The long and complex, if outwardly simple, life of Wilhelm Suksdorf began in rural Germany, near Kiel, in 1850. At the age of eight he emigrated to northeastern Iowa with his family. He lived there until 1874. In 1876 he was enrolled in a science/agriculture course at the University of California. Before graduating, however, he left school to join his father and several brothers at White Salmon, Washington, where he entered into their various farming and town promotion activities.
He started making botanical observations of an informal sort in Iowa, continued in California and began serious reconnaissance and collecting of Washington plants during the summer vacation of 1875. As much of the Washington vegetation could not be identified with existing manuals, in 1878 Suksdorf began corresponding with Asa Gray at Harvard University, in an effort to have his collection identified and named. Encouraged by Gray, who named a genus of plants for him, and by a visiting expedition of botanists in 1880, Suksdorf decided to make a serious distribution of Washington plants. These he offered for sale in 1882, the first of his thirteen fascicles of Washington plants.
In 1886, Gray asked Suksdorf to join him at Harvard as an assistant, apparently intending that the position would become permanent. A combination of complex circumstances, along with various physical and mental health problems which plagued him throughout his life, led Suksdorf to abandon Harvard in 1888. After a time of inactivity, he returned to collecting Washington plants and to a regular pattern of publication of his findings. Difficulties arose, however, because of his limitations with English and a strong personal desire to write in German. Consequently, many of his articles appeared in German and Austrian journals, or in obscure American journals which would carry articles written in German. This position, along with his strong adherence to the "International Rule" school of thought, led him into many minor disputes with botanists for the rest of his life. In the 1920s, he resolved some of these difficulties by founding a personal journal, Werdenda, which gave him an outlet for his views.
Suksdorf continued to live at Bingen, Washington, a town he and his brothers founded, for the rest his life and his botanical labors accordingly tended to reflect the vegetation of adjacent Klickitat County. This area contained vegetation representative of both humid, wooded Western Washington and arid, open Eastern Washington along with a major alpine area, Mt. Adams, which Suksdorf, following Indian practice, called Mt. Paddo. Thus he was exposed to much of the state’s varied flora without traveling great distances. He did, nevertheless, collect plants in the Spokane area in parts of Oregon and Idaho near to Washington, at one location in Montana and while on a major trip to California in 1913. In the 1920s he spent two winters at Washington State University, as a special fellow of the herbarium.
Suksdorf’s outlook on botany had been colored by his early exposure to the ideas of Asa Gray and the basic ideas of the Candollean school, as well as by his own personal experiences and emotions relative to the out-of-doors and to plants. Occupationally, philosophically, scientifically and emotionally he was a "naturalist," reflecting every sense of the meaning of the term. This led him to some practices which caused many to regard him as an eccentric: his reclusiveness, his preferences for field botany over laboratory study, and his tendency to be a splitter of species. For decades he fought against those botanical ideas which came from abstract study in herbaria and libraries and insisted that plants must be seen in the field for an understanding. Although this fight with academic botanists was generally a losing battle, Suksdorf continued to hope for a return of naturalism even to the later years of his life. He expressed this idea in 1928 when he wrote, "A collector sees the plants in the field and mostly many of each kind he collects, but his notes or remarks are seldom considered of importance. That was so, at least in the past. But I knew one botanist who was different; that was Dr. Gray. To him the collector was a helper, not merely a collector." (16 June 1928, Harold St. John Papers).
Suksdorf died in a freakish and not very well understood railroad accident near his home in 1932.
The papers contain Suksdorf’s correspondence, along with many enclosures; his diaries; drafts or copies of many of his writings; his catalog of his herbarium; and many of his field notes, along with maps and explanations of place names. Most materials relate to Suksdorf’s plant collecting, subsequent classification and distribution of specimens, and his professional writing. Materials from the papers of Fermen Pickett, Alice Eastwood, and Carleton Ball are interfiled within the correspondence. Both personal and scientific correspondence is included. Approximately one-fourth of the material is in German.
Restrictions on Access :
This collection is open for research use.Preferred Citation :
[Item Description]. Cage 315, Wilhelm Nikolaus Suksdorf Papers . Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections, Washington State University Libraries, Pullman, WA.
The papers are arranged in five series; correspondence, writings, notes, diaries and oversize material. The correspondence has been arranged in chronological sequence. A sub-series contains many enclosures, bills and receipts which had been separated from the correspondence in previous handling of the papers. Other series include Suksdorf’s articles, drafts and notes, his herbarium catalog, his botanical notes, his diaries and other biographical material, and some oversize notes, maps and drawings.
Custodial History :
The papers of Wilhelm N. Suksdorf, 1850-1932, of Bingen, Washington, were acquired by the Washington State University Herbarium in 1933 as a part of the bequest which willed Suksdorf's herbarium and library to the University. The herbarium added and interfiled various materials during the 1940s, principally from the papers of Fermen Pickett of Washington State University, Alice Eastwood of the California Academy of Sciences and Carleton Ball of the United States Department of Agriculture.Acquisition Information :
The materials in this collection of botanical documents were transferred to the Washington State University Library in 1975 from the university’s Ownbey Herbarium.Bibliography :
Biographical sketches of Suksdorf include: George Neville Jones, "William N. Suksdorf," Washington Historical Quarterly, 24 (1933) 128-129; Alice L. Kibbe, Afield with Plant Lovers and Collectors (Carthage, Ill.: Carthage College, 1953) 353-356; Erwin F. Lange, "Pioneer Botanists of the Pacific Northwest," Oregon Historical Quarterly, 57 (1956) 113-114; Harold St. John, "Biography of Wilhelm Nikolaus Suksdorf, 1850-1932, Pioneer Botanist of the State of Washington," Research Studies, 23 (1955) 225-282; and William A. Weber, The Botanical Collections of Wilhelm N. Suksdorf (Master’s Thesis, Washington State University, 1942), partially reprinted in Research Studies, 12 (1944) 51-122. Weber’s essay contains detailed explanations of Suksdorf’s symbols, as well as a detailed itinerary of his collecting trips.
Additional Botanical manuscripts in MASC may be found in the following collections:
Cage 318 Beattie, Rolla Kent Papers, 1899-1956
Cage 53 Botanical papers, 1881-1973
Cage 316 Cusick, William Conklin Papers, 1906-1924
Cage 317 Piper, Charles Vancouver Papers, 1888-1926
Cage 319 St. John, Harold Papers, 1912-1957
Detailed Description of the Collection
The following section contains a detailed listing of the materials in the collection.
This collection is indexed under the following headings in the online catalog. Researchers desiring materials about related topics, persons, or places should search the catalog using these headings.