A Relic of Botany History

The Academy Library contains a treasure trove of titles — rare, unusual and important for research. Friends and supporters contact us regularly regarding book donations, and though we appreciate the consideration, we often decline because a title is already in our holdings. Occasionally, though, something is offered that we don’t already own and that perfectly complements our collections.

Mushroom and plant Illustration from Willdenow's Guide to Self-Study of Botany
WOLF ROOM QK 45.W68 1822

Early this spring, we were contacted by a volunteer in our Entomology Department whose friend had purchased a book at an estate sale and thought it might be an excellent addition to the library.

The title on offer, Dr. Carl Ludwig Willdenow’s Anleitung zum Selbststudium der Botanik: ein Handbuch zu öffentlichen Vorlesungen (Dr. Carl Ludwig Willdenow’s Guide to Self-Study of Botany: A Handbook for Public Lectures, 1822) was not in our holdings, though we have other items related to Willdenow, as well as Willdenowia, the journal that bears his name.

Flower illustration from Willdenow's Guide to Self-Study of Botany
WOLF ROOM QK 45.W68 1822

Willdenow is a major figure in the field of botany, considered to be the individual who laid the foundation for the field of phytogeography (the geographical distribution of plants). His father introduced him to the study of plants at a young age, and by his teenage years, he had created his own herbarium. As a young man, he pursued further studies in chemistry with one ofthe leading scientists in Berlin. His formal education focused on pharmacy and medicine, and upon completion of his studies, he took over his father’s apothecary in Berlin.

By 1787, Willdenow had published a flora of Berlin. He was well-known for his informal lectures on botany and for leading small groups on field trips around the city. In 1788, he met German explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and the two became lifelong friends, with Willdenow becoming a mentor to the young scientist.

Illustration from Willdenow's Guide to Self-Study of Botany
WOLF ROOM QK 45.W68 1822

Though Willdenow seldom left Germany during his lifetime, he described numerous plants sent to him by von Humboldt from the latter’s travels in South America. His reputation increased when he published the introductory textbook Grundriss der Kräuterkunde zu Vorlesungen entworfen (Outlines of Herbalism, Designed for Lectures) in 1792, intended to replace Linnaeus’ work Philosophia botanica (The Philosophy of Botany, 1751), considered obsolete at the time.

In 1801, Willdenow was named the principal botanist at the Berlin Academy of Sciences, as well as curator at the Berlin Botanical Garden. During his curatorship, the botanical garden became one of the most comprehensive in Europe. He traveled to Paris in 1810 to assist von Humboldt, but illness forced his return to Berlin shortly after his arrival. He died in 1812, soon after being named a professor at the new University of Berlin.

Title page from Willdenow's Guide to Self-Study of Botany
WOLF ROOM QK 45.W68 1822

The item donated to the library is relatively small and is in excellent condition, with only minor deterioration of the pages and a slightly worn spine. The back of the book contains four plates with colors just as vibrant as they likely were upon initial publication.

Though we were thrilled to add this book to our holdings, we were yet to discover the most exciting aspects of the donation. There are several handwritten notations on the inside flyleaf, giving us some indication of the book’s provenance through 1909.

Flyleaf from Willdenow's Guide to Self-Study of Botany
WOLF ROOM QK 45.W68 1822

Additionally, while cataloging the book, we discovered that the Academy’s library is one of only 11 libraries in the world to hold this title — and only one of four libraries in North America! Since its publication in 1822, this small volume has clearly done some traveling. Though we will never know the complete story of its past, its future resides in our library.

By Bridget Arthur Clancy, Cataloging and Serials Librarian

This article originally appeared in Academy Frontiers, the Academy’s member magazine.


  1. I enjoyed this article so very much. Reading the article made me feel as if the book itself was a person with its own amazing life and history, along side its famous author.

    I am very happy to learn that the publication found its home at the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel. I feel confident that it will be well preserved and truly appreciated, preserved, and shared with those that know its true value, as well as with those that simply love the beautiful drawings.

  2. Wildenow named an American oak, Quercus prinoides. Is there an orginal description in any of the writings. I would very much appreciate reading his description. Thank you.

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