William Sherard (1659–1728)

Botanist William Sherard (1659–1728) attended Merchant Taylors' School in London, won a fellowship at St John's College, Oxford, and read law, graduating BCL in December 1683. He had, however, become captivated by the diversity of the plant world and the need for a comprehensive system to classify it. In December 1685 he was granted five years' leave of absence from Oxford, he attended courses on botany at the Jardin du Roi and visited the Leiden Botanical Garden in the Netherlands. Sherard's lists of the plants growing in these two garden collections resulted in his only book, Schola botanica (1689). He went on to become a unifying agent in Europe's badly fragmented European botanical community.

After he lost the post of ‘queen's botanist’ to Leonard Plukenet, Sherard moved to Ireland in 1690 as tutor to baronet Sir Arthur Rawdon's son, and, probably, botanical adviser to Rawdon. After a brief return to Oxford in 1694, Sherard departed for the continent, as Charles, Lord Townshend's tutor on his grand tour, and followed it with another continental excursion as tutor to the Marquess of Tavistock in November 1697.

He returned from that journey around Christmas 1698 with a collection of rare books and specimens donated by leading Italian botanists and an intention to update Bauhin's 1623 Pinax, a list of all the names used by botanical authors to label each known species of plant. Lacking an independent income, Sherard worked as a tutor while he worked on the project, then took up an appointment on government commission attending to the care of French and Spanish prisoners of war, at a stipend of £200 per annum in May 1702.

A better-paying position as the Levant Company's consul at Smyrna (modern-day İzmir, in Turkey) appeared the next year, and although a lack of reference books and poor communications with his botanical peers in Europe impeded work on his lifetime project, when he eventually set out to return to London in November 1716, he was, effectively, a gentleman of independent means. The homeward journey lasted a year, thanks to a lengthy spell in quarantine at Leghorn after plage broke out on the ship he was travelling on.

Back in London as a full-time botanist, he stood for election to the Royal Society and set out to assist his brother James, who had made a fortune as an apothecary, develop his new estate at Eltham, on London's southeastern outskirts into the most richly stocked garden and hothouse complex in Britain.

When he needed more space for his herbarium and papers in the autumn of 1724, Sherard moved into a house on Tower Hill with a rising young Hessian botanist  Johann Jakob Dillenius, whom the Sherard brothers had recruited to assist with the work at Eltham on a journey to the continent in May 1721. After Sherard died in the house at Tower Hill in August 1728, his will bequeathed his alma mater his herbarium (12,000 specimens), his 600 volume library, his paintings, drawings, the manuscript of the Pinax and a £3000 endowment to establish a new chair of botany at Oxford's botanic garden on condition that Dillenius was to be its first occupant. The bequest, however, required the university to pay £150 annually towards the upkeep of the garden and its library and wrangling over the details meantDillenius did not take office in 1735 as the first Sherardian professor until 1735.

Sources: D. E. Allen, William Sherard (1659–1728), Wikipedia

© Ian Hughes 2017