Vol. 43, No. 6
John R. Nelson
Note: This article is an expanded version of “Thomas Nuttall: Pioneering Naturalist” published in the May/June 2015 issue of Harvard Magazine.
Portrait of Nuttall, artist unknown—probably the only known portrait.
Thomas Nuttall’s first love was plants, not birds. In 1808, the day after he came to Philadelphia from his native England, Nuttall saw a common greenbrier, a species unknown to him, and brought it to Benjamin Smith Barton, professor of Natural History and Botany at the University of Pennsylvania. Barton, author of the first American botany textbook, was struck by the young man’s fervor for plants and became his mentor. Two years later, he sent Nuttall on the first of his many great collecting expeditions: west to the Great Lakes, up the Missouri River into Mandan territory in North Dakota, and then down the Mississippi.
Despite identification papers signed by President Madison, Nuttall soon realized that he wouldn’t be welcomed by British trappers who controlled the Great Lakes region, and he joined a John Jacob Astor fur trading party on Mackinac Island. In woods and prairies along the wide Missouri, he found plants new to science and collected species discovered, but lost in transit, by the Lewis and Clark expedition. Mishaps punctuated his single-minded scientific quest. Suffering chills and fever from malaria, he had to be rescued by a Mandan after he’d wandered off and collapsed on the plains. Later, lost again, he fled from the Indians who’d been sent to save him but were wary of approaching him because of his reputation for brewing powerful herbal concoctions. He entrusted another group of Indians to deliver specimens by boat, only to be told that his couriers drank the alcohol used to preserve his treasures.