Chapman, Alvan Wentworth

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Chapman, Alvan Wentworth

(b. Southampton, Massachusetts, 23 September 1809; d. Apalachicola, Florida, 6 April 1899),


Chapman’s Flora of the Southern United States (1860) faithfully carried forward Torrey and Gray’s plan for a comprehensive flora of the nation. Revisions served until John Kunkel Small’s Flora (1903).

The youngest of five children born to Paul Chapman, a tanner, and Ruth Pomeroy Chapman, Alvan Chapman graduated B.A. from Amherst College in 1830. He arrived in Savannah, Georgia, in May 1831 and became a tutor on nearby Whitemarsh Island. While president of an academy at Washington, Georgia, he studied medicine under Albert Reese from 1833 until 1835, when he moved to Quincy, Florida; in 1847 he moved to Apalachicola. The place and date of his M.D. degree are obscure, but the University of Louisville awarded him an honorary M.D. in 1846, and the University of North Carolina an LL.D. in 1886. In November 1839 he married Mary Ann Simmons Hancock, who died in 1879. Their daughter, Ruth, died in infancy.

Chapman botanized on the Apalachicola River in 1837 with Hardy Bryan Croom, discoverer of the endemic gymnosperm Torreya. The manuscripts left unfinished at Croom’s accidental death led Chapman to redouble his botanical activities. His first botanical publication (1845) was a list of plants growing in the vicinity of Quincy.

During the Civil War, Chapman was a “Union man”; his wife was a secessionist. She lived in Marianna, Florida, while he extended aid to runaway slaves and refugees. During guerrilla raids he hid in Trinity Church. He later said of the war years: “I would not have given a sixpence for my life during those four years.” Being the only surgeon in town undoubtedly saved him.

Chapman’s Flora appeared without his knowledge, Torrey having read proof. It was 1878 before he could publish species he had overlooked. He also assembled three herbaria.

In 1875 Asa Gray spent a week with this “excellent, loyal man all through.” Handsome and blue-eyed, Chapman stood over six feet tall and was “even a bit of a dandy.” Although increasingly deaf in later years, he wrote with a clear, strong hand to the end.


I. Original Works. The Flora was first published in New York in 1860. The 2nd ed. (1883) had a seventy-page supplement and was reissued (1892) with a second supplement (pp. 655–703); this printing is scarce. The 3rd ed., completely reset, appeared in 1897. The largest collections of Chapman’s letters are preserved in the Torrey correspondence at the New York Botanical Garden, the Gray letters at Harvard University, and the Engelmann letters at the Missouri Botanical Garden. His diary has not been located. He ran a continuing “Professional Notices” in the Apalachicola Commercial Advertiser at least during 1847, His “A List of the Plants Growing Spontaneously in the Vicinity of Quincy, Florida,” in Western Journal of Medicine and Surgery, 3 (1845). 461–483, was also privately printed and repaged. Although Chapman’s first name often appears as “Alvin,” his own report to Amherst College alumni of Dec. 17, 1872, reads “Alvan.”

II. Secondary Literature. The various eds. of the Flora are discussed by E. D. Merrill, “Unlisted Binomials in Chapman’s Flora of the Southern United States,” in Castanea, 13 (1948), 61–70. Three portraits accompany an obituary by John G. Ruge, who wrote from close friendship, in Gulf Fauna and Flora Bulletin, 1 , no. 1 (1899), 1–5. See also William Trelease, “Alvin [sic] Wentworth Chapman,” in American Naturalist, 33 (1899), 643–646, with portrait; and Donald Culross Peattie, “Alvan Wentworth Chapman,” in Dictionary of American Biography, IV (1930), 16–17. The most perceptive account is Winifred Kimball, “Reminiscences of Alvan Wentworth Chapman,” in Journal of the New York Botanical Garden, 22 (1921), 1–11. Lloyd H. Shinners provides a critique of Chapman’s role in botany in “Evolution of the Gray’s and Small’s Manual Ranges,” in Sida, 1 (Nov. 1962), 9–10.

Joseph Ewan

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Chapman, Alvan Wentworth

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