Unearthing Scientific History through Art: New Insights from the Archives of Lewis David von Schweinitz, the “Father of North American Mycology”

The information in this post is derived from the article “New Light on the Mycological Work of Lewis David von Schweinitz” (2018) by Jason M. Karakehian, William R. Burk and Donald H. Pfister, published in IMA Fungus: 9(1).

fungi illustration

Plate 12. Conspectus fungorum in Lusatiae Superioris agro Niskiensi crescentium, e methodo Persooniana (1805). Figures based on drawings by Schweinitz. Icones fungorum Niskiensium served as a sketchbook to inform this work. Contributed to BHL by the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of The New York Botanical Garden.

In 1805, the “Father of North American mycology”, Lewis David von Schweinitz (1780-1834), published an account of the fungi in Niesky, Germany with his friend and mentor, Johannes Baptista von Albertini (1769-1831). Documenting over 1,000 species, including 100 published as new-to-science, Conspectus fungorum in Lusatiae Superioris agro Niskiensi crescentium, e methodo Persooniana is still referenced to this day as a classic mycological text and ecological record.

The Conspectus is illustrated with 12 hand-colored plates based on drawings by Schweinitz, each featuring 6-10 figures of new species described. Whenever possible, Schweinitz based his drawings on fresh specimens, but when this was not an option, he referred to fungarium specimens or to a collection of earlier watercolors he’d created of representative specimens.

fungi illustrations

Plate 178. Fungorum Nieskiensium Icones. (ca.) 1802-1805. v. 3. Contributed in BHL from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Library & Archives.

Today, these watercolor volumes are dispersed between several American institutions and offer a wealth of insight into the history and development of the Conspectus. A five-volume set created (ca.) 1802-1805 and bearing the title Fungorum Nieskiensium Icones is distributed between the Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Philadelphia (volumes 1-3 and 5) and the Rare Book Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (volume 4). Nearly every specimen featured in the Conspectus has a corresponding illustration in these 5-volumes.

A volume of original watercolors consisting of copies of figures from the 5-volume set, bearing the title Icones Fungorum and created (ca.) 1818-1826, is held by the Herbarium Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.

The earliest volume of original watercolors related to the Conspectus, however, is the Icones Fungorum Niskiensium, created (ca.) 1798-1802 and held in the archives of the Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany at Harvard University. This volume (hereafter referred to as the Harvard Icones) served Schweinitz as a sketchbook of sorts, which he used to inform the final paintings in the 5-volume Fungorum Nieskiensium Icones and eventually the Conspectus itself.

fungi illustrations

Agaricus (Gymnopus) platyphyllus. Illustration from Fungorum Nieskiensium Icones v. 2, pl. 113, fig. 77 (left) and corresponding illustration in Icones Fungorum Niskiensium, pl. 23 (right). Contributed in BHL from the Library & Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and Botany Libraries, Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Harvard University.

The Harvard Icones has been digitized in the Biodiversity Heritage Library thanks to the Botany Libraries, Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Harvard University, while the 5-volume set is available in BHL thanks to the Library & Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and the Wilson Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Conspectus has been digitized in BHL by the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of The New York Botanical Garden.

The history of these watercolor volumes and their relationship to the Conspectus was recently examined in-depth within the article “New Light on the Mycological Work of Lewis David von Schweinitz” (2018) by Jason M. Karakehian, William R. Burk and Donald H. Pfister, published in IMA Fungus: 9(1). The article presents research made possible in-part thanks to the digital copies available in BHL.

As a sketchbook, the Harvard Icones provides a unique window into the development of Schweinitz’s research on the fungal species presented in the Conspectus. The 249 watercolor figures in the the Harvard Icones depict specimens he collected and painted during his time attending a Moravian seminary in Niesky. Most figures are labeled with a binomial in ink, although edits and annotations to the names throughout the work, as well as notes on the quality of the illustrated specimen, varieties, and colorations, illustrate the working-manuscript nature of the volume.

fungi illustration

Plate 17. Merisma foetidum specimen labeled as “spec. parv.” [meager specimen]. Schweinitz, Lewis David von. Icones fungorum Niskiensium. (ca.) 1798-1802. Contributed in BHL from Botany Libraries, Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Harvard University.

As outlined in the IMA Fungus article, the Harvard Icones has a rather convoluted history. A clue to that history can be found in the single fly-leaf bound within the volume and featuring the hand-written inscription on the recto: “Catherine Eliza Perceval — Philadelphia — March 8th 1826 —”.

fly-leaf

Fly-leaf featuring inscription for “Catherine Eliza Perceval”. Schweinitz, Lewis David von. Icones fungorum Niskiensium. (ca.) 1798-1802. Contributed in BHL from Botany Libraries, Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Harvard University.

Born in Quebec in 1811, Catherine Perceval was the daughter of Anne Mary Perceval and Michael Henry Perceval. Anne had an interest in botany fueled by her association with other local female botanists, Christian Ramsay, the Countess of Dalhousie, and Harriet Campbell Sheppard. The group actively botanized together, and Anne is listed as a collector in several important botanical works of the era, including Hooker’s Flora boreali-americana ([1829]-1840) and Torrey and Gray’s A Flora of North America (1838-43).

The Harvard Icones passed into the Perceval family’s possession during a meeting in 1826 between Anne and William Darlington, a correspondent of Anne’s, at their mutual friend J. Daniel Steinhauer’s residence in Philadelphia. Schweinitz described Steinhauer as an “excellent friend…[and]…botanist”. As detailed in the IMA Fungus article, Schweinitz and Daniel Steinhauer were likely introduced by Daniel’s brother, Henry Steinhauer, who was also a friend of Schweinitz’s from his time at the Moravian seminary in Germany.

Henry had attempted to have copies made of the figures in Schweinitz’s 5-volume watercolor set, and towards this end, Schweinitz had given Henry his “Icones Fungorum Niesk’m” shortly prior to January 1818. The watercolor volume held in the Michigan Herbarium Library is the result of these endeavors. Karakehian et al. postulate that as part of this exchange the Harvard Icones may have ended up in Henry’s possession and passed to Daniel Steinhauer upon Henry’s death, after which it was passed along to Anne or directly to her daughter, Catherine (whose name is found in the Icones inscription).

fungi illustration

Plate 49. Merulius crispus labeled as “inexplicat[us]”, reflecting doubt as to whether the specimen was a fungus. Similarly, label of “Substantia aquatica” [watery substance]. Schweinitz, Lewis David von. Icones fungorum Niskiensium. (ca.) 1798-1802. Contributed in BHL from Botany Libraries, Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Harvard University.

The volume later passed from Catherine to her son Francis Denys and eventually ended up in the possession of antiquarian book dealers and scholars William and Marianne Salloch, after whose death it was sold to a Bungay book dealer at a Christie’s auction in 1991, advertised as “Original American Watercolors” by Catherine Eliza Perceval.

Microbiologist and mycophile Elio Schaechter eventually purchased the volume from the book dealer and showed it to Donald Pfister at the Farlow Herbarium, whose research ultimately allowed him to attribute the work to Schweinitz. He also generated a manuscript index to the illustrations, which has also been digitized in BHL along with the Harvard Icones itself.

In the early 2000s, David Hewitt of the Farlow Herbarium was the first to propose that the Harvard Icones served Schweinitz as a sketchbook after comparing it to the four volumes of watercolors held at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Karakehian et al. support this conclusion, presenting further evidence within their IMA Fungus article including the incomplete quality of the sketches, the lack of any systematic arrangement of the specimens on the plates, and the annotations reflecting edits or uncertainty about species identifications, none of which are present in the five-volume set or the Conspectus.

fungi illustrations

Plate 20. “Clavaria monstrosa” label indicating an anomalous specimen. Question marks indicating uncertainty over “Mycena leptocephalus” identification. Schweinitz, Lewis David von. Icones fungorum Niskiensium. (ca.) 1798-1802. Contributed in BHL from Botany Libraries, Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Harvard University.

The research presented by Karakehian et al. provides novel insight into the development of a foundational mycological work. As Karakehian explains,

“These watercolor volumes are part of the knowledge-base that Schweinitz employed in his studies of American fungi. Therefore, understanding the history of these volumes is essential not only to a clearer understanding of the American mycobiota, but to an elucidation of the depth of the scientific knowledge-base at the founding of mycology in North America.”

fungi illustration

Plate 6. Trichia rubiformis labeled as “statu jun.” [immature state]. Schweinitz, Lewis David von. Icones fungorum Niskiensium. (ca.) 1798-1802. Contributed in BHL from Botany Libraries, Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Harvard University.

The Harvard Icones and its related works also provide a prime example of how unprecedented research is made possible thanks to digitization initiatives like the Biodiversity Heritage Library, which allow easy reference to and comparison between volumes held in multiple institutions across the United States. As Karakehian et al. acknowledge within their paper,

“It is important to note that much of this work that resulted in this paper was made possible because archives, manuscripts and books are becoming increasingly available through digital efforts being made around the world.”

Given the unique and rare nature of the  Harvard Icones, the book was scanned at Harvard using an Internet Archive TableTop Scanner that is shared with between the Harvard Botany Libraries and the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology.  This mini version of an Internet Archive scribe allows Harvard librarians to scan rare or fragile materials without the wear and tear of off-site transportation. Once scanned, the Internet Archive processed the images and the final product was made accessible in the Internet Archive and BHL.  We are so grateful to the Botany Libraries, Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Harvard University for all of their work to digitize the Harvard Icones in BHL and make it freely available to the world.

Similarly, we extend our sincere thanks to the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of The New York Botanical Garden, the Library & Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and the Wilson Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for digitizing Schweinitz’s Conspectus and other, complementary archival works, ensuring that they are also now freely available through BHL.

Take a closer look at how BHL facilitated research on these remarkable archives with our BHL User series, where Karakehian provides more insight into BHL’s impact on his work to unravel the mysteries surrounding Schweinitz’s Icones.

Post with contributions from Jason M. Karakehian (Master’s degree candidate at the Harvard Extension School), Judith A. Warnement (Librarian of Harvard University Botany Libraries), and Diane Rielinger (Digital Projects Librarian, Harvard University Herbaria & Libraries).

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Grace Costantino is the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library. In this capacity, she developed and manages BHL's communication strategy, oversees social media initiatives, and engages with the public to excite audiences about the wealth of biodiversity heritage available in BHL.