Setchell, William Albert

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(b. Norwich, Connecticut, 15 April 1864; d. Berkeley, California, 5 April 1943)

botany, geography.

Setchell was the acknowledged authority on marine algae of the northern Pacific, and on the role of crustaceous algae in coral reef formation. He also advanced knowledge of the role of temperature in delimiting plant distributions, and initiated studies on the genus Nicotiana.

Setchell was the son of George Case Setchell and Ann Davis Setcheell. With George R. Case, Setchell published a catalog of local wild plants before he was twenty; and the botanist Daniel Cady Eaton encouraged his interest in botany while he was an undergraduate at Yale. His lifetime predilection for algae dated from his Harvard years, when, as a Morgan fellow, he came under the tutelage of William Gilson Farlow. For twenty-five years Setchell, with his associates F. S. Collins and Isaac Holden, issued Phycotheca Boreali-Americana (1895–1919), numbering 200,000 specimens of algae. In 1920 Setchell went to Samoa under the aegis of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the first of many journeys to the South Pacific to study coral reef formation, ethnobotanical subjects, and patterns of plant distribution. From these and other trips he collected and donated hundreds of objects, including a notable pipe collection now at the Robert H. Lowie Museum of Anthropology. Meanwhile Setchell amassed a collection of living tobaccos and began an investigation of their morphology and hybridization. His colleague Thomas Harper Goodspeed took up this study and published a comprehensive monograph entitled The Genus Nicotiana (1954).

The history of botany was one of setchell’s pleasures, and his course in that subject attracted students and colleagues alike. He enjoined students to compare various topics among the herbals which he presented to the Biology Library of the University of California at Berkeley.

Setchell emphasized the critical role of temperature in the delimitation of algal and flowering plant ranges; this led to his “waves of anthesis” principle: species succeed one another in flowering with every rise of 5°F. in the vernal temperature. He also predicated the critical role of establishment in the distribution of organisms, as a biologic corollary of Liebig’s law of the minimum.

Setchell’s wife, Clara Ball Pearson Caldwell, whom he married in 1920, shared his enthusiasms for fourteen years. His foil in the laboratory preparation of algae was Nathaniel L. Gardner (1864–1937), with whom he wrote several revision of Pacific marine algae. Setchell’s close associates described him as “of commanding presence, magnetic personality, catholic taste, and congenial disposition” (Clausen, Bonar, and Evans, p. 39).


I. Original Works. Setchell’s chief works are ’Marine Algae of the Pacific Coast of North America,” in University of California Publications in Botany, 8 pts. 1–3 (1919–1925); “American Samoa,” in Publications Carnegie Institution of Washington, no. 341 (1924), 1–275; “Temperature and Anthesis,” in American Journal of Botany12 (1925), 178–188; and “Geographic Elements of the Marine Flora of the North Pacific Ocean,” in American Naturalist, 69 (1935), 560–577. Prophetic of his later phenological interests was A Catalogue of Wild Plants Growing in Norwich and Vicinity, Arranged in Order of Flowering for the Year 1882 (Nowich, Conn., 1883), written with George R. Case. A bibliography of his publications, prepared by T. H. Goodspeed and Lee Bonar, was appended to D. H. Campbell’s sketch (see below). Copies of 210 papers (1890–1935) are bound in 35 vols. in the Biology Library, University of California, Berkeley. His correspondence is preserved in the department of botany. His unpublished outline for his history of botany course was extensively utilized by Howard S. Reed in his Short History of the Plant Science (Waltham, Mass., 1942).

II. Secondry Literature. The best obituary of Setchell, with interpretive background comment, was written by his Stanford colleague D. H. Campbell, in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 23 (1945), 127–147, with portrait by Peter van Valkenburgh. Essays in Geobotany in Honor of William Albert Setchell (Berkeley, 1936) includes a biographical intro. by the editor, T. H. Goodspeed. Other sketches were published by Roy E. Clausen, Lee Bonar, and Herbert M. Evans, in University of California In Memoriam (Berkeley, 1943) 37–39; by A. D. Cotton, in Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London. 156 (1943–1944), 232–233; by Francis Drouet, in American Midland Naturalist, 30 (1943), 529–532; and by Herbert L. Mason, in Madroño, 7 (1943), 91–93, with portrait. A disparate estimate will be read in the private journals of his colleague Willis Linn Jepson when they are made available to the public.

Joseph Ewan