Remembering Florida Botanist Alvan Wentworth Chapman: an Apalachicola Naturalist and Namesake of the Chapman Botanical Garden

"If [you are] really anxious to make [plant] discoveries... buckle on your knapsack and make a tour of Florida."

April 6, 1899

Today is the anniversary of the death of the botanist and physician Alvan Wentworth Chapman.

Alvan spent the last fifty years in Apalachicola, in territorial Florida.

Alvan adored botany and devoted all his spare time to it - even writing a Flora of the Southern United States in 1860.


Alvan’s Apalachicola home was located at the mouth of the Chattahoochee River in Florida.

Here, Alvan’s friend, Hardy Bryan Croom, discovered the rare Cedar called the Torreya tree.

This small area in Florida is significant because it is one of only a handful of places in the world where the Torreya tree can be found.

Unfortunately, Croom did not name the tree in Chapman’s honor - that distinction went to the great botanist John Torrey, thus the name Torreya.


Alvan was good friends with another notable Apalachicola doctor named John Gorrie.

Gorrie invented the ice-making machine and is regarded as the father of air conditioning.


As for Alvan, he enjoyed his life as a doctor, but in his heart, he was indeed a botanist, and he felt his field-based botanical work was more impactful than botanists who never ventured out of the lab.

Alvan once wrote to John Torrey about the difference between a botanist in the field versus a city botanist, writing,

Your city botanists with polished boots, who rolled to your favorite haunts in steamboats [and] cars, have but a faint idea of the figure a Florida botanist cuts in these wild woods.


Alvan also regularly wrote city botanists like John Torrey. When it came to botany, Alvan was a lifelong learner and enjoyed the challenge of new plant discoveries. He once wrote to Harvard’s Asa Gray,

If [you are] really anxious to make [plant] discoveries… buckle on [your] knapsack and make a tour of Florida.


Alvan was very healthy all his life -  his only struggle was increased hearing loss as he grew older.

Accounts of Alvan’s adventures say he enjoyed botanizing until he died in 1899 at 90.

Seven years earlier, when Alvan was 83, one of his rare specimen labels noted he had trekked thirteen miles to find it.

Four years later, at 87, a peer remarked that Alvan could handle the Apalachicola River and swamps better than botanists half his age.


Today, the genus Chapmania honors Alvan - as does the Chapman Oak (native to the Florida scrub) and the rare Chapman Rhododendron.

Chapman was never after botanical glory or posterity. Toward the end of his life, Alvan reflected on his indifference to naming plants, writing,

Even if I were not at the end of my work, I… prefer someone else to name [the plants].
I never did care to name species, and so many others do.


In the 1960s, there was an effort to adorn Chapman’s grave at the historic Chestnut Street Cemetery with the Chapman Rhododendron - but it sadly never happened, and his grave remains unadorned.


On November 6, 2020, during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chapman Botanical Garden in Apalachicola held a plaque dedication ceremony to honor Alvan.

The plaque contains a quote from a young friend and writer, Carrie Winifred Kimball, who wrote this passage for Alvan’s obituary,

The passing of Dr. Chapman is to this community like the fall of a mighty oak which leaves the landscape desolate.

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Alvan Wentworth Chapman
Alvan Wentworth Chapman
Florida Torreya, Stinking Cedar, Florida Nutmeg-yew
Florida Torreya, Stinking Cedar, Florida Nutmeg-yew
Florida Torreya tree
Florida Torreya tree

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