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William Henry Harvey (1811–1866)

by Sophie C. Ducker

This article was published:

William Henry Harvey (1811-1866), botanist, was born on 5 February 1811 at Summerville, County Limerick, Ireland, the youngest son of Joseph Massey Harvey, a prosperous Quaker merchant, and his wife Rebecca, née Mark. From childhood he had a passion for natural history and was encouraged at Ballitore School, County Kildare. On leaving school he was apprenticed to his father but took no interest in the business although it provided the finance for his studies, particularly botany. At 20 he began a long association with William Jackson Hooker who commissioned him to describe certain groups in the new edition of the British Flora and introduced him to many botanists including James Bicheno and Robert Brown. Through (Sir) Joseph Hooker, Harvey received algal collections from expeditions to the Pacific and southern hemisphere. These he described in his Nereis Australis (London, 1847-49) and as a contributor in J. D. Hooker, Flora Tasmaniae (London, 1860).

Attracted by 'Robert Brown's Country' and by a family friend, Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke, Harvey wanted to visit New South Wales, but in 1834 his brother Joseph was appointed colonial treasurer at Cape Town. William was made his deputy and after Joseph died in 1835 became treasurer. In office he continued his botanical work, publishing A Manual of the British Marine Algae (London, 1841), and preparing three volumes of Flora Capensis (Cape Town and Dublin, 1859-1865) in collaboration with O. W. Sonder from Hamburg. Ill health led to his resignation in 1842 and he went to Dublin, hoping for a salaried botanical post at Trinity College. Although he was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1844 and entered the United Church of England and Ireland, he was not appointed to the vacant chair of botany but only as curator of the herbarium. However, in 1848 he became professor of botany of the Royal Dublin Society and in 1856 he was appointed to the chair of botany at Trinity College; he held all three posts until 1866.

In 1849 Harvey's tour of the United States as guest of the Smithsonian Institute and Harvard University led to many publications on American algae. Granted leave by Trinity College he sailed for Western Australia, arriving at Albany on 7 January 1854; after a month at Cape Riche he went overland to Perth where he visited Fremantle and Rottnest and Garden Islands. Harvey had already studied the algal collections of Brown and Johann Preiss and as an authority on European, American and South African algae he was well equipped to evaluate the Australian marine flora. He found it exciting and collected 10,000 specimens, and some were described in 'Some Account of the Marine Botany of the Colony of Western Australia' (Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy of Science, 1855). Many new algae were named after botanists in the colony. He reached Victoria in September 1854 and collected extensively in Port Phillip and Westernport Bays and at Port Fairy. On advice of Ferdinand von Mueller and Dr Daniel Curdie he discovered at Queenscliff many new algae, naming them after Victorian associates and publishing the collection in Phycologia Australica (London, 1858-63). In January 1855 he went to Tasmania. At George Town he shared Rev. John Fereday's enthusiasm for seaweeds and at Deloraine collected seeds and land plants with William Archer. At Hobart Town he associated with George Washington Walker and Ronald Gunn. He collected seaweeds at Eaglehawk Neck and Dead Island, and also gave much attention to the Port Arthur penal establishment. In Sydney he accepted George Bennett's hospitality and with the botanist, Charles Moore, went by steamer to Newcastle. In the John Wesley he visited New Zealand, Tonga and the Fiji Islands and returned after six months to Sydney. After recuperation at Kiama he sailed by way of Valparaiso for Dublin, arriving in October 1856.

Despite failing health Harvey published his monumental works which are still used as working manuals, particularly in Australia. Shy and taciturn in company, he was verbose and flowery in his writings. His herbarium is at Trinity College, Dublin, but some duplicates from his travelling sets are in the National Herbarium of Victoria. Two sets of his 'Algae Australiae Exsiccatae' in book form are in the Mitchell Library, Sydney. Harvey was also interested in theology and revealed his views in a letter to his friend Josiah Gough, published as Charles and Josiah: or Friendly Conversations Between a Churchman and a Quaker (1862). To Charles Darwin and the Hookers he was a 'first-rate botanist' despite his published criticism of the Origin of Species. In 1861 he had married Miss Phelps of Limerick but died of tuberculosis on 15 May 1866 at Torquay in the home of W. J. Hooker's widow.

Select Bibliography

  • L. J. Fisher (ed), Memoir of W. H. Harvey, With Selections From his Journal and Correspondence (Lond, 1869)
  • L. Huxley, Life and Letters of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (Lond, 1918)
  • J. H. Maiden, ‘Records of Australian Botanists’, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, vol 42, 1908, pp 60-132
  • Letters to W. J. Hooker, Hooker's Journal of Botany, 6 (1854), 7 (1855)
  • D. A. Webb, ‘William Henry Harvey … and the Tradition of systematic botany’, Hermathena, 103 (1966)
  • manuscript catalogue under William Henry Harvey (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Sophie C. Ducker, 'Harvey, William Henry (1811–1866)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 21 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


5 February, 1811
Summerville, Limerick, Ireland


15 May, 1866 (aged 55)
Torquay, Devon, England

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