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Sherard, William (1659–1728), botanist, the second of six children and eldest son of a landowner, George Sherard (Sherwood), and Mary, his second wife, was born on 27 February 1659 at Bushby, a hamlet just outside Leicester. was a younger brother. The family's social position was sufficiently affluent for Sherard to attend Merchant Taylors' School in London in 1677, culminating in his being awarded in 1677 one of its coveted special fellowships at St John's College, Oxford, in theory reserved for poor scholars. These fellows were entitled to indefinite residence in the college as long as (inter alia) they did not marry. Sherard chose to read law and, after graduating BCL in December 1683, having scholarly inclinations and apparently under no pressure to seek a more remunerative livelihood, he decided to stay on.

Sherard early became captivated by the challenging diversity of the plant world and the need for a comprehensive system to impose order on this. While a student he had frequented the university's physic garden and there formed a lasting friendship with its new keeper, Jacob Bobart the younger, supplying plants, seeds, and many rare books to assist his task of completing Robert Morison's Plantarum historiae universalis Oxoniensis. It was probably at Bobart's instance that in December 1685 he obtained five years' leave of absence, took up residence in Paris, and attended three of the renowned annual courses on botany given at the Jardin du Roi by Bobart's equivalent there, J. P. de Tournefort. Visiting the Netherlands, Sherard forged a strong link with the keeper of the Leiden Botanical Garden, Paul Hermann. The lists he compiled of the plants growing in these two outstandingly rich garden collections were rightly judged valuable enough to be turned into what was to be his only book, Schola botanica, published under the pseudonymous initials S. W. A. in 1689. Already, through his affability, unstinting helpfulness, and freedom to travel widely, his key role as a unifying agent in a badly fragmented European botanical community was starting to emerge.

Sherard's compulsive cataloguing extended to the countryside as well as to gardens. An appendix to Ray's Synopsis (1690) contains his plant records from across southern England; it also reveals that he had visited Jersey and discovered nine of that island's specialities.

With his college still indulgent over his absence—and having lost to Leonard Plukenet the post of ‘queen's botanist’—Sherard went to stay in 1690 with a young Irish baronet, Sir Arthur Rawdon, on his estate at Moira in co. Down. It has been supposed that he went as tutor to Sir Rawdon's one surviving son, but the age of the boy makes that unlikely and probably he was invited as botanical adviser and companion to Rawdon, who was himself a sophisticated horticulturist. Life at Moira evidently proved seductive, for the stay extended to about four years, a sacrifice of time which in later years Sherard came to regret; even so it was by no means wasted, for on forays into the Ulster countryside he added several species to the little-known Irish flora. After a brief return to Oxford, where he progressed to DCL in June 1694, Sherard departed for the continent that autumn, as tutor to Charles, Lord Townshend, on the latter's grand tour. Though travelling with a young nobleman opened all doors, formal visits left him with frustratingly little time for botany, much of which in any case had to be given over to completing Hermann's Paradisus Batavus, a catalogue of the plants growing in the Netherlands, which with characteristic generosity he undertook for Hermann's widow following its author's sudden death.

No sooner was he back in England in November 1697 than Sherard left on a second grand tour, this time as tutor to the marquess of Tavistock, the young heir to the first duke of Bedford, and with the prospect of many months in Italy. They visited the chief cities, whose botanical gardens Sherard was able to examine with his customary thoroughness. It was during this trip that he apparently first seriously contemplated what was to be his central goal in life thereafter: a continuation of Bauhin's Pinax of 1623, a task suggested to him by Tournefort. This entailed updating that list of all the names given by botanical authors to each species of plant known up to that time, an encyclopaedic endeavour foreshadowing today's Index Kewensis. To this end he returned home with a large haul of rare books together with many herbarium specimens donated by leading Italian botanists.

Sherard was back in England by Christmas 1698 with his thirst for travel temporarily assuaged, and two summers later gave in to repeated requests from the dowager duchess of Beaufort to tutor her grandson Henry, an introduction he owed to Sloane. The duchess took justifiable pride in the rich garden she had built up at Badminton and doubtless really wanted him for his botanical knowledge. In the event the position proved uncongenial and it must have been a relief when it was terminated by his pupil falling seriously ill. Meanwhile Sherard was coming under pressure to take some part in the affairs of his college, and in November 1700 he returned to act as junior bursar. This experience seems to have killed any remaining taste for Oxford life, for soon he was seeking openings elsewhere. In May 1702 he was appointed to a longstanding government commission set up to ensure better care of French and Spanish prisoners, at a stipend of £200 per annum. Though this was patently no more than a stopgap, it provided the college with grounds to declare his fellowship void the following April.

A far better position then materialized—consul at Smyrna for the Levant Company, ‘a good post for honour and revenue’ (Sherard to Royal Society, 1703, RS, Sherard MSS, letter 625), which he took in the full expectation that it would be for life. Although lucrative, lack of necessary books and poor communications with Europe impeded work on his magnum opus, while local botanizing proved feasible only with many companions for protection. His energies consequently became sidetracked into the collecting of coins and medallions and copying of church inscriptions, many of the latter published in Edmund Chisnell's Antiquitates Asiaticae (1728). However, fortunately for botany, the country house at Sedi-Keui, seven miles outside Smyrna, which he had bought in 1711, was burgled and many of his coins stolen in the mistaken belief that they were silver. Their loss subverted this competing interest and took him back to the Pinax, but he was increasingly forced to recognize that his return to England was essential if that work was to progress further.

Having reluctantly resigned his position, Sherard left for London in November 1716, but the intentionally leisurely journey back stretched out to a whole year when plague broke out on his ship and it was held in quarantine at Leghorn. On arriving home, sufficiently well off now to be able to devote all his time to botany, he settled into chambers in Barking Alley, resumed his London friendships, and stood for election to the Royal Society, going almost at once on to its council in 1720. About the same time his brother James, who had risen to great wealth as an apothecary, acquired an estate at Eltham, on the city's south-east outskirts, and, sharing his enthusiasm for botany, invited Sherard to assist him in his soon-realized aim of turning its garden and hothouses into the most richly stocked in Britain. In May 1721 the two travelled to the continent, partly to buy plants and partly to try to entice a rising young Hessian with expertise especially in mosses and fungi, Johann Jakob Dillenius, to move from Giessen to help with their respective projects. Dillenius succumbed and went to live in London with Sherard that autumn, but though both worked hard on the Pinax, its completion was held up by a temporary dispute between Sloane and Sherard, and the former's consequent denial to them of access to the collections of Plukenet and James Petiver. On top of Sherard's perfectionism and continuing distractions—notably as an intermediary for aristocratic collectors—this was eventually to prove the work's death-blow.

In the meantime, though, work on the Pinax continued to provide a justification for Sherard's unending botanical acquisitiveness. In 1721 he organized the dispatch of Mark Catesby back to North America to collect natural history specimens for a syndicate, and the next year rounded up another set of subscribers to send the ‘pilgrim botanist’, Thomas More, to do the same in New England. In 1722, however, the king of France outbid him for the herbarium of Sébastien Vaillant, who had died without completing his life work, the Botanicon Parisiense. Before his death Vaillant had sought to persuade Hermann's successor at Leiden, Boerhaave, to complete it, and Sherard now prevailed upon that long-time friend of his to do so, promising his assistance. This required his making two more visits to the Netherlands preparatory to the book's publication in 1727.

In the autumn of 1724, needing more space for arranging his herbarium and papers, Sherard moved with Dillenius to a house on Tower Hill, where the two bachelors were looked after by a housekeeper. But their enjoyment of these improved conditions was brief: by April 1728 Sherard was withering away there from what friends described as ‘senile marasmus’ and his death finally came during the night of 11–12 August. He was buried on 19 August in the churchyard at Eltham, but the precise location of his grave is now unknown. Two years earlier he had donated £500 towards the cost of enlarging the conservatory at the Oxford Physic Garden, along with many duplicate specimens and rare books for its library. In his will he further underlined his debt to his alma mater by bequeathing it his herbarium of some 12,000 specimens, his library of more than 600 volumes, his paintings, drawings, and the manuscript of the Pinax. However, a series of conditions was attached: a new chair of botany was to be established at the botanic garden (for which £3000 was offered as its endowment), Dillenius was to be its occupant for life, and the university was to pay £150 annually towards the upkeep of the garden and its library. Seven years of wrangling over the details followed before his intentions were eventually realized and Dillenius took office in 1735 as the first Sherardian professor. By thus inserting into this key position one of Europe's ablest botanists, Sherard arguably achieved more for the study posthumously than all he accomplished during his lifetime.

Three of his friends named genera in Sherard's honour, but it was the Sherardia that Dillenius bestowed on field madder that later secured adoption by Linnaeus and has thereby been perpetuated. Another common British wild flower, Rosa sherardii, commemorates him at the species level.

D. E. Allen


G. Pasti Jr, ‘Consul Sherard: amateur botanist and patron of learning, 1659–1728’, PhD diss., University of Illinois, 1950 · H. M. Clokie, An account of the herbaria of the department of botany in the University of Oxford (1964), 17–30 · B. D. Jackson, ‘A sketch of the life of William Sherard’, Journal of Botany, British and Foreign, 12 (1874), 129–38 · R. Pulteney, Historical and biographical sketches of the progress of botany in England, 2 (1790), 141–50 · W. L. Tjaden, ‘William and James Sherard and John James Dillenius: some errors in their biographies’, Journal of the Society of the Bibliography of Natural History, 8 (1976–8), 143–7 · B. Henrey, No ordinary gardener: Thomas Knowlton, 1691–1781, ed. A. O. Chater (1986) · G. A. Lindeboom, Herman Boerhaave: the man and his work (1968) · Boerhaave's correspondence, ed. G. A. Lindeboom, 1 (1962), 38–162 · Extracts from the literary and scientific correspondence of Richard Richardson, ed. D. Turner (1835) · F. Le Sueur, Flora of Jersey (1984), xxxiii–xxxv · E. C. Nelson, ‘Sir Arthur Rawdon, 1662–1675, of Moira: his life and letters, family and friends, and his Jamaican plants’, Proceedings and Report of Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, 10 (1977–82), 30–52 · Mrs E. P. Hart, ed., Merchant Taylors' School register, 1561–1934, 2 vols. (1936) · RS, Sherard MSS, letter 625 · M. Riley, ‘Procurers of plants and encouragers of gardening: William and James Sherard and Charles du Bois, case studies in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century botanical and horticultural patronage’, PhD diss., University of Buckingham, 2011


BL, journal of Bernard Mould and notes, Add. MS 65142A–B; notes on Asia Minor, Add. MS 10101 · Bodl. Oxf., library and MSS · Musée d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris, specimens · NHM, department of botany, notes and observations on Ray's Historia plantarum, Banksian MS 80 · NHM, papers · NHM, specimens · RS, corresp. and papers, MSS 252–256, 88 · U. Oxf., department of plant sciences, herbarium · Zürich Central Library, Switzerland, letters |  BL, Sloane MSS, letters to James Petiver · BL, letters to Sir Hans Sloane


oils (of Sherard?), Oxford Botanic Garden

Wealth at death  

£20,000: will, TNA: PRO