Pursh, Frederick

views updated


(b. Grossenhain, Saxony [now German Democratic Republic], 4 February 1774; d. Montreal, Canada, 11 July 1820)


pursh was the first botanist to describe plants of the Pacific Coast in a flora of North America. The increase in knowledge of the North American flora is exemplified by the ferns: in 1753 Linneus accounted only twenty-three species; fifty years later André Michux, fifty-five species; and in only another ten years Pursh listed ninety-eight species.

Fried Rich Traugott Pursh (his original surname) attended public schools in his birthplace. According to his brother, Carl August Pursh, Friedrich lacked the financial means to pursue the scientific education that he wished. After studying horticulture under the court gardener, Johann Heinrich Seidel, Pursh joined the staff of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Dresden. In January 1799 he sailed for the United States, and, according to his own statement, he was first employed at a garden near Baltimore. In 1803 he succeeded John Lyon at “The Woodlands” the estate near Philadelphia of William Hamilton (7145–1813). In Thomas Jefferson’s opinion the estate was “the only rival in America to what may be seen in England” (Betts [1944],323). Among Hamilton’s visitors was Benjamin Smith Barton, who, among his many projects, planned a flora of North America to include the discovers of Lewis and Clark. Barton employed Pursh on the first extended botanical exploration of North America sponsored by an American. In 1806 Pursh botainzed as far south as the North Carolina line. The following year he journey to Niagara Falls and east to Rutland, Vermont. Upon his return, but not before reading proof and checking synonmy for some of Barton’s publications, he left his patron to lodge with the Philadelphia nurseryman Bernard M. Mahon, who with Hamilton had been entrusted with the living novelties brought back from the Pacific Northwest by Lewis and Clark. Barton was to prepare the natural history account while prush was to assist with the plant descriptions and drawings, but Barton was overcommited and made too little progress. Discouraged, Pursh in April 1809 took employment with the physician David Hosack. then developing his Elgin Botanic Garden near New York City.

Hosack, like Barton, envisioned an “American Botany, or a Flora of the United states”, but that, too, did not materialize. Hosack wrote of Pursh in Hortus Eliginensis (2nd ed., 1811): “I shall have a very industories and skillful bataniat to collect from different parts of the Union such plants as have not yet been assembled at the Botanic Garden”. During 1810–1811, while awaiting hoped-for financial support from the state, Pursh visited five island of the West Indies for his health. He returned to Wiscasset, Maine, and visited William Dandridge Peck of Harvard. Pursh sailed from New York for England, since Hosack had been unable to raise support. He took with him notes, drawings, and selected specimens, some of which were scissored from the Lewis and Clark gatherings in Barton’s care.

In England pursh came under the patronage of Aylmer Bourke Lambert, a wealthy cabinet-naaturalist, and, reputedly fortified with quantities of spirits, completed his FloraAmericae Septentrionalis (1814). The collections of Lambert and Joseph Banks were utilized, and the Sherardian Herbarium at Oxford was searched. Altogether the records of forty-one collectors were cited, a notable achievement. Among the genera he named is Lewisia named for Meriwether Lewis. Although Pursh’s Flora was sometimes disparaged for its inadequacies, it spurred the publication of Nuttall’s Genera (1818). Darlington praised the Flora in 1827 as a “valuable work, and the spirit of botanical research which it has excited amongst us”.

Following his involvement with the publication of catalogs of the gardens of Cambridge, England, and of Count Orlov in St.Petersburg, Pursh was offered the curatorship of the newly launched botanic garden at Yale but declined. He was invinted to accompany the exploration of the Red River by Thomas Douglas, fifth earl of Selkirk, but the expedition was abandoned after the murder of the leader Robert Semple. From 1816 Pursh lived in Montreal working desultorily on a flora of Canada. He botanized on Anticosti Island in 1818, and assisted the Scot John Goldie in his collecting, but that winter specimens not already shipped to Lambert (and probably notes accompanying) were destroyed by fire. Discouraged, destitute, and dependent during those years on the charity of friends, Pursh died at the age of forty-six. His marriage to a barmaid has been alluded to but the details are wanting. Buried in a potter’s field, he was removed subsequently by the intercession of Montreal naturalists to Mount Royal Cemetry, where he rests besides Sir John William Dawson. Benjamin Silliman, who met Pursh in 1819, wrote that “his conversation was full of fire, point, and energy; and, although not polished, he was good humored, frank, and generous”.


I. Original Works. For details on Pursh’s Flora and minor publications, see J. Ewan, “Frederick Pursh, 1774–1820, and His Botanical Associates”, in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 96 (1952), 599–628. An extended account of the backgrounds, type collections, and locations of the collections in the Flora will accompany a facsimile, which is to appear in the series Classica Botanica Americana.

II. Secondary Literature. For Pursh’s relation to the Lewis and Clark expedition, see Edwin Morris Betts, “Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, 1766–1824,” in Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, 22 (1944), 1–704; Donald Jackson, Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expendition With Related Documents, 1783–1854 (Urbana, 1962); and Paul R. Cutright, Lewis and Clark, pioneering naturalists (Urbana,1969). Benjamin Silliman’s comment appeared in his Remarks Made on a Short Tour Between Hartford and Quebec in the Autumn of 1819 (New Haven, 1820), 323–325. For critical remarks on Pursh, favoring Nuttall, see Jeannette E. Graustein, Thomas Nuttall, Naturalist (Cambridge, Mass., 1967). Joseph Ewan and Nesta Ewan, “John Lyon, Nurseryman, and Plant Hunter, and His Journal, 1799–1814,” in Transactions of the American Philosiphical Society,53, pt. 2 (1963), 1–69, summarizes our sparse information on Hamilton’s “Woodlands.”

Joseph Ewan