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.


John Torrey: The Daily Life of a Botanist

Darlingtonia californica, type specimen from NYBG

The bulk of John Torrey’s papers are at the New York Botanical Garden. He had donated them to Columbia University, along with his herbarium, and both collections eventually made their way to NYBG. I consulted these archives when I was investigating the relationship between Torrey and the Pennsylvania botanist William Darlington (1792-1863). Darlington was a physician and also a leading citizen of West Chester in the Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania. He was an avid botanist, and in 1826 became one of the founding members of the West Chester Cabinet of Natural Sciences, which housed natural history collections including his herbarium. Darlington wrote a flora of Chester County (1837) that was considered a model for such publications, and he corresponded with botanists in the US and in Europe. His letter books reveal how he cultivated correspondents. He would write to an illustrious botanist such as Augustin Pyramus de Candolle of Geneva and offer to send North American plants in exchange for European ones. Some of these requests were ignored or simply answered with polite but noncommittal replies. Others, as with de Candolle, were fruitful, in this case bearing not only 77 specimens but also the honor of having a genus of mimosa named after Darlington (Overlease, 1992). In addition, Darlington received specimens and books from William Jackson Hooker, and they continued to correspond.

Needless to say, I found letters from Darlington in the NYBG Torrey archive, but for Torrey’s end of the communications, I had to turn to the Darlington archives at the New York Historical Society. Not surprisingly, Gray also traded letters with Darlington, and also wrote to Torrey about him. Here a combination of the Torrey archives and those of Gray at Harvard, which are all online, yielded interesting material. And the Smithsonian provided letters from Torrey to Brackenridge. I cannot claim to have investigated these sources extensively. I was interested in a span of a few years in the early 1850s, but in looking for information on how Torrey came to name a California pitcher plant after Darlington: Darlingtonia californica, I also got a sense of Torrey’s passion for botany. Sometimes the letters between Torrey and Gray were very frequent as if they were frustrated at not being able to work at adjacent desks as they had years before.

Often it was Torrey who received the specimens and then sent them on to Gray. On October 24, 1851 Torrey wrote of an “agreeable surprise” he had the night before: a visit at his laboratory from his “old friend” Dr. Gilbert Hulse. This suggests that Torrey used his evening hours to catch up on botany and was pleased when Hulse “on the table laid a little chubby parcel of plants” he had collected in California. Among them were two surprises, one was a good specimen of a plant he had just named after Darlington to replace the early one named by de Candolle which had been synonymized by George Bentham. Unfortunately, Torrey had used a rather meager and damaged specimen for his descriptions, and this better example indicated that the plant was not a new genera, but a styrax. Torrey’s hasty work on this plant, using inferior material, suggests how frantic the “race” was to name American species. The competition was not so much from compatriots but from what Darlington termed the “invidious” Europeans, using the adjective specifically to describe George Bentham, who had renamed the first Darlingtonia.

Offsetting this disappointment were flowering specimens of the California pitcher plant Brackenridge had collected in 1841, but without a flower. Torrey had been anxious to describe the plant because the pitcher has a unique form: hooded, with two leaf-like appendages hanging from the hood’s edge. However, without a flower, publication wasn’t possible; the only thing close to flower material was the flower stalk. Torrey had complained to Brackenridge about the overall quality of the material collected in California. The latter resented this, writing that Torrey had no idea how difficult it was to find, collect, and press plants while dealing with poor supplies, rough terrain, and bad weather. Torrey, a perfect example of what was termed a “closet botanist” who avoided the field, wrote Gray that he didn’t think much of Brackenridge’s excuses since Frémont had brought back much better plants and “far more numerous specimens.” Charles Pickering, also on the Wilkes Expedition, came in for even greater scorn: he “seemed to look for the most starved and ill-looking specimens and then took merely one of each kind.” Not collecting multiples left Torrey without specimens to distribute to other botanists, a particular problem in cases where he needed help in identifying the plant.

Now, ten years after the original collection, there were, thanks to Hulse’s pitcher plant flowers to be examined, and Torrey set about the task immediately. He also sent a specimen to Gray asking him to pass it on to the artist Isaac Sprague to prepare an illustration. By October 30 he had already had a letter from Gray complaining that the specimen was damaged in transit. Torrey wrote: “I regretted not having defended the specimen better—but I was in haste, and knew how pleased you would be to see it.” There was only one flower left, and he would send it on to Gray once he had finished studying it. He was already working to obtain more specimens. Hulse had stopped by and Torrey had drawn a rough sketch of the flower. Hulse was going to send it “at once to an intelligent friend of his (Mr. Reading—now a candidate for the office of Governor of California) who has long resided within 15 miles of the locality of the plant and who has many Indian servants.”

This telling passage says a great deal about plant collecting at the time. It was the pastime of many men in all walks of life, including politics. Often these men were wealthy, as the number of Mr. Reading’s servants suggests. That servants would be the ones doing the collecting is not surprising. Indigenous peoples were often involved in plant collecting, though this was not always mentioned by those who took credit for the collections. Torrey’s words also indicate how anxious he was to get more specimens quickly. As it turned out, additional examples of this species weren’t discovered for another ten years. In the next post there will be more on Torrey’s work with this plant and his other botanical endeavors.


Darlington, W. (1837). Flora Cestrica. West Chester, PA: Siegfried.

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