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William Harvey

Algae from Ceylon, Friendly Islands and Australia : collected during the years 1852, '53, '54 and '55

William Henry Harvey (1811-1866).

William Henry Harvey (1811-1866), botanist and phycologist, was the youngest of eleven children, and was born and educated in Ireland.  His father was a Quaker merchant and it was during their family summer holidays on the Atlantic coast that he developed an interest in the lower plants.  When he was just twenty, he discovered an unrecorded moss species (Hookeria laetevirens) which led to a lifelong friendship with the botanist Sir William Hooker, who was to become the first Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

Harvey travelled widely after the death of his parents; he lived and worked in South Africa from 1835 to 1842, collecting and describing many plants.  On his return to Ireland, he was appointed Keeper of the Trinity College herbarium, and became Professor of Botany in 1848.  He travelled to America, collecting and lecturing, and worked on the Phycologica Brittanica, which was completed in 1851.

Between 1853 and 1856 he undertook an extended collecting trip around the world, taking in localities such as Gibraltar, Malta, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga and Valparaiso.  His abilities as a plant collector and his capacity for work were remarkable; during his eighteen months in Australia he collected at least 20,000 specimens of marine plants, consisting of 600 species of which approximately 200 were new genera and species.  Marine specimens require a great deal of effort to wash, lay out, dry and preserve and yet he was able to press and sort a minimum of 100 specimens per day, and was able to increase this to many hundreds when necessary.

His relationships with the most prominent botanists and scientists of the day meant that he was able to purchase and exchange material.  He added at least 100,000 specimens to the Herbarium at Trinity College, Dublin.  His output was also impressive as he not only collected and pressed specimens, but drew, described and lithographed them, and published the results.

He completed the Phycologia Australica between 1858 and 1863, after his return to Dublin from his world tour.  It was published in five volumes and is one of the most important books on phycology to emerge in the nineteenth century and is still one of the most used and useful books on Australian phycology.  It describes and illustrates in colour over 300 specimens of Australian algae.

Interestingly, Harvey was deeply religious, which led to some conflicts with his scientific learning.  Although he admitted that natural selection was the cause of much change, he was reluctant to accept that species could develop through its action.  He nevertheless maintained friendships and working relationships with many scientists, including Charles Darwin who held him in high esteem.

He lived with his sister, and later a niece, throughout his life.  Their deaths and his increasing loneliness led to his marriage to a childhood friend in 1861; the marriage was childless and he died of tuberculosis in 1866. 1

William Harvey