William Baldwin and His Herbarium

4 Last Baldwin Specimen

Fig. 1 Last specimen collected by William Baldwin, Aug. 8, 1819; Darlington Herbarium at WCU

This is my last post on Pennsylvania botanists, all of them related in one way or another to specimens in William Darlington’s (1782-1863) herbarium at West Chester University (WCU) (see earlier posts: 1, 2, 3). Now I want to introduce William Baldwin (1779-1819), a physician and botanist who was Darlington’s good friend. They had attended the University of Pennsylvania medical school at the same time, during which Baldwin nursed Darlington through a serious illness. Baldwin was from the same area as Darlington and was also friendly with Moses Marshall (see last post), so there were many threads, all involving plants, that wove their lives together. After a stint as a surgeon on a merchant ship, Baldwin settled in Wilmington, Delaware where he practiced medicine and pursued his interest in plants, developing a substantial herbarium (Harshberger, 1899). He also made contact with yet another Pennsylvania botanist, Henry Ernst Muhlenberg, and they continued to correspond until the latter’s death.

4b Last Baldwin label 2

Fig. 2 Label on the last specimen Baldwin collected; Darlington Herbarium at WCU

In 1811, Baldwin and his family moved to Savannah because they hoped the climate would improve his weak respiratory system. There he continued to work as a physician through the War of 1812 while at the same time exploring the excitingly different plant world he found there. In 1817, because of his botanical expertise, he was selected to serve on a US frigate bound for South American ports. He went hoping the warmer climate would be healthier for him. He sent back letters to Darlington describing his botanical finds and when he returned, Darlington helped him get an appointment as a naturalist on the Long Expedition which left to explore the Upper Missouri in the summer of 1819. Baldwin’s health, however, continued to decline, and he died in Franklin, MO on September 1. In the Darlington Herbarium at WCU, there’s a specimen [Fig. 1 at top] with a Baldwin’s label [Fig. 2 above] as well as one on which Darlington wrote “Rudbeckia triloba ? This appears to be the last plant poor Baldwin collected.  The latest date in his journal is Aug. 8, 1819.” This is the same date this specimen was collected [Fig. 3 below]. *

4a Last Baldwin label

Fig. 3 Darlington’s note on Baldwin’s specimen of Rudbeckia triloba; Darlington Herbarium WCU

Despite his long struggle with ill health, Baldwin managed to make a number of contributions to botany. As has already been noted, being from Pennsylvania meant it was relatively easy for him to connect with a number of important botanists and his travels gave him exposure to many different habitats. He took full advantage of this by doggedly collecting up to the last weeks of his life, as the specimen in the Darlington Herbarium indicates. He only managed to publish two brief papers, but his notes on the Cyperaceae were essential to the monograph John Torrey published on the family. Asa Gray used Baldwin specimens and notes for his publication on Rhynchospora. However, William Baldwin’s greatest botanical legacy was probably his herbarium, and that itself has an interesting history. Because his health was never good, he had written to Darlington asking him to see to his specimens and notes. After Baldwin died, his widow offered to sell the collection to Darlington, but he declined, arguing that he couldn’t give it the attention it deserved because he was serving in Congress at that time. Instead, she sold it to another Quaker botanist, Zaccheus Collins, also a friend of Baldwin’s. Torrey wasn’t happy with this turn of events because Collins wasn’t known for publishing about his specimens, so Torrey could imagine interesting Cyperaceae species, one of his specialties, languishing in Pennsylvania while he could make good use of them in New York. There is evidence that Collins intended to give his collection to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia (ANS). However, he died without a will and his family decided to sell his collection at auction. It was held on June 3, 1833 and was the first public auction of an American herbarium. The herbarium was divided into three lots: Collins’s own specimens, exotic species, and finally, those of Baldwin described as “neatly packed in between forty and fifty portable boxes” (Stuckey, 1971, p. 448).

From accounts written by participants, the auction was a lively affair. The Baldwin portion was considered the most valuable of the three auction lots because of the rich holdings from Georgia and South Carolina. Lewis Schweinitz, who had corresponded with Baldwin, acquired the latter’s collection. Of course, Schweinitz also knew John Torrey and promised that after he sorted through the collection, he would send Torrey duplicates, particularly of Cyperaceae. Unfortunately, Schweinitz died in 1834 and his collection went to the ANS. However, several American botanists including Thomas Nuttall and Stephen Elliott learned much from it. Torrey was able to obtain a portion of the Baldwin herbarium from Schweinitz’s widow; the specimens included Cyperaceae from southern states.

This is an interesting story of the twisting paths specimens take to their final resting places in institutional herbaria. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to trace the steps. As Ronald Stuckey (1971) chronicles in his article on the 1833 auction, most of Baldwin’s specimens were poorly labeled to begin with, and when Schweinitz mounted the specimens he removed the original labels. In many cases the only indication that they were from Baldwin is the notation “Bald” that Schweinitz made on some of them. Stuckey characterizes this as a “catastrophe” for botanists. Still, thanks to Baldwin’s letters to William Darlington and other materials that Darlington published in his memorial to Baldwin, we have some sense of Baldwin’s achievements in botany and of his passion for plants. Darlington, through his own collection, and through his writings on Baldwin as well as on Humphry Marshall and John Bartram, did a great deal to preserve the work of these Pennsylvania botanists who made important contributions to our understanding of American plants.

* I am grateful to Sharon Began at West Chester University for allowing me access to the Darlington Herbarium on several occasions.


Harshberger, J. W. (1899). The Botanists of Philadelphia and Their Work. Philadelphia, PA: Davis and Sons.

Stuckey, R. (1971). The first public auction of an American herbarium including an account of the fate of the Baldwin, Collins, and Rafinesque herbaria. Taxon, 20(4), 443–459.


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