David Prain was born to a saddler in Fettercairn, Scotland, on 11 July 1857. He attended the Fettercairn Parish School and the University of Aberdeen, from which he earned his M.A. in 1878. After teaching two years at the Ramsgate College, he returned to Aberdeen and moved to the University of Edinburgh, earning his M.D. in 1883 with highest honors. Prain was demonstrator of anatomy at the College of Surgeons in Edinburgh in 1882 and 1883 and at the University of Aberdeen in 1883 and 1884.
Meanwhile, Sir George King (18401909) was home on leave from his position as director of the Royal Botanic Garden at Calcutta and looking for a medical student with botanical interests to enter the Indian Medical Service. Prain was recommended and went to India, where he was first attached to various native regiments and then was appointed curator of the Herbarium and librarian in 1887. The same year, Prain wed Margaret Caird Thomson, daughter of Reverend William Thomson of Belhevie, south of Aberdeen. The Prains had one son, Theodore, who was killed in World War I. When William Thiselton-Dyer (18481928) retired in 1898, Prain took his job as director of the Royal Botanic Garden at Calcutta as well as the Botanical Survey of India and superintendent of Cinchona Cultivation in Bengal, remaining there until 1905. From 1898 to 1905 he also served as professor of botany at the Medical College of Calcutta. In 1905 he was appointed director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where he remained until 1922. He served as director of Forest Products Research from 1922 to 1925.
Sir David Prain worked on the tropical flora of Africa, on the genus Dioscorea with Isaac Henry Burkill (18701965), and on Argemone, Cannabis, quinine and others. Prain served as vice-chair and chair of the Council of the School of Tropical Agriculture, chair of the John Innes Horticultural Institution, and treasurer of the Royal Society for ten years, was knighted in 1912, and was elected president of the Linnaean Society from 1916 to 1919 (and a Fellow from 1888 on). He died at Whyteleaf, Kent, England, on 16 March 1944.
Anonymous. 1912. Lieutenant-Colonel Sir David Prain. Garden (London, 18711927) 76: 313314.
Burkill, I. H. 1944. David Prain (18571944). Obit. Not. of the Fellows Roy. Soc. 4(13): 746770.
Merrill, E. D. 1944. Sir David Prain (18571944). Year Book Amer. Philos. Soc. 1944: 379383.
Nelmes, E. and W. Cuthbertson, comp. [1931.] Major David Prain (1857). Curtis’s Botanical Magazine Dedications, 18271927: Portraits and Bibliographical Notes. London: Published for the Royal Horticultural Society by B. Quaritch, Ltd. Pp. 290292.
For a detailed list of Prain’s publications, see Burkill; for more biographical citations or to see thumbnails of our portrait holdings for Prain, contact the Archivist.