Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/March 1896/Sketch of William Starling Sullivant

PSM V48 D648 William Starling Sullivant.jpg


"IN him we lose the most accomplished bryologist which this country has produced, and it can hardly be said that he leaves behind anywhere a superior." This is high praise, and its value is enhanced by its coming from Prof. Asa Gray, who certainly knew whereof he spoke.

William Starling Sullivant was born January 15, 1803, at the little village of Franklinton, then a frontier settlement in the midst of primitive forest, near the site of the present city of Columbus. He was the eldest of the four children of Lucas Sullivant, a Virginian, and Sarah (Starling), his wife. His father had been commissioned by the Government to survey a district in the Northwestern Territory lying in the center of what is now the State of Ohio, where he early purchased a large tract of land, bordering on the Scioto River, and near by, if not including, the site afterward chosen for the capital of the State.

The early life of William Sullivant was therefore that of the frontier, with its mixture of hardships and opportunities. At a time when the hominy mortar and the hand grater served to furnish coarse meal for bread, and grist mills were few and far apart, young William, mounted astride of a bag of wheat on one horse and leading another on which also was strapped a well-filled bag, was often sent on a journey along the blazed bridle-path through the forest to procure flour for the family. These expeditions frequently occupied two or three days' waiting for the grist, and necessitated sleeping in the mill wrapped in a blanket, where he was fortunate who had a pile of corn or wheat for his couch instead of the hard floor. But all this, together with the athletic sports of the frontier settlement, served to give him the fine physical development which was often remarked in his adult years. He was also one of the party on some of his father's shorter surveying expeditions, thus gaining knowledge that he was soon destined to put in practice.

He was sent to a private school in Kentucky, and, entering the Ohio University when that institution opened, received there the rudiments of a collegiate education. He was then transferred to Yale College, from which he was graduated in 1823. His father dying in the same year, he was obliged to give up the idea of studying a profession in order to take charge of the large family estate. The property consisted of lands, mills, etc., and demanded much and varied attention. The care of it required him to become a surveyor and a practical engineer, and to be much engaged in business for the greater part of his life. He became a member of the Ohio Stage Company, whose operations covered a wide field. and before the introduction of railroads afforded the best accommodations and facilities to the traveling public. He was one of the original stockholders and directors of the Clinton Bank, and for a time its president.

Mr. Sullivant was not one of those whose predilection for science appeared at an early age. He was nearly thirty years old, and his youngest brother, Joseph, was already somewhat proficient in botany, conchology, and ornithology, before his interest in natural history was aroused. He had married Miss Jane, daughter of Alexander K. Marshall, of Kentucky, and niece of Chief-Justice Marshall, and was living in his suburban residence in a rich floral district. His wife had died within a year after marriage, leaving him an infant daughter.

His first scientific observations were upon the birds. When his attention was directed to botany, by his brother Joseph, he took up the subject with the determination to acquire a thorough knowledge of it. "He collected and carefully studied," says Prof. Gray in the memoir already quoted from,[1] "the plants of the central part of Ohio, made neat sketches of the minuter parts of many of them, especially of the grasses and sedges, entered into communication with the leading botanists of the country, and in 1840 he published A Catalogue of Plants, Native or Naturalized, in the Vicinity of Columbus, Ohio (63 pages), to which he added a few pages of valuable notes. His only other direct publication in phanerogamous botany is a short article upon three new plants which he had discovered in that district, contributed to the American Journal of Science and Arts in the year 1842. The observations which he continued to make were communicated to his correspondents and friends, the authors of the Flora of North America, then in progress.

"As soon as the flowering plants of his district had ceased to afford him novelty, he turned to the mosses, in which he found abundant scientific occupation, of a kind well suited to his bent for patient and close observation, scrupulous accuracy, and nice discrimination. His first publication in his chosen department, the Musci Alleghanienses, was accompanied by the specimens themselves of mosses and hepaticæ collected in a botanical expedition through the Alleghany Mountains from Maryland to Georgia, in the summer of 1843, the writer of this notice being his companion. The specimens were not only critically determined, but exquisitely prepared and mounted, and with letterpress of great perfection; the whole forming two quarto volumes, which well deserve the encomium bestowed by Pritzel in his Thesaurus. It was not put on sale, but fifty copies were distributed with a free hand among bryologists and others who would appreciate it.

"In 1846 Mr. Sullivant communicated to the American Academy the first part, and in 1849 the second part, of his Contributions to the Bryology and Hepaticology of North America, which appeared one in the third, the other in the fourth volume (new series) of the academy's Memoirs, each with five plates from the author's own admirable drawings. These plates were engraved at his own expense, and were generously given to the academy.

"When the second edition of Gray's Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States was in preparation, Mr. Sullivant was asked to contribute to it a compendious account of the musci and hepaticæ of the region, which he did, in the space of about one hundred pages, generously adding, at his sole charge, eight copperplates crowded with illustrations of the details of the genera; thus enhancing vastly the value of his friend's work, and laying a foundation for the general study of bryology in the United States, which then and thus began. So excellent are these illustrations, both in plan and execution, that Schimper, then the leading bryologist of the Old World, and a most competent judge, since he has published hundreds of figures in his Bryologia Europæa, not only adopted the same plan in his Synopsis of the European Mosses, but also the very figures themselves (a few of which were, however, originally his own), whenever they would serve his purpose, as was the case with most of them.

"A separate edition was published of this portion of the Manual under the title of The Musci and Hepaticæ of the United States East of the Mississippi River (New York, 1856, imperial octavo), upon thick paper, and with proof impressions directly from the copperplates. This exquisite volume was placed on sale at far less than its cost, and copies are now of great rarity and value. It was with regret that the author of the Manual omitted this cryptogamic portion from the ensuing editions, and only with the understanding that a separate Species Muscorum, or Manual for the Mosses of the whole United States, should replace it." This work Mr. Sullivant was about to prepare at the time of his death.

Mr. Sullivant married Miss Eliza G. Wheeler, of New York, a lady of rare accomplishments, who became a zealous and acute bryologist, and ably assisted her husband in his scientific work until her death, of cholera, in 1850 or 1851. Her botanical services were commemorated by Schimper in the name of the Ohio moss, Hypnum SulUvantiæ. Two daughters and a son were the fruit of this marriage.

In 1848 Mr. Sullivant secured the co-operation of the accomplished botanist Leo Lesquereux, by whose labors his undertakings were substantially promoted. A characteristic feature of his scientific work was the issuing of sets of specimens, mounted on leaves with printed labels, and bound into a volume having a title-page, index, etc. Specimens had accompanied Mr. Sullivant's text in the Musci Allghanienses, and now, from the ample stores collected by him and Lesquereux, or otherwise acquired, fifty-six sets of about three hundred and sixty species each were made up, and all, except a few copies for gratuitous distribution, were placed on sale at less than cost, for the benefit of his esteemed associate. The title of the volume was Musci Boreali Americani quorum specimina exsiccati ediderunt W. S. Sullivant et L. Lesquereux; 1856. The value of the work insured the speedy sale of the edition. A similar but larger collection, containing between five and six hundred species, many of them recently gathered in California by Dr. Bolander, was issued in 1865. The sets were disposed of with the same unequaled liberality as before displayed. Still later, Mr. Sullivant aided his friend Mr. Austin both in the study of his material and in the publication of his Musci Appalachiani.

In his Musci Cubenses, which appeared in 1861, Mr. Sullivant named the species of Charles Wright's earlier acquisitions in Cuba and described the new ones. These mosses were also distributed in sets by the collector. His researches upon later and more extensive collections by Mr. Wright, in which many new species were indicated, were left in the form of notes and pencil sketches at his death. The same is true of an earlier collection, made by Fendler in Venezuela.

Mr. Sullivant was several times called upon to work up the mosses gathered by Government exploring expeditions. Thus the Bryology of Rodgers's United States North Pacific Exploring Expedition was early prepared for publication by him in the most elaborate manner. But, from causes over which he had no control, it has never been published, although brief characters of the principal new species have seen the light. The fact that Sullivant's exquisite drawings of these species were not promptly engraved and given to the scientific world is especially to be regretted.

In the case of the South Pacific Exploring Expedition, under Commodore Wilkes, the volume on the mosses was not published in his lifetime, but Mr. Sullivant issued a separate edition of his portion of it in 1859. It forms a sumptuous imperial folio, the letterpress having been made up into large pages, and printed on paper matching that used for the twenty-six plates. The fourth volume of the Pacific Railroad Reports contains Sullivant's descriptions of the mosses collected in Whipple's Exploration, occupying about a dozen pages, and accompanied by ten admirable plates of new species.

The Icones Muscorum, however, is Mr. Sullivant's crowning work. It was issued in 1864, and consists of "Figures and Descriptions of most of those Mosses peculiar to Eastern North America which have not been heretofore figured," forming an imperial octavo volume with one hundred and twenty-nine copperplates. "The letterpress and the plates," says Prof. Gray, "(upon which last alone several thousand dollars and immense pains were expended) are simply exquisite and wholly unrivaled; and the scientific character is acknowledged to be worthy of the setting." Most of the time which Mr. Sullivant could devote to science in the last few years of his life was given to the preparation of a second or supplementary volume of the Icones. The plates were finished, the descriptions partly written out, and it was to have been printed in the spring in which he died.

Mr, Sullivant was attacked with pneumonia in January, 1873, about the time of his seventieth birthday, and, although making a partial recovery, died from the effects of the disease on April 30th. He had married Caroline E. Sutton, who survived him. Four sons and two daughters were born to them.

He bequeathed all his bryological books and his exceedingly rich and important collections and preparations of mosses to the Gray Herbarium at Harvard University. The rest of his botanical library, his choice microscopes, and other collections, were left to the State Scientific and Agricultural College, then recently established at Columbus, and to the Starling Medical College, founded by his uncle, of which he was himself the senior trustee.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences elected Mr. Sullivant to membership in 1845; he was also an associate of the other chief scientific societies of this country and of several in Europe. The honorary degree of Doctor of Laws was conferred upon him by Gambier College, while Torrey and Gray honored him early by bestowing the name Sullivantia Ohionis upon a rare and modest plant discovered by him in his native State, and belonging to the same order (saxifrages) with the currant, syringa, and hydrangea.

For nearly forty years Sullivant corresponded with Asa Gray, also collecting with him and co-operating in research whenever practicable. He is often mentioned in Gray's Letters. When Lesquereux, who had been Gray's curator at Cambridge, left him to go and assist the Western bryologist. Gray wrote in a letter to Torrey: "They will do up bryology at a great rate. Lesquereux says that the collection and library of Sullivant in muscology are 'magnifique, superbe, the best he ever saw.'" Under date of December 6, 1857, Gray writes to W. J. Hooker: "Your first letter is now gone to Sullivant, because you speak of him so handsomely, and say that Mitten is instructed to prepare a set of mosses for him. A noble fellow is Sullivant, and deserves all you say of him and his works. The more you get to know of him the better you will like him." And when, in 1877, he gave to Mr. Burgess, since famous as a designer of yachts, a note of introduction to Charles Darwin, Gray wrote: "He has just married the daughter of my dear old friend the late Mr. Sullivant, who did for muscology in this country more than one man is likely ever to do again."

Prof. Gray said of him in the memoir already quoted, and which has supplied the facts for a large part of this article: "In personal appearance and carriage, no less than in all the traits of an unselfish and well-balanced character, Mr. Sullivant was a fine specimen of a man. He had excellent business talents, and was an exemplary citizen; he had a refined and sure taste, and was an accomplished draughtsman. But after having illustrated his earlier productions with his own pencil, he found that valuable time was to be gained by employing a trained artist. He discovered in Mr. A. Schrader a hopeful draughtsman, and he educated him to the work, with what excellent results the plates of the Icones and of his other works abundantly show. As an investigator he worked deliberately, slowly indeed and not continuously, but perseveringly. Having chosen his particular department, he gave himself undeviatingly to its advancement. His works have laid such a broad and complete foundation for the study of bryology in this country, and are of such recognized importance everywhere, that they must always be of classical authority; in fact, they are likely to remain for a long time unrivaled. Wherever mosses are studied his name will be honorably remembered; in this country it should long be remembered with peculiar gratitude."

The following extract from a letter written immediately after Sullivant's death to Mr. Joseph Sullivant by Leo Lesquereux will be interesting:

"In everything, as well you know, W. S. S. was most accurate. He was superficial in nothing. He worked his mosses slowly, coming again and again to a doubtful species, comparing authorities, repeating the most difficult anatomical preparations, till fully satisfied that his conclusions were warranted as far as botanical science could warrant them. The numerous species to which he has given his authority have therefore been admitted and recognized by the most eminent botanists of our time—Schimper, Müller, Lindberg, etc. More than ten years ago a very honorable account of his works as a bryologist was published in the Botanische Zeitung of Leipsic, which, for botany, is the highest European authority.

"Another remarkable trait of the character of your lamented brother was his perhaps too liberal disposition to work in science for the benefit of others, without credit for himself. Not only did he give his time to the determination of an immense number of specimens which were sent to him by students, or by so-called authors, etc., but often, without claiming his right of authority, he determined the species, prepared descriptions of the new ones, when he well knew that they would be published under the names of his applicants. He has thus fixed a far larger number than those which were published in his name. Even lately he examined a large collection of mosses in which his opinion was requested, prepared descriptions of new species, remarks on interesting ones, etc., and from this work a catalogue was made by the same applicant, the notes copied as well as his remarks, and thus the authorship was literally taken from him, and not even a word of credit was given for his work. Such absence of scientific honesty was not even resented by your brother, who merely alluded to it as a poor reward for hard work. A character as was his, without trace of envious or jealous feeling, marked by true kindness for everybody, by a ready disposition to acknowledge and help every effort for the advancement of his science of predilection, to recognize errors and to correct them without the slightest word of depreciation, could but excite admiration and love; and, indeed, your brother was truly and sincerely loved by the few who knew him well; for he was not open to everybody. A man of few words, he never talked of himself or his doings, and thus only those who had the privilege of being intimate with him would recognize his noble nature."

In a paper read at the recent International Geographical Congress, Mr. H. Yule Oldham, of the University of Cambridge, attached great value in the study of the history of geographical discovery to the mediæval manuscript maps or portolani. Usually made for practical purposes, by sailors, they were, as a rule, free from personal and political bias. A careful study of them gives valuable corroboration and often correction of information derived from ordinary documents. It was long customary to ascribe the discovery of the Madeiras and Azores to the fifteenth century, but they were found on maps of the fourteenth century. Similarly at a later period Cuba was shown to be an island at a time when, according to the ordinary historical documents, it was believed to be continental; and the Bermudas and other islands were shown on maps of earlier dates than those to which their discovery was ascribed. So often was cartographical information found to be ahead of historical records pointing to the results of otherwise unrecorded voyages, that additional interest and importance were lent to those maps which seemed to indicate the possibility of a pre-Columbian discovery of America.
  1. Read before the National Academy of Sciences, April 22, 1875.