“Nature’s Nobleman”: Botanical Legacies of William Canby (1831-1904)

Since the “Age of Enlightenment”, professional scientists have received the majority of the credit for discoveries which have expanded our knowledge of the natural world. However, continuously throughout history, there have lived spirited individuals–with little or no formal training–who have made remarkable contributions to science. One of the most distinguised amateaur botanists from the 19th century is railwayman and philanthropist William M. Canby (1831-1904), whose spirit of exploration is carried forward in this latest virtual expedition from NYBG.

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Propelled by equal genius in banking and botany, William Canby devoted his life and personal fortune to exploring and preserving the natural world. Over his 40 year field career, Canby collected tens-of-thousands of wild plants, organized his own herbarium, and financed dozens of botanical expeditions across the United States. Rarely publishing his own observations, Canby made his impact on the study of biodiversity by collaborating extensively with botanical specialists, who employed his vast collection to discover hundreds of new plant species. Canby earned a stellar reputation among leading contemporary naturalists of his time, including Asa Gray and John Muir, who accompanied him on many expeditions. Even Charles Darwin was impressed by Canby’s acumen for observation, especially relating to insectivorous plants, such as the “venus fly trap” (Dionea).

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Long before his death, Canby recognized the tremendous value that his collections could serve for the plant science community, so long as they were preserved in perpetuity and made accessible for all to use. Using today’s digital tools, modern-day citizen scientists (like you) can carry on his mission by helping to document all 30,000 of Canby’s original plant specimens that now reside within the New York Botanical Garden herbarium. Follow in the footsteps of one of the greatest amature naturalists of all time, and help to advance scientific understanding through meticulous collection and sharing of data about plants!

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 Join this and all other NYBG expeditions! 

— Charles Zimmerman

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