William Darlington and the Pennsylvania Botanical Circle

1 Darlington Gravestone sm

Darlingtonia californica on William Darlington’s gravestone [photo by author]

At a Botanical Society of America meeting a few years ago, someone told me about an old herbarium collection at West Chester University (WCU) in Pennsylvania. It is named after William Darlington (1782-1863), a native of West Chester whose botanical work was significant enough for John Torrey to name a pitcher plant, Darlingtonia californica, after him (see earlier post). In examining Darlington’s herbarium, which I will briefly describe here, I discovered links between him and several other notables from Pennsylvania botanical history including John Bartram, Humphry Marshall, and William Baldwin. They will all be featured in this series of blog posts, but I want to begin with Darlington—even though he was born last—because it was in following his trail that I learned more about the others. All four were born Pennsylvania Quakers. I don’t think this is a coincidence in terms of their interest in the natural world. Quakers saw studying nature as a way to come closer to God, and Francis Pennell (1948) has written of the many Quaker botanists both in Britain and America.

William Darlington spent most of his life in West Chester after apprenticing to a physician in Delaware and then receiving a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. There his interest in botany was encouraged by Benjamin Barton, the author of the first American botany textbook. After a tour as a surgeon on a merchant vessel that sailed to India, Darlington settled down, practiced medicine, married, and raised a family in West Chester. He became a leading figure in the town, serving as president of the local bank and railway, canal commissioner, three-term Congressman, and one of the founders of the Chester County Cabinet of Natural Sciences. Founded in 1826, this institution soon had a building for its natural history collections, including the plant specimens of Darlington and several other members. This collection is now at the heart of the WCU herbarium which was named for Darlington in 1965 (Overlease, 1992).

As has happened to me with a few other people I’ve encountered over the years, the more I learned about Darlington, the more intrigued I became, especially after I began examining his collection and reading his letters. Here was a physician, businessman, and politician who still found time to diligently study the plants in his home area. In 1826, he published a flora of Chester County and about a decade later, an expanded version. He worked hard to enlarge his collection of local plants, as well as those from farther afield. His letter books reveal that he solicited specimens from the likes of William Hooker, Augustin de Candolle, and Carl Agardh, offering to send them American plant material if they would send specimens from their collections. In these three cases, though not in some others, the solicitations paid substantial dividends. All provided specimens, Hooker sent several illustrated publications, and de Candolle named a genus after Darlington though it was later synonymized.

Darlington used the same tack with American botanists like John Torrey and Asa Gray, with whom he had long-term correspondence. He also traded specimens with Charles Short, another physician/botanist living in Kentucky and with Harry Beeson Flanner of Ohio (Stuckey, 1983). Ron McColl*, who has examined the letter books in detail notes that there is more correspondence recorded with botanists than with any other group. The picture of Darlington that reveals itself in archives at both WCU and the Chester County Historical Society is that his passion for botany was closely tied to his other interests. He had a serious sense of civic responsibility, and this in part was signified by the energy with which he participated in the activities of the Chester County Cabinet of Natural Sciences. He wrote about agricultural practices in relation to botany because he was living in a farming area and came from a farm family. Also, Chester County is located in the Brandywine Valley, an area steeped in colonial and Revolutionary War history, a history that Darlington didn’t want forgotten. He was involved in the arrangements for Lafayette’s visit to the battlefields of Brandywine in 1825 and gave welcoming remarks at the ceremony.

More important to the development of American botany, Darlington’s plant collection contains specimens that tell a great deal about Pennsylvania plants and the people who nurtured them. There are a number of specimens from the Bartram nursery in the 1820s, when it was run by John Bartram’s granddaughter Ann and her husband Robert Carr. Two botanists have written a paper on these specimens and their significance in terms of the state of horticulture in Pennsylvania at that time (Schneider & Potvin, 2009). Also in the collection are specimens from trees at the Peirce Arboretum founded by the Peirce family who owned a farm and forest that was the basis of their lumber business. In the early 20th century, when the forest was up for sale, it was purchased by Pierre du Pont who turned it into the magnificent Longwood Gardens. There are also specimens from Humphry Marshall’s botanical garden, where Darlington collected on a number of occasions. While the garden is not longer extant, traveling through the area—where the roads are still narrow and many of the homes from that time, including Marshall’s, are still intact—gives a feeling for what it must have been like in Darlington’s day.

Besides his specimens, Darlington’s most lasting contribution to botany was in his writings. Along with his flora, he published in one volume memorials to John Bartram and Humphry Marshall along with their correspondence. He was prescient enough to realize that these documents would soon be lost to time and neglect, and carefully transcribed them from the originals which were still held by the respective families. This was after he had produced a memorial to his friend William Baldwin, a botanist who died young while on the Long Expedition in 1819. These three men will be the subjects of my next posts.

* I am grateful to Ron McCall of Alvernia University for sharing his research of William Darlington with me, especially the information about the letter books.


Overlease, W. R. (1992). A short history of the William Darlington Herbarium with an annotated list of plant collectors represented. Bartonia, 57, 82–94.

Pennell, F. W. (1948). Quaker Botanists. Bulletin of the Friends’ Historical Association, 37(2), 63–82.

Schneider, W. M., & Potvin, M. A. (2009). The historic Bartram’s (Carr’s) Garden Collection in West Chester University’s William Darlington Herbarium (DWC). Bartonia, 64, 45–54.

Stuckey, R. L. (1983). Dr. William Darlington’s botanical contacts on the Western American frontier. Transactions and Studies of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 5(3), 213–243.