Nuttall, Thomas

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(b. Long Preston, near Settle, Yorkshire, England, 5 January 1786; d. Nut Grove Hall, near St. Helens, Lancashire, England, 10 September 1859)

botany, ornithology, natural history.

Very little is known of the early life of Nuttall. A bachelor throughout his life, he was extremely reticent about his personal affairs. Through careful frugality while in America, he was able to make numerous field trips collecting botanical specimens.

His father, James Nuttall, married Mary Hardacre in January 1785. He died before Thomas was twelve years old, and his profession is unknown. The family was not prosperous, and at the age of fourteen Thomas was apprenticed to an uncle to learn the printing trade. At the conclusion of his apprenticeship, he sought other employment. In 1808 he sailed for Philadelphia, and shortly after his arrival in America, he became a friend of and plant collector for Benjamin Smith Barton.

With Barton’s encouragement Nuttall began to take a serious interest in American flora, teaching himself the principles of botany. In 1809 he made two field trips, collecting botanical specimens for Barton. The next year Barton outlined and financed a more ambitious collecting program, which was designed to take Nuttall through hazardous Indian country into Canada. Unable to complete Barton’s itinerary, Nuttall joined an expedition of John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company. The English botanist John Bradbury was also a member of this party. Traveling up the Missouri River, the two Englishmen collected new species of plants from lands that were botanically unexplored. At the conclusion of the expedition, Nuttall sailed for England in the fall of 1811. The War of 1812 prevented his return to America until 1815.

Nuttall published the results of his first western trip in The Genera of North American Plants, and a Catalogue of the Species, to the Year 1817 (1818). As the first comprehensive study of American flora, this work established his reputation as a botanist. Although he classified his plants by the Linnaean system, Nuttall nevertheless discussed the natural relationships of the different genera he described. He thus provided American naturalists with an introduction to the merits of A. L. de Jussieu’s natural system of classification. Genera described many western species new to botany and helped to stimulate an interest in the study of the plant life of the western United States.

From 1818 to 1820 Nuttall journeyed west again, collecting plants on the Arkansas River in Indian territory. In May 1820 he presented a paper describing the geology and fossils of the Mississippi Valley to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. His memoir anticipated modern geological techniques of stratigraphical correlations by suggesting a similarity between the geological formations of America and Europe.

In late 1822 Nuttall received his first professional appointment when he was named curator of the botanic garden at Cambridge, Massachusetts, and lecturer in natural history at Harvard. He remained at Harvard for eleven years, occasionally absenting himself for collecting trips. For the use of his students, he published An Introduction to Systematic and Physiological Botany(1827). The second edition of this work introduced new materials on plant physiology; and in its descriptions of the cellular composition of plants, Nuttall partially anticipated Schleiden’s cell theory. While in Cambridge, Nuttall developed an interest in ornithology and began to gather data for a guide to North American birds. Between 1832 and 1834 he published his only major ornithological study, A Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and Canada.This inexpensively priced study demonstrated Nuttall’s intimate familiarity with the literature on the subject and his personal observations of birds in their natural habitats. One of the most original features of this work was his careful attempt to describe the songs of birds through syllabic patterns.

Claiming that he was “vegetating at Harvard,” Nuttall desired to return to the virgin flora of the West. His discovery of many new species of plants on his Arkansas trip convinced him that the study of western plant life was still in its initial stages. Resigning his position at Harvard, he won a chance to go west once more when he joined Nathaniel Jarvis Whyeth’s second expedition to Oregon in 1834. Nuttall invited the young ornithologist John Kirk Townsend to accompany this party. Arriving safely in Oregon, Nuttall was the first experienced botanist to have traveled across the continent collecting specimens. On the Pacific coast he gathered not only plants but also mollusks and crustaceans. After spending two winters in Hawaii collecting, he returned to Boston in September 1836.

Nuttall’s remaining years in America (1836–1841) were spent primarily in Philadelphia, where he began to work up the recently acquired western specimens. He included some of his data on western plants in his contribution to Torrey and Gray’s Flora of North America. His last major activity in America was the preparation of a three-volume appendix for a new edition of François André Michaux’s North American Sylva. This appendix, which was also published separately, contained extensive information on the sylva of the western United States.

In 1842 Nuttall returned to England; and except for a six-month visit to America in 1847–1848, he remained there until his death in 1859. His last years in England were not notable for any major botanical studies and were not scientifically productive. He did become interested in the rhododendrons of Assam, but published only a brief paper on the subject.

Nuttall’s greatest scientific strength was his meticulous skill as a fieldworker and his detailed knowledge of plants in their native habitats. His taxonomy was at times marred by use of the Linnaean system of classification. Since he was forced by the circumstances of wilderness travel to collect specimens at random seasons, his data about the seasonal development of plants were often insufficient for correct taxonomic determination. Nuttall willingly shared specimens that he obtained on his expeditions with more skilled and specialized co-workers in other fields of natural history. He provided materials for further study to Audubon, Say, Pursh, Gambel, Torrey, Gray, and John Bachman. Nevertheless, Nuttall was the preeminent figure in the discovery of the flora of the American West.


I. Original Works. In addition to papers in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society and Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Nuttall published the following works: The Genera of North American Plants, and a Catalogue of the Species, to the Year 1817 (Philadelphia, 1818); An Introduction to Systematic and Physiological Botany (Cambridge, Mass., 1827; 2nd ed., enl., 1830); A Journal of Travels Into the Arkansa Territory, During the Year 1819 (Philadelphia, 1821),repr. as vol. XIII of Reuben G. Thwaites, ed., Early Western Travels, 1748–1846 (Cleveland, 1905); A Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and Canada: The Land Birds (Cambridge, Mass., 1832) and The Water Birds(Boston, 1834); and The North American Sylva 3, vols. (Philadelphia, 1842–1849).

II. Secondary Works. The only extensive study of Nuttall’s and career is Jeannette E. Graustein, Thomas Nattall Naturalist, Explorations in America 1808–1841 (Cambridge, Mass., 1967). Carefully documented, this volume contains numberous references to Nuttall’ correspondence and scientific papers as well as contemporary biographical notices. Additional information is in Richard G. Beidleman, “ Some Biolgraphical Sidelights of Thomas Nuttall, 1786–1859,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society,104 no. 1 (Feb. 1960), 86–100; Jeannette E. Graustein, “Nuttall’s Travels Into the Old Northwest, an Unpublished 1810 Diary,” in Chronica botanica,14 ,nos. 1–2 (1950–1951),1–85;and Francis W.Pennell, “Travels and Scientific Collections of Thomas Nuttall,”; in Bartonia,18 (1936), 1–51.

Phillip Drennon Thomas

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