Francis Masson lived from August 1741 to 23 December 1805. He was a gardener who became Kew Gardens' first plant hunter. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Francis Masson was born in Aberdeen. He started his working life as a junior gardener, but in 1760 at the age of 19 he travelled to London to become an under-gardener at Kew Gardens. In 1772 he wa seen as sufficiently knowledgable to stand in for the eminent plant collector and botanist Joseph Banks on Captain Cook's second great voyage of exploration, on board HMS Resolution. This set sail from Britain on 13 May 1772 and arrived in South Africa on 30 October 1772.
Masson immediately embarked on a two month expedition into the interior, taking in the Stellenbosch and the Hottentot Holland Mountains. Sometimes working with Swedish Botanist Carl Thunberg and sometimes alone, Masson spent amost three years searching out new species of plants in South Africa. By the time he returned to Kew in 1775 he had sent back over 500 previously unknown plant species.
He did not remain in London for long. Over the following three years, Masson mounted plant collecting expeditions to Madeira, the Canary Islands, the Azores and the Antilles and spent part of 1779 as a French prisoner on the island of Grenada. He returned to South Africa in the 1780s and 1790s and afterwards published his only book, Stapeliae Novae, about South African plants.
In 1797 Masson sailed for North America, arriving in New York in December. He spent the next seven years collecting plants in the Great Lakes area of Canada. He died in Montreal in December 1805, and he was buried at the Scotch Presbyterian Church, later called the St Gabriel Street Church. There is a commemorative plaque to Masson in Cruickshank Botanical Gardens, part of the University of Aberdeen. During his life, Francis Masson had discovered over 1700 new species of plants, and the genus Massonia is named after Masson.