William Gilson Farlow


Printers are dreadful. Some are nominally cheaper than others, but, if accuracy in setting up scientific papers is needed, the extra corrections make the cheaper men nearly as dear as the more expensive and the result is, on the whole, not a success. At least, my own attempts at economy in printing have been expensive and sometimes mortifying.

I am now ready to pay more to a man close at hand and practically under my thumb, which means someone whom I can scold and bully.

Letter from William Gilson Farlow to Dr. Nathaniel Britton January 17, 1891. Regarding the hiring of the Boston Heliotype Company

William Gilson Farlow was born near Boston, Massachusetts on December 17, 1844. Equally gifted in science and music, Farlow stated at his graduation from Harvard in 1866 that he "had no definite plans for life." By the following year, though, he had come to a decision to enter Harvard Medical School. He enrolled in November of 1867 and received his M.D. in May of 1870. In July of the same year Farlow was hired to assist Asa Gray, Fisher Professor of Natural History, a position he held for two years. At the time, botany had not yet been established as an academic discipline, and, as Farlow tells us:

It certainly now seems ridiculous that one who had only just finished his medical studies and knew nothing about cryptogams ... should attempt to teach the subject. But the young are courageous, not to say audacious ... and, it must also be admitted, the demands of students for information on the subject were easily satisfied at that time.

However, Farlow's own desire to gain greater botanical expertise was not yet filled. In 1872 he traveled to Europe, where he studied for two years with Anton de Bary as well as other prominent botanists in Germany, France and Scandinavia. When he returned in 1874 he was made Assistant Professor of Botany at the Bussey Institution of Harvard University located in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. In 1879 Farlow was appointed Professor of Cryptogamic Botany at Harvard. He remained in this position for the rest of his life and continued to advise doctoral candidates even after his retirement from active teaching in 1896.

After Farlow's marriage to Lilian Horsford in 1900 their home became a haven for visiting botanists. In addition to advising guests, Farlow assisted many students and colleagues through his voluminous correspondence, which gives evidence of great thought and research. He also published many papers and articles on rusts, fungi and algae. His larger publications include the Bibliography of Articles on American Fungi (1887-8), the Host Index to Fungi in the United States (1888), the Bibliographical Index of North American Fungi (1905), and the Icones Farlowianae, published posthumously in 1929.

Farlow's contributions to botany were acknowledged internationally. He was granted honorary degrees from Harvard University, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Glasgow, and the University of Uppsala. He held memberships in the National Academy of Science, the London Linnaean Society, and the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and was president of the A.A.A.S., the Botanical Society of America, and the American Naturalists.

At least two genera and many species have been named for Farlow. He will be remembered as a pioneer investigator in plant pathology, who helped establish a systematic nomenclature for fungi, and inspired and directed some of America's leading botanists. It was said that "His firsthand knowledge of cryptograms was greater than that of any botanist and he was probably the most learned man in his profession" (Thaxter, Osterhout, and Richards, December 1919).

During his lifetime Farlow founded and endowed the Harvard Cryptogamic Laboratories and Herbarium. His personal library was bequeathed to the university upon his death in Cambridge on June 3, 1919.