William Starling Sullivant

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William Starling Sullivant
William S Sullivant by M Whitt, 1864.jpg
Sullivant in 1864
Born(1803-01-15)January 15, 1803
DiedApril 30, 1873(1873-04-30) (aged 70)
Education Ohio University
Alma mater Yale (Baccalaureate 1823)
  • Jane Marshall
    (m. 1824)
  • Eliza Griscom Wheeler
    (m. 1834)
  • Caroline Eudora Sutton
    (m. 1851)
Children13, including T. S. Sullivant
Scientific career
Fields Botany
Signature of William Starling Sullivant.png

William Starling Sullivant (January 15, 1803 – April 30, 1873) was an early American botanist recognized as the foremost authority on bryophytes in the United States.



Sullivant was the oldest son of Lucas Sullivant and Sara (Starling) Sullivant. He was born in Franklinton, Ohio, a frontier town that had recently been established by his father and which eventually became part of Columbus, Ohio. He was sent to Kentucky for his initial education, then spent a year studying at Ohio University when it first opened in Athens, Ohio. Later he transferred to Yale and received a bachelor's degree in 1823. [1]

The death of his father that same year obliged Sullivant to return home and take over management of the family business. He became a surveyor and civil engineer and successfully invested in mills, stone quarries, canals and other endeavors. He became interested in botany around 1834, influenced in part by his second wife, Eliza Griscom Wheeler. Initially he was interested in flowering plants and in 1840 published A Catalogue of Plants, Native and Naturalized, in the Vicinity of Columbus, Ohio.

Sullivant collected plants throughout the Ohio region and built up a large herbarium with an emphasis on grasses and sedges. He identified and published several new plant species. He became acquainted with other botanists in America, notably Asa Gray and John Torrey. Their support encouraged Sullivant to continue his botanical studies and he turned his focus to mosses and liverworts. [2]

In 1843 Sullivant traveled with Asa Gray through the Allegheny Mountains collecting mosses. He presented his findings in a bound two-volume folio, Musci Alleghaniensis (1845,1846), containing dried specimens of the mosses he had collected along with accompanying text in Latin for each species. [1] He also authored the sections on mosses and liverworts in Gray's Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States (1848). [3] Sullivant's contribution was later published separately under the title, The Musci and Hepaticae of the United States, east of the Mississippi River (1856).

He was elected as a member to the American Philosophical Society in 1862. [4]

In 1864 Sullivant published his most important work, Icones Muscorum, containing 129 illustrations and descriptions of the mosses indigenous to eastern North America. The breadth of this work and the excellent illustrations cemented Sulivant's reputation as the pre-eminent American bryologist of his time.

He contracted pneumonia and died in Columbus on April 30, 1873. [5] He had been working on a supplement to Icones Muscorum which was completed in 1874 by his colleagues, Leo Lesquereux. Lesquereux and Thomas P. James also completed his Manual of Mosses of North America in 1884. [2]

During his career Sullivant had named and described 270 species of bryophytes and had gained worldwide recognition as the preeminent authority on North America mosses and related plants. He built an herbarium of some 18,000 moss specimens which were donated to Harvard University. The Sullivant Moss Society was named in his honor and later became known as the American Bryological and Lichenological Society. [2]

He married three times: Jane Marshall in 1824, Eliza Griscom Wheeler in 1834 and Caroline Eudora Sutton in 1851. He had thirteen children with his three wives. His son, T. S. Sullivant, was the influential cartoonist published in Life and other magazines.


The standard author abbreviation Sull. is used to indicate this person as the author when citing a botanical name. [6]

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Adolph E. Waller, in the Forward to Noble Fellow, wrote: "It is much more than a memoir of a distinguished ancestor. It seems that this biography with its wealth of Americana can be claimed the first attempt to bridge the gap between the recent past of our United States and the rapidly changing world in the fields of modern scientific research."

Conway Zirkle, in his review of Rodgers' book on John Torrey, wrote: "Mr. Rodgers tracks down his source material with rare skill, enormous energy, and, we can use no other word, gusto. He ferrets out forgotten or lost manuscripts, college and society records, family letters, anything that bears on his subject. The result is that his work is authoritative, detailed, and remarkably complete... This is one of the most satisfactory biographies to appear in recent years."

Albert F. Hill, reviewing Rodgers' Liberty Hyde Bailey, wrote "... no review can do it justice. It must be read to be appreciated-and read at one's leisure-in order to assimilate the wealth of material within its pages... it is a worthy successor to [Rodgers' earlier books], and carries the saga of North American botany another step nearer completion."

H. H. Chapman wrote of Rodgers' Bernard Edward Fernow: A story of North American Forestry "In completeness of coverage, fidelity to facts, and freedom from bias, this volume should rank as the most comprehensive and trustworthy history of the origin and development of forestry in the U. S. and Canada that has yet appeared... In a careful reading of the text, based on personal knowledge covering fifty years, the reviewer has not discovered any inaccuracies... This text is far more than a life of Dr. Fernow. Literally hundreds of persons are mentioned, with the part they played in forest history."

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  1. 1 2 Gray (1875)
  2. 1 2 3 Sterling (1997)
  3. Smith (1905)
  4. "APS Member History". search.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved April 20, 2021.
  5. "Obituary". The Des Moines Register . Columbus, Ohio. May 1, 1873. p. 1. Retrieved January 17, 2021 via Newspapers.com.
  6. IPNI.  Sull.


Further reading