Thomas Nuttall, a Scottish botanist working in the United States, was born Jan. 5, 1786. Nuttall came to Philadelphia in 1807 and spent much of the next 33 years exploring the American continent. He was associated during this time with the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and also taught for a while at Harvard, but the Far West, and especially California, was his passion, and he is credited with discovering a host of new California species, most famously, Nuttall’s woodpecker and the Yellow-Billed Magpie (named Pica nuttalli by Audubon) (see second image above). There are also a number of plants named after Nuttall, including Nuttall’s mariposa lily (first image).

It was in San Diego that Nuttall encountered Richard Henry Dana, who had been a student of Nuttall’s at Harvard for a brief time before setting out to seek adventure. The two embarked on a ship in 1836 for the voyage around Cape Horn back to Boston, Dana as sailor and Nuttall as passenger. When Dana later published an account of his adventures as Two Years Before the Mast (1840), Nuttall had a bit part as the nameless “Old Curiosity”, the peripatetic college professor searching the world for curiosities. Henry Shaw, the founder of the Missouri Botanic Garden in St. Louis, had a special fondness for Nuttall, and in 1887 he erected an obelisk there in his honor (third image). At the Linnean House conservatory at the Garden (containing the camellias), there are three busts that preside over the entrance (fourth image): Nuttall is on the left, Linnaeus is center stage, and Asa Gray is on the right.

We have Nuttall’s important Genera of North American Plants (1818) in the History of Science Collection.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to ashworthw@umkc.edu.