Remember William Sullivant, Who Helped Us See and Know About the Beauty and Variety Underfoot

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A colorful tree diagram by Joachim of Fiore (around 1135–1202) from his posthumous Book of Figures showing the Tree of Humanity: From Adam to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
A tree diagram by Joachim of Fiore (around 1135–1202) from his posthumous Book of Figures showing the Tree of Humanity: From Adam to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

There’s no more telling way that we’ve ignored the minutia of the world than the announcement recently that 99.999% of all species remain undescribed because they are microscopic. The Tree of Life, that biological concept which Darwin originated around 1837, turns out to be both a lot larger and a lot smaller than we ever knew.

Since prehistoric time, trees have served as metaphors for life and death. To people in many ancient cultures, sacred groves have been sites of worship and holiness. Due to the physical and metaphysical prominence of trees, at least some of us do tend to ignore nearly everything that grows and lives under them, down to the very smallest forms of life.

the 1870 painting Forest Scene by Thomas Moran
Forest Scene (1870)
by Thomas Moran

But it’s all part of a whole, a biome, a habitat. From the moist mycorrhizae on the roots to the needles and leaves basking in sunlight at the top of the canopy, all of it works together and weaves together into an intricate lace of mundanity and magic that captures the poetry and awe of existence in ways that go far beyond words.

If there is one thing clear about the centuries dominated by the factory and the wheel, it is that although the machine can make everything from a spoon to a landing-craft, a natural joy in earthly living is something it never has and never will be able to manufacture.

This perspective from the unforgettable Henry Beston resonates with us today just as much as when he wrote it, but now I’d like to move your attention from resonance to silence.

In his 1972 masterpiece Speaking and Language: Defense of Poetry, the distinguished 20th Century novelist, poet, playwright, and psychotherapist Paul Goodman describes nine kinds of silence. Among them, two are

the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts


the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos

both of which resemble the concept from Chinese and Japanese aesthetics called yūgen. And it’s that contemplation of existence, what words can’t express, that leads us to our humble topic of moss, and ultimately to the keen scrutiny of a memorable scientist who came to know more about it than almost anyone else in the world.

Mosses have been celebrated far and near in a Zen Buddhist temple and a recent book by Robin Wall Kimmerer, but the people who sing their praise and study their mysteries are rare indeed, which is why on his birthday we should remember bryologist William Sullivant.

a black-and-white drawing of plant scientist William Starling Sullivant (1803–73)
William Starling Sullivant (1803–73)

His father is now remembered quite publicly. On May 6, 2000, the city of Columbus, Ohio dedicated a 17-foot tall bronze statue of Lucas Sullivant (1765–1823), the founder of Franklinton, which eventually became the state’s capital city. It stands on the west bank of the Scioto River and commemorates the surveyor who was given land as payment, settled, and helped develop the area when it was wilderness.

In 1801, Virginia-born surveyor and developer Lucas Sullivant married Sarah Starling, the daughter of his mentor Colonel William Starling of Kentucky. Keep in mind that back then Kentucky was a place that had its statehood granted less than ten years before, on June 1, 1792. The young couple settled in the territory that soon became the state Ohio and had four children there: William, Michael, Joseph, and Sarah Ann.

The first baby was given the middle name Starling to recognize his mother’s side of the family. Since the Starlings had an eminent lineage, it’s worth describing a bit now because some of it will come up later. The English brewer Sir Samuel Starling had been Lord Mayor of London in 1669-70. Starlings of later generations would sail the Atlantic and begin lives in the New World. Sarah’s brother Lyne Starling (1784–1848) was one of four men who founded Columbus, Ohio and later in life donated $35,000 to establish a medical school named Starling Medical College in his honor.

William Starling Sullivant was born January 15, 1803, and since he grew up in a frontier town, he was sent away for his initial schooling. According to the brief biography by Ronald Stuckey and Marvin Roberts, “at the age of 8 or 9, William was taken to the home of his grandfather to be educated in a celebrated private academy, probably that of the noted educator Samuel Wilson in Jessamine County, Kentucky.” Once he was ready, Sullivant then spent a year at Ohio University in Athens, and transferred in November 1819 to Yale College, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1823. That year, his father died at the end of August, which meant instead of pursuing more education as he had intended, William Sullivant would settle in Ohio to manage the family businesses.

During the 1820s, he became a surveyor and civil engineer and invested in banks, mills, stone quarries, canals, stage coaches, and other endeavors. He also became a husband. In April 1824, William would marry Jane Marshall, daughter of Alexander Marshall of Kentucky, and a niece of Chief Justice John Marshall. In January 1825 she died, leaving him with grief and a newborn daughter.

A few years later, when he had several friends over, William Sullivant saw a man collecting plant specimens in his pasture. He went out to talk with the man, spent the rest of the afternoon with him, and then invited him to dinner. This encounter would mark the beginning of his interest in botany.

Meanwhile, his brothers had grown up and were pursuing interests of their own. Michael (1807-1879) became a lifelong farmer who organized the Ohio State Board of Agriculture and served twice as its president. His youngest brother Joseph (1809–82) was studying plants, birds, and shells in the 1830s. Additional influence and assistance in botany would come from his second wife, Eliza Wheeler Griscom (1834), and four local doctors.

When he started collecting and studying the plants of the region, William Sullivant found some harder to identify than others. Grasses and sedges would prove more of a challenge than plants with flowers in the usual sense. In 1838 he began writing letters to botanists Asa Gray and John Torrey for assistance. He also found a wildflower that would soon bear his name: Sullivantia sullivantii (Sullivant’s Coolwort). In 1842 Asa Gray established the genus Sullivantia after this species was first tentatively described as a saxifrage. Now three species are recognized, with sullivantii the type. In addition to his first namesake, Sullivant discovered the spreading rock cress (Arabis patens), flat-stemmed spikerush (Eleocharis compressa), and prairie milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) among others.

The rare Sullivantia sullivantii, growing on wet dolomite cliffs in Adams County, Ohio.
The rare Sullivantia sullivantii, growing on wet dolomite cliffs in Adams County, Ohio.

In 1838 his brother Joseph had published An Alphabetical Catalogue of Shells, Fossils, Minerals, and Zoophites in the Cabinet of Joseph Sullivant, printed by Cutler and Pilsbury of Columbus. In 1840 William had published A Catalogue of Plants, Native and Naturalized, in the Vicinity of Columbus, Ohio, printed by Charles Scott of Columbus. It included 771 species named according to volume 1 of Torrey and Gray’s Flora of North AmericaBut, as Asa Gray would later relate,

As soon as the flowering plants of his district had ceased to afford him novelty, he turned to the mosses, in which he found abundant scientific occupation, of a kind well suited to his bent for patient and close observation, scrupulous accuracy, and nice discrimination. His first publication in his chosen department, the Mosses of the Alleghany Mountains (Musci Alleghanienses), was accompanied by the specimens themselves of mosses and liverworts collected in a botanical expedition through the Alleghany Mountains from Maryland to Georgia, in the summer of 1843, the writer of this notice being his companion. The specimens were not only critically determined, but exquisitely prepared and mounted, and with letterpress of great perfection; the whole forming two quarto volumes, which well deserve the encomium bestowed by Pritzel in his Thesaurus. It was not put on sale, but fifty copies were distributed with a free hand among bryologists and others who would appreciate it.

Meanwhile, he became senior trustee of the Starling Medical College recently founded by his uncle and in 1845 a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (the National Academy of Sciences would not be founded until 1863).

After Swiss botanist Leo Lesquereux relocated to Columbus, Ohio in 1848, they would work together, although Lesquereux was also very interested in fossils. Not long after gaining a partner, Sullivant lost one. In the summer of 1850, a cholera epidemic reached central Ohio, so the Sullivants moved north to nearby Mount Vernon to avoid it–or so they hoped. On August 23, 1850, 33-year-old Eliza died. Sullivant had a beautiful gravestone made from Italian white marble as a memorial. Above her name it has a bust in three-quarter view wreathed by Sullivantia sullivantii in bloom. A garland of other flowers drapes over the top. Dr. Gray would call her “a lady of rare accomplishments, who became a zealous and acute bryologist, and ably assisted her husband in his scientific work.”

The native-born and the immigrant plantsmen first published their collaborative work in 1856, and another volume with more than 500 species, many newly described in California, in 1865. According to Asa Gray, the monograph Pictures of Mosses (Icones Muscorum), “is Mr. Sullivant’s crowning work.” Issued in 1864, it consists of “Figures and Descriptions of most of those Mosses peculiar to Eastern North America which have not been heretofore figured,” forming an imperial octavo volume with 129 copperplates. “The letterpress and the plates (upon which last alone several thousand dollars and immense pains were expended) are simply exquisite and wholly unrivaled; and the scientific character is acknowledged to be worthy of the setting.”

An 1864 photograph of Sullivant by Michael Witt of 81 South High Street, Columbus, Ohio.
1864 photograph by Michael Witt of 81 South High Street, Columbus, Ohio.

This seminal contribution to the study of American mosses would be recognized with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree by nearby Gambier College, since renamed.

His last published work and the most enduring part of his legacy would be the Manual of Mosses of North America (1884), completed a decade after he died by Leo Lesquereux and Thomas James. William Sullivant died of pneumonia April 30, 1873. He was survived by his third wife, Caroline Eudora Sutton, as well as his friend and longtime correspondent at Harvard.

He bequeathed all his bryological books and his valuable collections and preparations of mosses to the Gray Herbarium at Harvard University. The rest of his botanical library, his microscopes, and other collections, were left to the State Scientific and Agricultural College, then recently established at Columbus, and to the Starling Medical College founded by his uncle.

His great-grandson, Andrew Denny Rodgers III, would write a biography published in 1940 as Noble Fellow: William Starling Sullivant.

Couple this appreciation for a little plant with Ralph Ellison’s essay about a little man who notices and understands what most people miss out on . . . perhaps like the amateur botanist in the field who kindled an interest that led to an avocation and grew into the influential history you now know more about.

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One thought on “Remember William Sullivant, Who Helped Us See and Know About the Beauty and Variety Underfoot

  • January 18, 2018 at 4:50 am

    William’s second wife was Eliza Griscom Wheeler, daughter of Eliphalet and Mary Matilda (Van Lew) Wheeler, of New York City. According to our family tradition, he met her while riding on a ferry during a visit to New York City. Their daughter Eliza G. Sullivant (1838-1915) and her husband Andrew Denny Rodgers were my great-great grandparents.


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