Life at the Academy

Page 5 of 5

Western cone-flower, Rudbeckia occidentalis Nutt.

photo: Western cone-flower blossom

Photo © 2000 James L. Reveal

Rush pink

Lygodesmia grandiflora (Nutt.) Torr. & A. Gray

photo: rush pink blossom

Photo © James L. Reveal

From 1836 until 1841 Nuttall worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, making short trips and writing up the hundreds of new species he had found. Articles appeared in the Academy's journals detailing novelties in various families. Others he sent in manuscript form to John Torrey and Asa Gray for insertion into their newly proposed Flora of North America. Unfortunately, the sudden death of Nuttall's uncle, and a stipulation in the will that Nuttall spend at least six months of each year in England, forced him to leave America. Except for a brief stay in late 1847 and early 1848, when Nuttall described the last of his American novelties, he remained in Europe.8

Aside from a few matters left unresolved from his earlier travels, the primary reason for returning to the United States was to complete work on his latest project The North American Sylva. Unlike his previous efforts, this was to be a multi-volume, lavishly illustrated set of books that accounted for all of the trees in North America, with special reference to those along the Pacific Coast. Published in three volumes (in 1842, 1846 and 1849) in Philadelphia, the colored lithographs are even today of an excellent quality.

Nuttall's contributions were many. He wrote papers in geology, botany and zoology—there is still an ornithological society named in his honor—and it is hard to travel anywhere in the American West without seeing a plant that was not named or collected by him.9 He was the first to champion the use of a natural system of classification in the United States, he authored a textbook on botany, and his magnificent Silva is difficult to match even today. He was first and foremost a field botanist, and as such changed the direction of botany. After Nuttall, knowledge of the North American flora would come from a combination of field and museum work, not just from old, flat, dried things on a piece of paper collected by someone else.


A.M. Coats, 1970. The plant hunters: Being a history of the horticultural pioneers, their quests and their discoveries from the Renaissance to the twentieth century. McGraw-Hill, New York.

R.H. Dana. 1840. Two years before the mast: A personal narrative of life at sea. Harper, New York.

De Voto, B. 1947. Across the wide Missouri. American Book Co., Boston.

Goetzmann, W. J. 1966. Exploration and empire. W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., New York.

Graustein, J. E. 1967. Thomas Nuttall, naturalist. Explorations in America, 1808-1841. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Isley, D. 1994. One hundred and one botanists. Iowa State University Press, Ames.

Kastner, J. 1977. A species of eternity. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

McKelvey, S. D. 1955. Botanical explorations of the trans-Mississippi west, 1790-1850. Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.

Nuttall, T. 1818. The genera of North American plants. 2 vols. D. Heart, Philadelphia.

Nuttall, T. 1834. "A catalogue of a collection of plants made chiefly in the valleys of the Rocky Mountains or northern Andes, towards the sources of the Columbia River, by Mr. Nathaniel B. [sic] Wyeth, and described by T. Nuttall." Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 7: 1-60.

Pennell, F. W. 1936. "Travels and scientific collections of Thomas Nuttall." Bartonia 18: 1-51.

Reveal, J. L. 1992. Gentle conquest. The botanical discovery of North America with illustrations from the Library of Congress. Starwood Publishing, Washington, D.C.

Reveal, J. L., G. E. Moulton & A. E. Schuyler. 1999. "The Lewis and Clark collection of vascular plants: Names, types and comments." Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 149: 1-64.

Reveal, J. L. & J. S. Pringle. 1993. "Taxonomic botany and floristics," pp. 157-192. In: Flora of North America Editorial Committee (ed.), Flora of North America north of Mexico. Volume 1. Oxford University Press, New York.—See for an online version.

Rickett, H. W. 1950. John Bradbury's explorations in Missouri Territory. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 94: 59-89.

Townsend, J. K. 1839. Narrative of a journey across the Rocky Mountains, to the Columbia River, and a visit to the Sandwich Islands, Chile, &c., with a scientific appendix. H. Perkins, Philadelphia.

8. Nuttall published two major papers as a result of his 1834-1836 western trip to the Pacific Coast. His first, "Descriptions of new species and genera of plants in the natural order Compositae" detailed the diverse array of plant found in the sunflower family, Asteraceae (ass-ter-AYE-see-ee). His second paper was on new and rare plants in families of some economic or horticultural importance. Most of his new western plants were described in Torrey and Gray's A flora of North America—the first effort by American botanists to summarize the plants of the region. When Nuttall returned in 1847-1848, he described a significant collection made by William Gambe, who traveled the Santa Fe Trail from New Mexico to California in 1841. He also added descriptions of many of the new species he had collected in California in 1836 that were still to be published.

9. The Nuttall Ornithological Club, centered at Harvard University, began its main publication, Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, in 1876. Today, this journal is know simple as The Auk. Nuttall himself published American's first field manual on birds in two volumes (1831, 1834). John James Audubon named the California dogwood Cornus nuttallii (CORE-nus) for Nuttall in 1838. Audubon also honored Nuttall in 1837 by naming the yellow-billed magpie, Pica nuttalli (PIE-kah), for him, and in 1844 by naming the common poorwill, Phalaenoptilus nuttalli (fill-aye-NAHP-till-us nut-TAHL-li). Nuttall specimens were also used to describe Nuttall's woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii (pick-OY-deez), a bird known only from California; it was named by William Gambel. For more information, see Early birds. A look at the history of birds and ornithology in California by Harry Fuller at