William Starling Sullivant

The Meticulous Botanist

April 30, 1873
Today is the anniversary of the death of the bryologist William Starling Sullivant.

William was born to the founding family of Franklinton, Ohio.

William's father, Lucas, was a surveyor and had named the town in honor of the recently deceased Benjamin Franklin. The settlement would become Columbus.

In 1823, William Sullivant graduated from Yale College. His father would die in August of that same year.

William took over his father's surveying business, and at the age of thirty, he began to study and catalog the plant life in Central Ohio.

In 1840, William published his flora, and then he started to hone in on his calling: mosses.

Bryology is the study of mosses. The root, bryōs is a Greek verb meaning to swell. It's the etymology of the word embryo. Bryology will be easier to remember if you think of the ability of moss to swell as it takes on water.

As a distinguished bryologist, William studied and cataloged various mosses from across the United States and from as far away as Central America, South America, and from various islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Mosses suited William's strengths, requiring patience and close observation, scrupulous accuracy, and discrimination. His first work, Musci Alleghanienses, was:

"exquisitely prepared and mounted, and with letterpress of great perfection; ... It was not put on sale, but fifty copies were distributed with a free hand among bryologists and others who would appreciate it."

In 1864, William published his magnum opus, Icones Muscorum. With 129 truly excellent illustrations and descriptions of the mosses indigenous to eastern North America, Icones Muscorum fixed William's reputation as the pre-eminent American bryologist of his time.

In 1873, William contracted pneumonia - ironically, an illness where your lungs fill or swell with fluid - and he died on April 30, 1873.

During the last four decades of his life, William exchanged letters with Asa Gray. It's no wonder, then, that he left his herbarium of some 18,000 moss specimens to Gray's beloved Harvard University.

After Asa Gray summoned his curator at Cambridge, Leo Lesquereux, to help William, he wrote to his friend, the botanist John Torrey:

"They will do up bryology at a great rate. Lesquereux says that the collection and library of William in muscology are magnifique, superbe, and the best he ever saw.'"


On December 6, 1857, Asa wrote to Hooker,

"A noble fellow is [William Starling] William, and deserves all you say of him and his works. The more you get to know of him, the better you will like him."


In 1877, four years after William's death, Asa Gray wrote to Charles Darwin. Gray shared that William Sullivant was his "dear old friend" and that,

"[William] did for muscology in this country more than one man is likely ever to do again."


The Sullivant Moss Society, which became the American Bryological and Lichenological Society, was founded in 1898 and was named for William Starling Sullivant.

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William Starling Sullivant 1864
William Starling Sullivant 1864

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