Historical Markers
William Darlington Historical Marker
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William Darlington

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
13 N. High St. between Market and Gay Sts. West Chester

Dedication Date:
April 11, 1952

Behind the Marker

Head and shoulders painting
William Darlington, by John Neagle.
William Darlington (1782-1863) bridged two eras in the history of American science. A physician trained at the University of Pennsylvania, he was also an amateur scientist in the mold of markerBenjamin Franklin and marker David Rittenhouse, who devoted a great deal of his spare time to the study of botany and made significant contributions to that field.

Born on April 28, 1782, near the village of Dilworth (today Dilworthtown), Chester County, Darlington earned his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1804, the served as a physician at the Chester County Alms House and as a surgeon on a merchant ship that sailed to India.

Upon his return to the United States in 1807, Darlington settled in West Chester, Pa., to practice medicine. There, he became a respected physician and community leader.
Head and shoulders sketch
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Titian Ramsay Peale, self portrait, 1845.
He served in the War of 1812; was twice elected to a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives (1815-1817, 1819-1823); founded several libraries, the Chester County Medical Society and the Bank of Chester County, where he served as president for thirty-three years; worked as a state canal commissioner and as president of the West Chester Railroad. In his spare time, Darlington studied and catalogued the local flora, work that earned him recognition as one of the nation's preeminent botanists.

Darlington had first learned about plants while working on the family farm, but his scientific interest had blossomed at Penn while studying medical botany under markerBenjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815), the celebrated botanist who helped train markerMeriwether Lewis for his famous expedition that surveyed the Louisiana Territory (1804-1806).

At Penn, Darlington also had struck up a friendship with William Baldwin, another young medical student from Chester County, three years his junior. Also deeply influenced by Professor Barton, Baldwin moved to Delaware and then Georgia, and while serving as a ship physician and botanist on a trip to South America struck up a correspondence with Darlington about their shared interest. After returning with his family in Wilmington, Delaware, Baldwin, encouraged by Darlington, began work on a botanical study of the plants he had collected in Georgia and east Florida.

Head and shoulders portrait
Pennsylvania botanist William Baldwin, circa 1819.
Inspired by tremendous success and public fascination with the Lewis and Clark's expedition, the federal government in the early 1800s sponsored a succession of scientific expeditions to explore other parts of the United States and the world. One of the nation's leading scientific institutions, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia organized the 1817 Florida Expedition that explored the offshore islands of Georgia and Florida and Florida's east coast. When Major Stephen H. Long in 1819 set out to explore the land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains and in a second stage, explored the headwaters of the Red and Arkansas Rivers, he brought three Pennsylvanians with him: naturalist Thomas Say and artist Titian Ramsey Peale, both associated with the Academy, and William Baldwin who served as the expedition's botanist.

Forced to leave the group because of poor health, Baldwin died in Franklin, Mo., on September 1, 1819. In 1838, Captain John Wilkes headed the United States Exploring Expedition (1838-1842), which spent four years exploring the world's oceans and sailed farther south than any expedition before it. The United States Exploring Expedition included Peale and Academy of Natural Sciences' naturalist Charles Pickering among its civilian members.

Although his own botanical adventures and studies were confined to Chester County, Darlington remained connected to these extraordinary explorations through his connections with Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences. He established his own reputation with the publication work in 1826 of Florula Cestrica, which identified, described and categorized the plants in and around West Chester. That year, he and other amateur botanists also established the Chester County Cabinet of Natural Science. Eleven years later, he published Flora Cestrica, a revised and expanded version of his work that contained a complete description and classification of every plant in Chester County.

California pitcher plant, Darlingtonia californica in a field
California pitcher plant, Darlingtonia Californica
Darlington also who traveled to the Academy of Natural Sciences to study the specimens of his deceased friend, and in 1843 ensured Baldwin's place in the field of botany by publishing the botanist's letters and a brief biography in Reliquiae Baldwinianae: selections from the correspondence of the late William Baldwin, M.D. ... with occasional notes, and a short biographical memoir. Joining in the movement for the application of scientific knowledge to agriculture he in 1847 published Agricultural Botany (later reissued as American Weeds and Useful Plants), a practical advice book for farmers. Darlington also wrote biographies of notable Pennsylvania botanists marker John Bartram (1699-1777), and Humphrey Marshall (1722-1801), and established a herbarium, a permanent reference collection of dried specimens, now housed at West Chester University.

In recognition of his contributions to science, Yale University awarded him an honorary degree in 1848. Seven years later, Dickinson College presented him with the first Doctor of Physical Sciences degree ever awarded in the United States. Darlington received perhaps his greatest homage in 1853, when another friend, New York botanist John Torrey, gave the name Darlingtonia California to a plant discovered in 1841 by botanist William D. Brackenridge at Mount Shasta in California.

Darlington continued to tutor botany students past the age of eighty. After a long career in medicine, public service and botany, he died in 1863. By then, American science was far different than it had been when Darlington first studied botany with William Smith Barton some sixty years earlier. Three generations of American scientists and artists had participated in scientific expeditions that spanned the globe, written about their travels and joined the growing science faculties in American universities. Specimens brought back from the Wilkes' expedition became one of the first collections of the new Smithsonian Institution, whose first building, known as "The Castle," opened on Washington, D.C.'s National Mall in 1855.
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