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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/March 1895/Sketch of Thomas Nuttall

PSM V46 D594 Thomas Nuttall.jpg


IT has often happened that a young man who has begun life as a printer has afterward attained to distinction in some more intellectual pursuit. So it was with Benjamin Franklin and so with him whose story is to be told here. Whether this is due to the information which the young printer obtains from the matter constantly passing through his hands, or whether it is because the most intellectual of the young men who learn a mechanical trade take to printing, it would be difficult to say. The fact only need be noted here.

Thomas Nuttall was born in 1786, in the market town of Settle, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England. His parents were probably in humble circumstances, for at an early age he was apprenticed to the printer's trade, either in his native town or in Liverpool, where he had an uncle engaged in this business. He worked as a journeyman for this uncle several years; then, having had a disagreement with him, young Nuttall went to seek employment in London. He was not fortunate in the metropolis, and sometimes went to bed without knowing where he would get his breakfast the next morning.

When twenty-two years of age he came to America, landing in Philadelphia. He must have devoted a large part of his spare moments to study during his early life, for he has been described on his arrival in this country as a well-informed young man, knowing the history of his country and somewhat familiar with some branches of natural history and even with Latin and Greek. A testimony to his early studious habits came to notice sixteen years later. It is thus recorded in the biographical notice of Nuttall, read by Elias Durand before the American Philosophical Society, which has been taken as the basis of this article:

"When, in 1824, Prof. Torrey was preparing for publication his Flora of the Northern and Middle States, which he dedicated to his friend Thomas Nuttall, with high compliments, the printer who was engaged upon it asked the professor who was that Nuttall so frequently referred to in his work, adding that he had once worked with a printer of that name, who spent the greatest part of his time in reading books, and he would not be surprised if he were the same man. Prof. Torrey rejoined that 'his surmise was correct; the printer of former times had proved a most arduous laborer in the field of science, and was now a distinguished botanist and an officer of one of the first scientific institutions of the country.'"

That Nuttall knew nothing of botany when he landed in the United States is shown by an anecdote that he used to tell of self. Taking a walk in the outskirts of Philadelphia the morning after his arrival, he noticed a common greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia). "Egad!" said he to himself, "there is a passion-flower"; and he plucked some branches of it, which he brought home for inquiry. His fellow-boarders could not satisfy him, but referred him to a certain Prof. Barton, a great botanist, whose residence was near. With his treasured branch in his hand, Nuttall called at once upon Prof. Benjamin S. Barton, who received him courteously and pointed out the difference between the genera Smilax and Passiflora. Then, perceiving the intelligence of the young man. Prof. Barton went on to tell him some of the general principles of botany and how much pleasure could be derived from its pursuit. This conversation made Nuttall a botanist, and Barton became his friend and patron. It was then early spring, and throughout the season of flowers he took frequent rambles over the neighboring fields, eagerly gathering specimens, which he brought to Barton, studying them with him and preparing them for the herbarium. Soon he began to extend his excursions, going first down into the lower part of the peninsula between the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays, and later to the coasts of Virginia and North Carolina. When occupied with his favorite pursuit, serious discomfort could not distract him. At one time, while collecting in the southern swamps, his face and hands became covered with mosquito bites, so that when he approached a human habitation the people of the house would not at first admit him, believing that he had the smallpox, and it was with great difficulty that he convinced them of the contrary.

Returning from this trip, he made the acquaintance of Mr. John Bradbury, a Scotch naturalist, who had come to America to collect objects of natural history in the interior. Nuttall eagerly offered to accompany Bradbury, and his proposition was accepted. Proceeding to St. Louis, they set out from that city on the last day of December, 1809, crossed the Kansas and Platte Rivers, passed through the Mandan villages, where Lewis and Clarke had spent the winter of 1804-'05, and ascended the Missouri River still higher, returning after an experience full of the greatest fatigues and dangers. They were pursued and robbed by the Indians, and Bradbury, who was captured by them, only saved himself from being killed by taking his watch to pieces and distributing the works among them. Nuttall, overcome by fatigue and hunger in the wilderness, laid himself down to die, but was found by a friendly Indian, who took him in his canoe down the Missouri to the first settlement of white men. In spite of these misadventures, he was able to bring with him on his return, in the beginning of 1811, ample treasures of seeds, plants, minerals, and other natural objects.

For the next eight years he remained in Philadelphia, during the winter months studying the collections made by him in summer excursions to various parts of the country east of the Mississippi, from the Great Lakes to Florida. Being absorbed in his studies and naturally reserved, Nuttall's social intercourse was limited. The families of the botanists and horticulturists of the time in Philadelphia—Prof. Barton, Zaccheus Collins, Reuben Haines, McMahon, from whom he named his genus Mahonia, William Bartram, and Colonel Carr—were almost his only acquaintances. To these he made visits, often of several days, from time to time. In Colonel Carr's house a room was expressly reserved for him. During this period he prepared also the description for his Genera of the North American Plants. Upon this work, which appeared in 1818, the reputation of Mr. Nuttall as a botanist principally rests. Prof. Torrey, in the preface to his Flora, declared that it had "contributed more than any other work to the advance of the accurate knowledge of the plants of this country." Nuttall turned his early trade to account by setting the type for the greater part of his book.

In 1817 Mr. Nuttall, already a Fellow of the Linnæan Society of London, was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society at the same meeting with Say and Schweinitz, and a corresponding member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. He began to publish essays in the journal of the Academy, among the earliest being a description of Collinsia, a new genus of plants, named in honor of his friend and patron Z. Collins.

Nuttall had long desired to visit the Arkansas country, and soon after his American Plants was published Messrs. Correa de Serra, Z. Collins, William Maclure, and John Vaughan procured him the means of performing this long journey. Starting from Philadelphia on October 2, 1818, he reached the mouth of the Arkansas River about the middle of January and Fort Bellepoint on April 21:th. Thence he made expeditions in several directions, returning with abundant collections. He was on one of these trips in the middle of August, when, exhausted by long and difficult marches, made under the rays of a burning sun and in constant dread of the Indians, having suffered much from thirst, insufficient food, and exposure to the night dews, he was seized with a violent fever among the Osage tribe. The Indians robbed him of his effects and even threatened his life, but he finally reached the garrison at Bellepoint, where he remained sick until the middle of October. He made one more trip and then set out for home, reaching New Orleans February 18, 1820. He had then in sixteen months made a journey of more than five thousand miles, mainly over a country never visited before by scientific explorers, and still in the undisputed possession of the Indians.

Getting back to Philadelphia early in the spring of 1820, he immediately set about arranging his Arkansas collections and preparing his Journey into the Interior of Arkansas in 1818 and 1819, which he published in the following year. In the course of the years 1820 to 1822 he contributed several memoirs to the Journal of the Academy of Natural Science, among them being one On the Serpentine Rocks of Hoboken and the Minerals which they Contain, for he was giving some attention to mineralogy at this time. He also lectured on botany to classes of young men. His lecturing was not remarkable for eloquence, but he always communicated to his pupils something of his own passion for his favorite science.

At the end of 1822 Mr. Nuttall was called to Harvard College. The fund of the college for a professorship of natural history not being sufficient to support a professor, he was appointed merely Curator of the Botanic Garden, and but light duties of instruction were assigned to him. In consequence the greater part of his time was devoted to the culture of rare plants and to his own studies, in which mineralogy and ornithology were included. In Cambridge, as in Philadelphia, he led a retired life.

In editing the Letters of Asa Gray Mrs. Gray remarks: "The garden was laid out by Dr. Peck in 1808, and the house built for him was finished in 1810. Mr. Nuttall, the botanist and ornithologist, who boarded in it while giving instruction in botany, left some curious traces behind him. He was very shy of intercourse with his fellows, and having for his study the southeast room, and the one above for his bedroom, put in a trapdoor in the floor of an upper connecting closet, and so by a ladder could pass between his rooms without the chance of being met in the passage or on the stairs. A flap hinged and buttoned in the door between the lower closet and the kitchen allowed his meals to be set in on a tray without the chance of his being seen. A window he cut down into an outer door, and with a small gate in the board fence surrounding the garden, of which he alone had the key, he could pass in and out safe from encountering any human being."

Aware that he was doing little for science, Mr. Nuttall became dissatisfied with his position at Cambridge; he used to say that he was only vegetating, like his own plants. Congenial occupation was furnished him for a time by the suggestion of Mr. James Brown, who was probably his only intimate friend in Cambridge, that he write a book on ornithology. He had given more or less attention to this science during almost the whole of his residence in America, and readily adopted the suggestion. He set to work with great zeal, and in 1832 produced his Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and Canada. It was published in two volumes of about six hundred pages each and illustrated with excellent woodcuts. In the course of his residence at Cambridge he contributed papers to the various scientific periodicals of the time, and issued a little book entitled An Introduction to Systematic and Physiological Botany.

About the beginning of 1833 Mr. Nuttall went to Philadelphia with a collection of plants gathered by Captain Wyeth during a journey overland to the Pacific Ocean. Captain Wyeth was soon to start on a second expedition, to establish posts for the Columbia Fishing and Trading Company, and Nuttall wished to accompany him. Not being able to obtain a sufficiently long leave of absence from Cambridge, he resigned his position at the college and spent the interval before the departure of the expedition in Philadelphia studying the collection already referred to and his own Arkansas plants.

Mr. Nuttall and Mr. John K. Townsend, a young naturalist, sent out jointly by the American Philosophical Society and the Academy of Natural Sciences, joined Captain Wyeth's party at Independence, Mo., from which place the start was made April 28, 1834. The details of the journey are given in Townsend's Narrative of a Journey across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River, etc. On September 3d they came to the Columbia, and, descending it, reached Fort Vancouver. Here the two naturalists remained for the rest of the autumn to explore the surrounding region. Then desiring to pass the winter months where inclemency of the season would not interfere with their pursuits, they took passage on a Boston brig for the Sandwich Islands, where they arrived January 5, 1835.

Here for the first time Mr. Nuttall enjoyed the beauties of a tropical vegetation. He remained two months collecting plants and sea shells on the several islands, and then, separating from his companion, sailed for California. He spent a great part of the spring and summer on the Pacific coast, then returned to the Sandwich Islands, where he embarked on a Boston vessel to come home by way of Cape Horn. It happened to be the vessel on which Mr. Dana was serving his two years before the mast, and the latter relates in his book that when rounding Cape Horn Nuttail's passion for flowers was aroused by the near view of land. He entreated the captain to put him ashore, if only for a few hours, that he might become acquainted with the vegetation of this dreary spot, although the wind was blowing furiously and the ship was surrounded with icebergs. When his persistent requests were sternly refused he was much disappointed and displeased, being unable to comprehend such indifference to the cause of science.

He arrived in October, 1835, and again took up his abode in Philadelphia to work up the rich treasures gathered on his long journey. For several years he and Dr. Pickering worked harmoniously together at the Academy of Natural Sciences—the former on his own collections, the latter on the Schweinitz herbarium. Two important memoirs based upon the fruits of the trip across the continent were published about 1840 in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. Conchology was a new subject of study to Nuttall, and he became much absorbed in it. He did not trouble himself much about his meals when at work, and Dr. Pickering would often return after an hour's absence from the Academy hall in the middle of the day and find him stooping over a case of shells in the same place and position as when he left him.

Nuttall was a remarkable-looking man. His head was very large, bald, and bore the signs of a vigorous intellect; his forehead was expansive, but his features small, and his gray eyes looked out from under fleshy brows. His complexion was fair, and sometimes very pale from close application to study and lack of exercise. He was above medium height, his person stout, with a slight stoop, and his walk peculiar and mincing, resembling that of an Indian.

He was naturally shy and reserved, but, if silent and perhaps morose in the presence of those toward whom he felt no attraction, yet with congenial companions he was communicative and agreeable. It will readily be surmised that his devotion to science frequently led him into actions that were strangely at variance with the circumstances of the moment. In one of his solitary digressions in the wilderness he got lost. The party he was with resumed its march, sending out some friendly Indians to find him and bring him to rejoin it. The Indians performed their duty faithfully. Looking upon him, however, as a great medicine man, they were afraid to come close to him, so they surrounded him, keeping at a respectful distance. Nuttall soon became aware that he was watched by savages, and, not knowing whether they were friends or foes, became intensely alarmed. From what he had already experienced at their hands he had the utmost horror of Indians. Therefore hiding himself, and taking advantage of every ravine, every tree and bush, he succeeded in regaining the track of the caravan, which he followed for three days without food or sleep, when, to his infinite delight, he overtook it and was relieved from his anxieties.

On another occasion he was rambling in the vicinity of the camp when a band of Indians, apparently hostile, made its appearance. The alarm was immediately given, with orders to prepare for an expected attack. Nuttall was nowhere to be seen, and a friend ran in search of him. It was not long before he perceived the naturalist at some distance, quietly examining a specimen. He hailed him with signs to return quickly. "We are going to have a brush with the Indians," said his friend; "is your gun in good order?" Alas! the gun had been freely used to uproot plants, and was filled with earth to the muzzle. Had Nuttall fired it in this condition it would inevitably have burst in his hands and killed or severely wounded him.

On his journey to the Pacific the caravan separated into two parties to cross the Rocky Mountains by different routes. One of the parties had the good fortune to meet with plenty of buffalo cows, upon whose meat they became fat. The other, to which Nuttall belonged, suffered much from fatigue, and found scarcely anything to eat except a few lean grizzly bears. When the parties reunited, Nuttall had lost so much flesh that his old companions could scarcely recognize him. Upon one of these expressing his surprise at the great change in his appearance, he heaved a sigh of inanition and retorted, "Yes, indeed, you would have been just as thin as myself if, like me, you had lived for two weeks upon old Ephraim (grizzly bear), and on short allowance of that too!"

At Christmas, 1841, Nuttall returned to England, where he resided for the remaining seventeen years of his life. An uncle who had prospered in business, having no family of his own, bequeathed to him an estate called Nutgrove, in the neighborhood of Liverpool. A condition attached to the bequest was that Nuttall should reside in England at least nine months of the year for the rest of his life. He had been thirty-four years in the United States and become much attached to this country, so that, although he had visited England in 1811 and 1822, returning to reside permanently in the land of his birth seemed to him like going into exile. He therefore hesitated for some time to accept the inheritance, but consideration for his sisters and their families finally induced him to take it. Becoming a British landed proprietor did not make Mr. Nuttall wealthy. The Nutgrove estate was encumbered with annuities, besides which there was a heavy income tax to pay. Dr. Pickering and other American friends who visited him found him living in the fashion of a plain farmer, working and eating with his men like one of them. But his interest in botany was not allowed to die out. He made use of the opportunity which the possession of ample grounds afforded for the cultivation of rare plants, especially rhododendrons, which his nephew, Mr. Thomas J. Booth, brought him from the mountains of Assam and Butan. Various new species of these were described by him in British scientific journals.

Shortly before leaving the United States Nuttall was mduced to write a supplement to Michaux's Sylva in three volumes. In the beautifully written preface to the work his own wanderings are vividly sketched. Owing to various delays the edition was not issued till 1846.

Nuttall returned only once to America. As lie could not be absent more than three months in any one year, he took the last three months of 1847 and the first three of 1848—not a very desirable season for a botanist's outing. Nevertheless, he managed to do some congenial work. He studied at the Philadelphia Academy the plants brought by Dr. William Gamble from the Rocky Mountains and Upper California, and prepared a paper on them which was published in the journal of the Academy.

His death occurred on September 10, 1859. In his eagerness to open a case of plants received shortly before from Mr. Booth he overstrained himself, and from that time steadily declined until he died. Through his love of Nature, joined with untiring industry and great firmness of purpose, he had raised himself from the condition of an unknown artisan to the foremost rank of American men of science. No student begins upon the study of systematic botany without being struck by the frequency with which his name is met. His friends and colleagues. Profs. Torrey and Gray, have testified to their appreciation by attaching his name to a beautiful genus of the Rosaceæ. Elias Durand said of him immediately after his death: "No other explorer of the botany of North America has personally made more discoveries; no writer on American plants, except perhaps Prof. Asa Gray, has described more new genera and species."


Among the Kayans of Borneo, according to Mr. C. Hose, when a child is born, the father and mother sink their own identity and adopt the name of their offspring. Supposing a man named Jau becomes the parent of a son to whom he gives the name of Lahing, the former would no longer be called Jau, but Taman Lahing, father of Lahing. If his child were to die, he would be called Ozong Lahing, or Ozong Jau; if his wife dies, he adds the prefix Aban (widower) to his name; if a brother or sister, Boi, and he is called Boi Lahing. Should he attain the position of being a grandfather, he becomes Laki, adding thereto the name of his grandchild; so if the latter is given the name of Ngipa, the grandfather is no longer called Taman Lahing, or by any other name but Laki Ngipa. A widow is called Ballo.

In considering temperature as a factor in the distribution of marine animals, Dr. Otto Maas, of Munich, said, in the British Association, that the great ocean currents were primary elements in limiting the distribution of free-swimming forms, very few species being found both north and south of them. The influence which had been ascribed to pressure might often be more correctly attributed to change of temperature, as in the case of deep-sea animals which died on being brought to the surface in the Atlantic but not in the Mediterranean. In conclusion, attention was called to the corals and the geryonid jellyfish as illustrative of the principles laid down, both having a similar distribution, though the former are fixed, the latter free swimming.