Richard Spruce was born on 10 September 1817 in the village of Ganthorpe, Yorkshire.
At the age of sixteen, Spruce had drawn up an alphabetical list of all the plants (403 species) that he had found around Ganthorpe. Three years later he had drawn up a 'List of the Flora of the Malton District', containing 485 species of flowering plants. Several of Spruce's localities for the rarer plants are given in Baines's 'Flora of Yorkshire' (1840). It is clear that he also studied plants carefully, as illustrated by the fact that in 1841 he discovered, and identified as a new British plant, the very rare sedge Carex paradoxa. He had also now begun the study of mosses, and also in 1841 he found a moss new to Britain, Leskea fulvinata, previously known only from Lapland.
Spruce was educated by his schoolmaster father. He learnt Latin and Greek and appears to have had a natural aptitude for languages, since he not only taught himself to read and write French fairly well, but later learnt Portuguese and Spanish as well as gaining some knowledge of three different Indian languages - the Lingoa Geral, Barré, and Quichua. At 20, he left home to become tutor in a school at Haxby and, at the end of 1839, he obtained the post of mathematical master at the Collegiate School at York, which he stayed until the school closed in 1844. During this time he suffered frequent bouts of the ill health from which he was to suffer for the rest of his life.
In 1841, a monthly magazine, 'The Phytologist', was started for British Botany, and Spruce contributed to it numerous accounts of his botanical excursions and notes on rare plants. His paper on the Musci and Hepaticae of Teesdale showed him to be one of the most observant discoverers of rare species. In Baines's 'Flora of Yorkshire' (1840) only four mosses were recorded from Teesdale, though no doubt many more had been collected. Spruce at once raised the number to 167 mosses and 41 hepaticae, of which six mosses and one Jungermannia were new to Britain. In April 1845 he published in the London 'Journal of Botany' descriptions of 23 new British mosses, of which about half were discovered by himself. In the same year he published, in 'The Phytologist', his 'List of the Musci and Hepaticae of Yorkshire', in which he recorded no less than 48 mosses new to the English Flora and 33 others new to that of Yorkshire.
In the latter part of 1844, with the loss of his teaching post, Spruce's future was very unsettled. Eventually, in December 1844, an expedition to the Pyrenees was agreed and he set out in April 1845. He reached Pau early in May, and stayed there until the following March, collecting and studying the flowers and mosses of the region. He returned to England in April 1846, and spent the remainder of the year naming, arranging and distributing his Pyrenean collections.
Over the next two years, he worked on 'The Musci and Hepaticae of the Pyrenees', which was published in the 'Transactions' of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh after his departure for South America. A general account of his whole excursion was published in the London 'Journal of Botany' for 1846, under the title 'Notes on the Botany of the Pyrenees'.
When in London in September 1848, Spruce decided to undertake the botanical exploration of the Amazon valley and he sailed on 7 June 1849. George Bentham agreed to receive all his botanical collections, name and sort them, send them to the various subscribers in Great Britain as well as in different parts of Europe, to collect the subscriptions and keep all accounts, in return for which invaluable services he was to receive the first (complete) set of the plants collected.
On 12 July 1849, Spruce's ship, The Britannia, docked at Para and he began his South American exploration which would last for 15 years. From Para, he sailed on 10 October up the Amazon to Santarem, a journey of 17 days. He remained here for almost a year, exploring and collecting in extremely adverse conditions. His journeys continued - in October 1850 he travelled to Manaos, then up the Rio Negro to Sao Gabriel on the Orinoco between November 1851 and March 1852 followed by a collecting expedition in the forest around the River Vaupes. In March 1853, he left for San Carlos in Venezuela where he remained for 5 months. In the small settlement of San Fernando, he suffered from a long and serious bout of fever which left him exhausted and, on the way back to Manaos, he successfully foiled an attempt by his boatmen to murder him and steal his possessions. Once back in Manaos, he planned a trip to Peru, travelling up the Amazon and Huallaga rivers to Tarapoto in the Andes of Maynas where he remained from June 1855 to March 1857. During his time at Tarapoto, he collected over 1000 specimens of flowering plants in addition to hundreds of specimens of mosses and hepaticae.
His next journey was to Banos in Ecuador, a journey of 100 days by river and on foot. He explored this volcanic area for 6 months and then moved on to make his base at Ambato for 2½ years. It was here, in April 1860, that he suffered a physical breakdown, suffering paralysis and pain in his back and legs. Nevertheless, he set out 6 weeks later to collect seed from Cinchona trees which became the foundation of the plantations in India and Ceylon which produced quinine, bringing relief to thousands of malaria sufferers. His last expedition in South America was to Payta in northern Peru. From here he was carried by litter to Piura where he remained from January 1863 to May 1864 when he embarked for Europe.
After his return from South America in June 1864, he continued to be plagued by ill health which affected his ability to work. Despite this, he succeeded in producing a great deal of botanical work, including the study of the Palms of the Amazon valley and of equatorial South America, which resulted in a paper in the 'Journal of the Linnean Society'.
His greatest work is his massive volume on the 'Hepaticae of the Amazon and the Andes of Peru and Ecuador'. This appeared in 1885, as a volume of the 'Transactions' of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh. It contains very full descriptions of more than 700 species and varieties distributed in 43 genera and a large number of new sub-genera, all precisely characterised and defined. Of these 700 species nearly 500 were collected by himself and of these more than 400 were quite new to the science of botany.
The whole of Spruce's Mosses were placed in the hands of William Mitten and were all included in this botanist's great work on South American Mosses, published by the Linnean Society in 1867. Spruce's work on the Hepaticae brought him a large correspondence from every part of the world, and for the remainder of his life he was sufficiently occupied with this, with the determination of specimens sent him, and with a few special papers, among which were the description of a new hepatic from Killarney in the 'Journal of Botany' in 1887 and a paper in the 'Memoirs' of the Torrey Botanical Club on a collection made in the Andes of Bolivia. After Spruce's work on the Hepaticae was published, he was occupied in the task of sorting out and preparing his immense collection of South American Hepaticae into sets of species for distribution which was completed and 25 sets sent off before the end of 1892.
Spruce died on 28 December 1893 after an attack of influenza and was buried at Terrington beside his parents.