  
18. Burkill, “The Burkills of Burkill Hall,” 19. 
19. “Obituary: Humphrey Morrison Burkill,” 135.  
20. Burkill, “The Burkills of Burkill Hall,” 19.
21. “Burkill Hall: An Environment-friendly Building That Is 128 Years Old,” Straits Times, 6 November 1994, 23. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “Director’s message,” Gardenwise 4 (December 1992), 2. (From National Library Online)
23. Tinsley, Singapore Botanic Gardens, 176.  
24. “Mr. R.E. Prentis And Mrs. B.E. Ablitt,” Straits Times, 13 July 1946, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “Obituary: Humphrey Morrison Burkill,” 136.  

The information in this article is valid as of June 2023 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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