The Algal World


Anna Atkins, Confervae, Cyanotype. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

A recent Twitter post from the Manchester Museum Herbarium said that they were getting ready for a tour; attached was a photo of a seaweed album and specimen. This reminded me that I was lured into the herbarium world by just such material. I was on a tour given by the curator of collections, Marilyn Massaro, at the Roger William Natural History Museum in Providence, Rhode Island. The museum has a 6,000-specimen herbarium, most dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries; it is like a botanical time capsule of the period. Rhode Island has so much coastline, it’s not surprising the collection includes seaweed albums, since creating them was a popular pastime in the 19th century, especially among women. It was considered ladylike to collect plants, and many macroalgae are so aesthetically pleasing that they were particularly attractive specimens. Blank albums were even sold for collections created on vacation. When Dr. Massaro showed us several of these books, I was fascinated by them. When I returned home, I tried to learn more about herbaria, and this became a long-term obsession with them, which, in turn, led to this blog.

I returned to Providence several months later for a better look at the collection, and Dr. Massaro showed me related archival material. This included a 1926 letter from William L. Bryant, the museum director at the time, to Mrs. George P. Wetmore of Newport thanking her for the collection of sea mosses she had donated. This is one in a series of letters among Bryant, Mrs. Wetmore, and her daughter, Edith Wetmore. When Edith sent the album, she asked Bryant to thank her mother. He wrote back asking for her mother’s name so he could thank her properly. Edith responded in another handwritten note saying: “It did not dawn on me that you would not know that, coming as the album did from Newport, you could only have received it from Mrs. George Peabody Wetmore.” George Peabody Wetmore was governor of Rhode Island from 1885-1887, and Edith obviously assumed that his name would still be familiar to all 40 years later. As a final point, Edith mentioned that this collection was originally offered to the Children’s Museum in Newport, but they already had such an album and thought it should go to a “bigger institution.” This suggests two things: that they knew the Wetmore name, and that such albums were common at the time. I now appreciate the latter fact because most herbaria in coastal areas in the US and Britain boast these collections. They are hardly a rarity, even though preparing specimens required a certain skill. Some are now considered more as works of art.

Unlike terrestrial plants, seaweeds don’t have much rigid structural material, so they are limp once removed from water. The trick to mounting them is to slip a sheet of stiff paper under a specimen floating in water and then raise the sheet with the plant spread upon it. There is enough sticky material on the plant’s surface that it doesn’t have to be pasted down. It will adhere to the paper, and voila, there is a herbarium specimen—or an album page. With a little practice, this technique works remarkably well and results in beautiful specimens, with all the delicate filigree of the algae artistically arranged. It is no wonder that seaweed albums became such a fad.

But interest in macroalgae was really more than a fad, it was a serious area of study for many professional and amateur botanists. The leader of the pack was probably William Henry Harvey (1811-1866), an Irish botanist who wrote extensively on algae, producing definitive works on British, North American, and Australian species. While in Australia he collected numerous specimens of each species in order to finance his trip, writing that he intended to create 50 collections, with 200 to 600 specimens in each. From the number of Harvey specimens in the US, Britain, and Australia, he must have come close to reaching his goal. Even the small William Darlington Herbarium at West Chester College in Pennsylvania has 272 sheets, and Darlington wrote to John Torrey that he had heard about Harvey’s lectures in Boston, so the Irishman’s trip to the United States was a noteworthy botanical event.

Like all industrious botanists of the time, Harvey maintained a large network of correspondents who could provide him with information and with specimens. It would be difficult to find an algologist of that period who did not have contact with him. Since he was working at the same time that seaweed collecting was popular, many of these individuals were women, some of whom were as passionate and hardworking as himself. Amelia Griffiths (1768-1858) collected along Britain’s western coast and sent materials to Harvey. She was assisted by her maid Mary Wyatt, who under Griffiths’s guidance produced bound volumes of mounted of Devon algae (1834-1840) to which Harvey referred his readers when he published his unillustrated Manual of British Flora (1841). Margaret Gatty (1809-1873), who wrote nature books for children particularly about the seaside, was serious about algae and her herbarium of 8000 specimens, which includes specimens sent by Harvey, is preserved at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland. Among the most impressive presentations of seaweed was that of Anna Atkins who created Photographs of British Algae (1843-1853), a collection of blue cyanotypes, one of the earliest versions of photographs [see Figure].

At Cambridge University Herbarium, there is a collection of hundreds of watercolors of macroalgae, amazingly beautiful and accurate. They were done by Mary Philadelphia Merrifield (1804-1889), an artist who was originally attracted to seaweed for their beauty, but then went on to study them seriously, publishing several scientific articles. When I visited Cambridge, Christine Bartram, the chief herbarium technician, showed me the paintings and told me about discovering them. Shortly after the collection was moved into a new building, Bartram had an inquiry about Merrifield from someone who had bought a house, found Merrifield letters there, and was curious about her. Bartram recalled that during the move she had seen a shoebox marked “Merrifield,” was able to hunt it down, and found the watercolors. Now they are being preserved more fittingly and being studied.

Before I leave the 19th century, I must mention Ellen Hutchins (1785-1815), who has been called Ireland’s first female botanist. She is at the early end of the seaweed craze and lived near the coast in Cork. Like many at the time, she was encouraged to take up nature study as a healthy hobby by a physician in Dublin where she had been sent to convalesce. Though she was never robust and died young, she wholeheartedly devoted herself to botany under the tutelage of James Mackay, curator at the Botanic Garden of Trinity College, Dublin. He suggested that she study seaweeds when she returned home to Cork, and most of her collections are from the Bantry Bay area. He also put her in touch with the algologist Dawson Turner, with whom she exchanged information and specimens, some of new species. As well as preparing specimens, she produced accurate drawings and watercolors. Hutchinson was known for being able to find and correctly identify rare species. Her specimens are now primarily in the Natural History Museum, London, and most of her drawings are at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Though it pains me leave seaweed hunters and the 19th century here, I must in order to move on to other wonders of the algal world, including diatoms, the subject of the next post.

Atkins, A. (1843-1853). Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (Vol. 5 volumes).

Harvey, W. H. (1849). A Manual of British Algae. London: van Voorst.

Wyatt, M. (1834-1840). Algae Danmonienses. Torquay: Cockrem.

One thought on “The Algal World

  1. Great blog post! I always wondered how they arranged their little algal landscapes in such an artistic way. It seems like the artsy side of plant specimens is engaging to people from many backgrounds, and it’s great to hear stories about the collectors themselves. For me, seeing a beautifully pressed Nuphar variegata from the late 1800’s during my undergrad is still a clear memory, even though I hadn’t yet considered botany as a career choice. Thanks again for the blog; I very much enjoy reading it!

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