Sherard, William

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(b. Bushby. Leicestershire, England, 27 February 1659: d. London, England, 11 August 1728)


William Sherard was the eldest son of George and Mary Sheerwood, or Sherwood. He received his secondary education at Merchant Taylors’ School and in 1677 was elected to St. John’s College, Oxford, where he developed a lasting interest in botany and established a close friendship with Jacob Bobart. In December 1683 Sherard took the bachelor’s degree in common law and was elected law fellow of St. John’s College. Granted leave for foreign travel, he studied three years with Tournefort in Paris and spent the summer of 1688 studying with Paul Hermann in Leiden. He collected plants in the Swiss Alps, Geneva, Rome, Naples, Cornwall, and Jersey, supplying lists of plants that were published by John Ray in his Synopsis methodica stirpium Britannicarum (1690) and Stirpium Europaearum...sylloge (1694).

Between 1690 and 1702, Sherard, as tutor to various young noblemen, made two more tours of the Continent and received the degree of doctor of common law from St. John’s College on 23 June 1694. During this period. Sherard began a revision of Gaspard Bauhin’s Pinax. This work, which occupied the remainder of his life, was never finished; the manuscript is with his library at Oxford.

After a brief appointment as “Commissioner for the Sick and Wounded, and for the Exchange of Prisoners’ in 1702, Sherard received an appointment by the Levant Company as consul at Smyrna in 1703. While there he collected plants in Greece and Anatolia, copied antiquarian artifacts, and collected coins. He returned to England in 1717 with a considerable fortune. In 1718 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. His brother, James Sherard (1666–1737), a physician and apothecary, who had amassed a fortune in business, retired in 1720 and bought a country house at Eltham in Kent, where he established one of the finest botanical gardens in England. Sherard himself made three trips to the Continent between 1721 and 1727, bringing Dillenius from Giessen in August 1721 to assist with the Pinax. He was particularly impressed with Dillenius’ knowledge of cryptogams and thought that bringing him to Oxford would enhance the department and the progress of the science.

On his death in 1728, Sherard left to Oxford his herbarium of 12,000 to 14,000 specimens, still preserved intact, and his library of more than 600 volumes. In addition, he bequeathed £3,000 to establish the Sherardian chair of botany, naming Dillenius the first Sherardian professor. Unfortunately, his brother James Sherard, who acted as executor, delayed settlement of his estate until 1734.

Sherard’s contemporaries considered him an excellent and knowledgeable botanist. Nevertheless, he wrote and published little during his life time. He became the friend and correspondent of nearly every major botanist of his day, and his letters, which occupy four volumes, reveal his generosity in gifts of specimens, seeds, living plants, books, and subscriptions. In 1695 he edited Paul Hermann’s manuscript of Paradisus Batavus for his widow’s benefit. He assisted Pier Antonio Micheli and Paolo Boccone with subscriptions for publications and contributions of plants. In 1721 Sherard prevailed upon Boerhaave to edit the lifework of the ailing Sébastien Vaillannt and assisted in cataloguing specimens for it. Sherard’s assistance is acknowledged by Bobart in his Historia oxoniensis and by Ray in his Historia plantarum. Specimens with his notations are found in the herbaria of Tournefort, Ray, Dillenius, Vaillant, and Sloane. Concerning Sherard’s problem in completing the Pinax, Clokie stated, “His difficultiy seems to have been to concentrate on his work instead of helping his friends. His generosity to his friends seems to have known no limit.”


I. Original Works. Sherard’s most important work is Schola botanica, sive catalogus plantarum quas ab aliquot annis in Horto Regio Parisiensi studiosis indigitavit vir clarissimus Joseph Pitton Tournefort, D.M., ud et Pauli Hermanni P.P. Paradisi Batavi prodromus, in quo plantae rariores omens, in Batavorum Hortis haclenus culate, et plurimam partem á nemine antea descriptae, recensentur (Amsterdam, 1989). This publication is a list of the plants found in the Royal Garden in Paris, arranged according to the Tournefort system with the prodromus for Paul Hermann’s Paradisus Batavus that Sherard subsequently edited. It was published under the initials S. W. A., which have been interpreted by various authors to stand for Simone Wartono Anglo or some variation thereof. Gorham (p. 12) gives the name as Sherardus Wilhelmus Anglus. Regardless of the name for which the initials stand, all authorities agree that it is the work of William Sherard. (See also Jackson, pp. 136—137 and Clokie, pl. 18.)

Other writings are “The Way of Making Several China Varnishes Sent From the Jesuits in China to the Great Duke of Tuscany, Communicated by Dr. William Sherard,” in Philosophical Transactions of the RoyalSociety, 22 (1700). 525 (Sherard probably gained the information while in Rome with his pupil, the Duke of Beaufort): “An Account of the Strange Effects of the Indian Varnish, Wrote by Dr. Joseph del Papa, Physician to the Cardinal de Medices, at the Desire of the Great Duke of Tuscany. Communicated by Dr. William Sherard,” ibid. (1701), 947; “An Account of a New Island Raised Near Sant-Erini in the Archipelago; Being Part of a Letter to Mr. James Petiver, F.R.S. From Dr. W. Sherard, Consul at Smyrna...,” ibid., 26 (1708), 67 (date of writing was 24 July 1707; the news came to Smyrna from the English consul at Milo); “An Account of the Poyson Wood Tree in New England. By the Honourable Paul Dudley, Esq., F.R.S. Communicated by John Chamberlain, Esq.,” ibid., 31 (1721), 145: “A Farther Account of the Same Tree. By William Sherard, LL.D., R.S.S.,” ibid., p. 147.

II. Secondary Literature. A complete list of literature on Sherard and his work is in J. Britten and G. S. Boulger, A Biographical Index of Deceased British and Irish Botanists, 2nd ed. (London, 1931). See especially Dictionary of National Biography, XVIII, p. 67; G. Druce and S. Vines, The Dillenian Herbaria (Oxford, 1907); M. Epstein, The Early History of the Levant Company (New York, 1968); J. Green, History of Botany (New York, 1914); R. T. Günther, Oxford Gardens (Oxford, 1912); D. P. Micheli, Targioni-Tozzetti (Florence, 1858); R. Pulteney, Pulteney’s Sketches (London, 1790); D. Richardson, ed., Richardson Correspondence (Yarmouth, 1835); and A. C. Wood, A History of the Levant Company (New York, 1964).

Sources to which specific reference has been made are H. N. Clokie, An Account of the Herbaria of the Department of Botany in the University of Oxford (Oxford, 1964); G. C. Gorham, Memoirs of John and Thomas Martyn (London, 1830); and B. D. Jackson, “A Sketch of the Life of William Sherard,” in Journal of Botany, 12 (1874), 129–138.

Carolyn D. Torosian