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Dr. William Darlington was born on April 28, 1782, in Chester County and went on to lead a most unique life here. It was 1804, he was 22 years old, and he graduated from the Medical School of the University of Pennsylvania. He was the first Chester Countian to accomplish that feat. While studying medicine at Penn, he also mastered French, Latin, German, and Spanish to graduate fluent in five languages. He returned to West Chester to set up his new practice and was immediately appointed as physician to the Chester County Almshouse and after a spell at that position, he was commissioned as a surgeon to our local militia. Due to his now military involvement, his choice of worship with the Society of Friends was ended as they severed ties with him.
Part of his military work sent him to India in 1806, as a ship’s surgeon and after a year onboard, he penned his first published work in “Analectic Magazine” in 1807, which detailed his journey on the seas around India. He returned to Chester County to an extensive and very profitable medical practice. He also found time to marry his West Chester sweetheart, Catherine Lacey.
In 1811, he was appointed as a Trustee and Secretary of the West Chester Academy and held both posts for the rest of his life which lasted another 50 years. Military life called again in 1812, when he helped to enlist an armed corps from West Chester into the War of 1812 and in 1814, when West Chester was threatened by the invading British, he joined the American Grays and elevated himself from Ensign to Major of the First Battalion to which his West Chester Regiment was assigned. After that military stint, he was elected a Representative to Congress where he served from December 1815 to March of 1823 with only a brief hiatus from mid-1817 to late 1819. In 1830, he was chosen as President of the Bank of Chester County and founded and chaired the Medical Society of Chester County and in his spare time headed the company that built the West Chester Railroad. This brings us to his interest in gardening in his spare time!
It was while he was attending the University of Pennsylvania as an undergraduate that an interest arose that captivated him for the rest of his life and out shadowed all the awards and accolades and posts which he held. This interest was spurred on by Professor Benjamin Smith Barton’s botanical lectures at the University which opened to him a science that completely engrossed his interest. This interest entranced him so much that he illustrated and wrote about the flora of Chester County so successfully that his name became known and respected throughout the botanical world.
It took twenty-two years after his graduation to publish “Floura Cestrica” in 1826, and later in 1837, an enlarged edition was published and retitled “Flora Cestrica”. These two editions contained a complete description and classification of every known plant at the time which could be found in our Chester County. The title page lists the official name of the almost 500-page leather bound edition as “Flora Cestrica: An Attempt to Enumerate and Describe the Flowering and Filicoid Plants of Chester County in the state of Pennsylvania.” The subtitle below that reads: With Brief Notices of Their Properties, and Uses, in Medicine, Domestic and Rural Economy, and the Arts. Opposite to the title page is a hand colored map of Chester County which depicts the different soil types in our county and maps out their locations. Botanically the map features the soil compositions for planting in the county starting with the Gneiss and Mica Slate area which covers almost the entire county, the Talc Slate region which cuts a wide swath from above Cochranville, at the Lancaster County line, diagonally through the area down to the Paoli environs, the Red Shale section which take over most of the eastern county area from Yellow Springs / Kimberton to the Montgomery County border. Our rare Serpentine Barrens, in and around Oxford, and West Goshen and Westtown areas are shown along with the Limestone Regions which are scattered by the furnace areas of Northern Chester County and also the deposits in the Kennett Square lands which stretch from the Lancaster County boundary down through the Great Valley and the Valley Forge area down to Delaware County. In all, the book contains 473 botanical listings of flora in Chester County and contains 590 pages. Remember all of this information was compiled in the mid 1820’s, by hand!
Like the mission of a dedicated gardener, he opens his book with a lengthy discourse to the young reader in the hope that they will find the same zeal he did for botanical studies and it was his belief that the reader will gain both a sense of pleasure and profit from the study of his tome. He continues to tell us, that at 70 years old, he is handing over the torch for studying the vegetation of Chester County to the young and new mind as he has dedicated many leisure hours of his life in this endeavor and he hopes that the future generations of Chester County people will delight in the study of our native Chester County plants and their continued research into the areas of Natural Sciences here. With all of the positions he held in and around the county and his career in medicine, it is amazing to think that as more species were identified, Dr. Darlington would record and research their classifications and add them to the first edition of 1826 and then a follow up to that in an 1853 edition.
To identify 473 classes of flora in our county is one significant accomplishment, but to include the details which make up the entire listing is beyond comprehension. Take for example the listing labeled #66. It is the Hibiscus. He lists two types found growing in Chester County, the Trionum and the Esculentus. Each listing describes in detail the leaves as to their shape, the lobe configuration, the calyx, growing height, the variation in flower color, the time of year for flowering and seed formation, its habitat, and its region of origination. In this case, the Trionum is from Italy and the Esculentus originated in India. He sometimes added a personal observation to further add to the allure of the plant such as the seed pods of the Hibiscus were remarkably mucilaginous which he suggests should be added to thicken a soup or stew dish.
While working on this book, he kept up with his correspondences with two other notable gardeners, pioneers of botanical research, John Bartram of Philadelphia and Humphrey Marshall of Marshallton and Marshall Square Park in West Chester. He compiled all these botanical correspondences in yet another book which he published in 1849 entitled: “Memorials of Bartram and Marshall.” At the time of the third edition of his “Flora Cestrica” of 1853, he was honored for his botanical works with the listing of Darlingtonia californica a new and Goshen’s remarkable pitcher plant found growing across the United States in California.
Through all his life devoted to the study of plants and medicine, he was also awarded a LL. D degree from Yale University in 1848. He ends his introduction to his “Flora Cestrica” by telling us that he will be a humbled auxiliary to the future botanists of Chester County through his botanical books and writings as the flowers are blooming on his grave site in the West Oaklands Cemetery. His headstone is inscribed in Latin, one of his 5 languages, to read: The Plants of Chester County, May They Blossom Forever Above This Tomb.
credit: Kevin Pistiner: West Goshen Township Historical Commission