William Bartram Facts
The American naturalist William Bartram (1739-1823) published an account of his botanical expedition to the southeastern United States that was widely read in his country and Europe.
William Bartram was born on Feb. 9, 1739, near Philadelphia, Pa., in the house built by his father, John Bartram, the noted botanist. William displayed considerable talent for drawing in his youth but was not immediately interested in botanical work, instead engaging in trade for several years in Philadelphia and near Cape Fear, N.C. He began collecting botanial specimens in 1765-1766, while accompanying his father on a trip up the St. Johns River in Florida.
In 1768 Peter Collinson, a friend of the elder Bartram, showed some of the young man's drawings to George Edwards, the English naturalist, and to Dr. John Fothergill, a noted London physician. Fothergill extended his patronage to the young Bartram and in 1773-1777 sponsored his exploratory trip through the Southeast. Specimens were sent to Fothergill, but in 1778, on his return to Philadelphia, Bartram seems to have lost interest in continuing his work, refusing the offer of Benjamin Smith Barton to add to and publish his accounts.
On his father's death William began joint management of the gardens on the Schuylkill River with his brother John. By 1791 William had managed the Philadelphia publication, by subscription, of his account of his southeastern explorations, Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, and E. and W. Florida, his major contribution to science. It was immensely popular in Europe and went through many editions and translations, eventually providing inspiration to romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge (whose Kubla Khan and Ancient Mariner were influenced by the work). He also furnished materials to Benjamin Smith Barton which found their way into Barton's publications Elements of Botany and Essay toward a Materia Medica.
Bartram was influential in starting the young Scot Alexander Wilson on his study of North American bird life. Chronic ill health forced him to decline the position of professor of botany at the University of Pennsylvania, offered in 1782, and the post of botanist on the Lewis and Clark expedition.
His botanical work is noted for its splendid imagery and eloquence. His standards of completeness and accuracy were high, and his list of native species of birds was excelled only by the later work of his protégé and friend Wilson. His dependability was not great, however, and his actual production of major works was limited to the Travels. Neither he nor his brother John rivaled the scope of their father, but William clearly inherited his father's scientific talent. The Travels was the first comprehensive treatment of the southeastern United States, including descriptions of flora and fauna, geologic formations, and Native American tribes. William never married. He died suddenly at his beloved gardens on July 22, 1823.
Further Reading on William Bartram
Bartrams's major work has been reprinted as The Travels of William Bartram, an edition by Mark Van Doren (1955). The standard biography is Nathan Bryllion Fagin, William Bartram, Interpreter of the American Landscape (1933). Ernest Earnest, John and William Bartram, Botanists and Explorers (1940), is also useful. General background is in Brooke Hindle, The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America, 1735-1789 (1956).