William John Burchell
William John Burchell
William John Burchell was born in 1781 and died in 1863 in Fulham, near London. He was the eldest son of Matthew Burchell, who owned the Fulham Nursery, near London. He travelled in St. Helena, South Africa and Brazil.
In 1805 Burchell started his travels, establishing himself briefly in St. Helena as a merchant. There he became involved in the local Botanical Garden and studied the local flora, often experimenting with the introduction of exotic plants brought to the island by ships returning from the Orient. In 1810 he sailed to Cape Town with all his collections, intending to establish himself there, starting his travels in 1811 and covering approximately 4,500 miles by 1815. Burchell was an extremely independent individual and was not tied to any society or employer, being able to explore his surroundings, studying and collecting plants in a methodic and thorough way, and leaving a remarkable contribution to science. He also sketched with accuracy both plants and landscapes.
Burchell returned to England in 1815 with his abundant collections. He became occupied with horticulture, sowing seeds and bulbs that he had brought over from South Africa. He was responsible for introducing many new ornamental species to Britain.
An opportunity to visit Brazil arose in 1825, and at first he spent some months collecting around Rio de Janeiro, sailing then to São Paulo in 1827 to travel through the interior of the country, reaching Goiás, where he spent the rainy season. He then proceeded through Porto Nacional to descend the Rio Tocantins and reach Belém in 1829. His abundant collections were never completely labelled, and the very useful itinerary compiled by Smith & Smith (1967) is paramount for the consultation of his Brazilian collections.
In 1830 he returned to England definitively. His sister, Anna Burchell, presented his botanical collections, drawings and manuscripts, both South African and Brazilian, to the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. His entomological collections, drawings and manuscripts were given to the Hope Department, University Museum, Oxford (Gordon-Brown & Böeseken, 1972). The genus Burchellia R. Brown (Rubiaceae), was dedicated to him.
Gordon-Brown, A. & Böeseken, A.J. 1972. Burchell, William John. In Dictionary of South African Biography Volume II (eds W.J. de Kock & D.W. Krüger). Tafelberg-Uitgewers, pp. 104-106.
McKay, H. 1941. William John Burchell, Botanist. Journ. S. Afr. Bot. 7: 1-18; 61-76; 115-130; 173-186.
Smith, L.B. & Smith, R.C. 1967. Itinerary of William John Burchell in Brazil, 1825-1830. Phytologia 14(8): 492-506.