Nylander, William

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(b. Uleåborg [now Oulu], Russia [now Finland], 3 January 1822; d Paris France, 29 March 1899)


Nylander, brother of Fredrik Nylander, was the son of Anders Fahlander. He never married. For much of his life he was a world authority on the identification of lichens.

Nylander graduated from the gymnasium in Åbo (now turku) in 1839 and matriculated at the University of Helsinki the same year. He passed examinations as a candidate in philosophy in 1843 and continued his studies at the university, where he received the M.D. in 1847. He never established medical practice, and his interests thereafter were limited to natural history.

An ardent naturalist, Nylander traveled throughout Finland in 1847 and 1848, collecting plant and insect specimens. His early publications dealt with entomology, especially with the identification of Finnish ants and bees. In 1848 Nylander went to Paris, where he studied lichens at the Museum d’Historie Naturelle, under Charles Tuslane. During most of the following decade he published much about lichens, primarily their classification and identification, and his work was acclaimed in Europe and America.

In 1857 Nylander became the first professor of botany at the University of Helsinki. Unhappy with his treatment there, he resigned in 1863 and emigrated permanently to France, where he had neither academic affiliation nor gainful employment.

Through his abundant, if often trivial, publications Nylander became known as the one who had acquired the reputation of being able to identify lichens from any part of the world. Specimens that he identified became his personal property, and he subsequently amassed the world’s richest and largest private lichen herbarium. In 1868 the French government awarded Nylander the Prix des Mazieres for his contributions to lichenology. Somewhat earlier the Portuguese had conferred on him the Ordre du Christ. He was elected to honorary membership in learned societies and stood at the pinnacle of his career.

The decade following 1868 witnessed revolutionary discoveries about the origin and biology of lichens, concepts accepted internationally by leading scientists.

Nylander held to the earlier theory that the green cells in lichens were primitive prototypes of algae. In 1867 Schwendener proposed that the green cells were themselves true algae, parasitized and imprisoned by fungal hyphae, and that the two separate and unrelated organisms lived together by obligative symbiosis. This was proved by Rees in England (1871), by Bornet in France (1872), and by du Bary in Germany (1873). Summarily dismissing the new ideas, Nylander became one of a shrinking handful who held to the earlier but scientifically untenable view. His vitriolic abuse of fellow botanists in France and elsewhere closed the doors of many institutions, including the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, to Nylander. Most editors then denied him access to publication in their journals. He became a paranoid recluse who considered all who disagreed with him to be his enemies.

About 1879. in poor financial circumstances, Nylander made an agreement with the University of Helsinki whereby, in return for a lifetime annual pension of 1,200 francs, he would bequeath it his lichen herbarium, library, notebooks, and papers.

Nylander’s full bibliography contains 314 papers. Less than a score of them, published before 1875, continue to be recognized as major contributions to botanical science; but so great was the impact he made during the first fifteen years of his professional life that he will always be counted as the dominant lichenologist of the mid-nineteenth century.


I. Original Works. Nylander’s major scientific works include Conspectus florae Helsingforsiensis (Helsinki, 1852); “Essai d;une classification des lichens. I-II,” in Memoires de la Societe imperials academique des sciences naturetles de Cherbourg (1854), 5–16 and (1855), 161–202; “Enumeration generate des lichens, avec l’indication sommaire de leur distribution geographique,” ibid. (1857), 85–146, 332–339; “Prodromtis lichenographie Galliae et Algeriae,” in Acres de la Sociere linneenne de Bordeaux, 21 (1857), 249–467, also pub. as a separate vol. with the same title (Bordeaux, 1857); Synopsis methodica lichenum omnium hucusque cognitorum, praemissa introductione lingua gallica tracta, 2 vols. (I, Paris, 1858–1860; II, Paris [1861], 1869), never completed; “Lichenes Scandinavian,” in Notiser ur sallskapvts pro fauna et flora fennica forhandlingar, 5 (1861), 1–312; and “Lichenes Lapponiae orientalis,” ibid., n.s. 8 (1882), 101–192—a few preprints correctly dated 1866 are known.

II. Secondary Literature. Biographical notices include Alphonse Boistel, “Le Professeur William Nylander,” in Revue generate de hotanique, 11 (1899), 218–237, with partial bibliography; Auguste Hue, “William Nylander,” in Bulletin. Societe botanique de France, 47 (1899), 152–165, with portrait; Thorgny Krok, “Nylander, William,” in Bibliotheca botanica suecana (Uppsala-Stockholm, 1925), 559–560; and Theodor Saelan, “Nylander, William,” in Acta Societatis pro fauna et flora fennica, 43 (1928), 355— 379, with complete bibliography.

George H. M. Lawrence