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World's first extinct seaweed

Botanical Time Capsules
The William Henry Harvey Exsiccatae Volumes

by Nichola Parshall (SLNSW) and Dr Alan Millar (NSW)

Harvey's exsiccatae algae "My present intention is to make it a Coasting tour, & devote special attention to Algae- making such a collection as never before seen in Europe. I fear you will think this low, & mean, & slushy plan- & will be sending me to climb mountains & gather nobler plants. But I say, other collectors there are by score who look after such things - while no one minds poor Algae save a few scrap-picking folk & consequently we have little or no knowledge of the veg. of the tropical seas." (Extract from Harvey's letter to Sir William Hooker 15 Feb 1853)

William Henry Harvey (1811-1866) was a Professor of Botany from Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. A man of great warmth, intelligence and energy, Harvey would travel to the South Seas in the mid 19th century to pursue his passion for phycology, that is the collection and study of seaweed. Harvey's journey is all the more remarkable not just for the enormous body of work and specimens collected (more than 20,000) but that it was carried out with the shadow of tuberculosis, which would eventually kill him. Harvey's journey became in part a pursuit of warmer, drier climes to improve his health, but primarily to fulfil his dream of surveying the marine plants of Australia, a task that he would poignantly refer to as his "memorial".

In a Subscription Prospectus of 1853, Harvey advertised that he was about to undertake a voyage to Australia to collect marine algae and that he was intending to sell 'sets' or "exsiccatae" of the excess specimens not required for filing in the herbarium of Trinity College Dublin. He calculated that he would make "at the most to 50" sets of exsiccatae that would contain anywhere between 200-600 species/specimens. These sets he would sell at the rate of 2 pounds 5 shillings (approximately AUD$600 on todays rates) for every 100 species "delivered free of charge" to Dublin, London or Glasgow. Each specimen would be numbered and lettered which would correspond to a master list giving the name or binomial of the genus and species, and to its collection locality.

During the years 1854 to 1855, over an eighteen-month period, Harvey visited Australia, where he travelled widely from Western Australia, Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales. Landing in King Georges Sound, Western Australia on 7 January 1854, he travelled overland to Fremantle, Rottnest Island, and Cape Riche, then by steamship to Port Fairy, Port Phillip Heads, Geelong, and Western Port in Victoria, then to George Town and Port Arthur in Tasmania, and finally to Port Jackson, Newcastle and Kiama in New South Wales. He left Sydney, on 15 June 1855 and visited New Zealand, the Friendly Islands and Fiji, before returning to and then departing from Sydney in December 1855 for Valporiso, Chile.

Whilst in Australia he collected 20,000 specimens of marine plants that consisted of 600 species of which approximate 200 or 30% of the entire collection were new genera and species to science. On his return to Ireland, Harvey made good his promise of exsiccatae and started to sell his sets to botanists, philanthropists, naturalists, the clergy, and herbaria and museums around the world. Four of these scientifically valuable exsiccatae are to be found in the collections of the State Library of New South Wales (SLNSW).

As explained in the original prospectus, Harvey would personally press or oversee the preservation of these delicate and perishable algae. From what he records we can estimate he pressed and sorted a minimum of 100 species a day. He also laments in his correspondence that "sea plants take so much time in washing, laying out, and changing, that my whole time is literally occupied, except at meals; and one day's walk sometimes takes me three days to put on paper. This is because I have to dry such a number of specimens of each kind for my seventy subscribers" (Harvey to Sir William J. Hooker, Fremantle 19 May 1854)

For the purposes of collecting algae, Harvey had sent out to Australia in 1853 at least one large bale of paper, ' it appears that I must take out paper for drying, as well as for laying out specimens upon…" (Harvey to Mrs Gray, Kew 18 July 1853) However during his travels he would occasionally find himself short of supplies, and therefore was forced "use any paper I can procure, and by begging and buying get along. Mr Roe gave me some capital brown, and I have got cartridge from the Convict Establishment" (Harvey to Sir William J. Hooker, Freemantle 19 May 1854)

Due to the sheer weight and volume of his collection, as well as ever-present worries about his health, Harvey sent back boxes of his specimens to Trinity College throughout his time in Australia. He was fastidious, in all things relating to his precious algae, and packed them extremely carefully. Once collected and dried, the specimens were packed into a zinc lined box and soldered shut as he states that "I do not like its being left too long open, as it will be more likely to breed dust and insects…" (Harvey to W.A Sanford, Colonial Secretary of Western Australia Kojunup 31 July 1854)

Harvey referred to his collections as bundles or packets as they were not books as such with text, but were actual pressed samples of plants. At a later time, once disseminated to subscribers, these packets could be made up into bound volumes, the volumes often reflecting a particular region or botanical group of specimens.

As an internationally recognised phycologist Harvey knew he was discovering new genera and species to science as he was collecting. In botanical science (now known as the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature), when a new species is discovered and described, a single specimen must be designated by which the species will forever be referred to and known by. Such a specimen is known as the 'type' or holotype specimen. It is the single most important specimen of any given species and is that by which comparisons can only be made to assure a correct identification of future collections of that particular species. When two or more specimens of the same species have been collected from the same locality at the same time and by the same person, each is essentially a type specimen. These are known as 'isotypes', that is they are the 'same' or exact duplicates of the holotype.

When Harvey returned to Ireland, he had what he referred to as his 'travelling set' of pressed marine plants. This was a book with pages onto which he had pressed the 'type' and all other specimens of his new and known species that he discovered. The specimens in the exsiccatae therefore, that directly correspond to the same locality and collection details as the types, are all isotypes.

The Harvey Collection at the State Library

Claudea elegans frontispiece The State Library of NSW traces is origins back to 1826 with the opening of the Australian Subscription Library. With over 4.7 million items, its collections are vast, not only books, newspapers, maps, manuscripts, photographs, but also major collections of paintings, sketchbooks, watercolours and plans by important Australian artists, such as John Glover, Conrad Martens and Eugene Von Guerard. The Library has nine first fleet journals, as well as manuscripts from the great explorers, Abel Tasman, James Cook, Matthew Flinders and William Bligh. Given that its collections are so vast and varied, it is not entirely unexpected to find the works and specimens of the great phycologist William Henry Harvey in them.

Although botanists knew there were two Harvey exsiccatae in the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales in the Printed Book Catalogue, Dr Alan Millar was the first to critically examine them in 1988. In 2003 Dr Millar again visited the Library concerned for the items well being, and willing to offer expert advice on how to preserve and protect the scientifically priceless specimens. The specimens were brought to the attention of the Mitchell Librarian and Director, Elizabeth Ellis as well as the Manager of Preservation Heather Mansell. At this time two other exissatae where found, which had been transferred from the Printed Book Collection in 1997.

Therefore there were four sets of Harvey's Exsiccatae in the State Library, two fully bound and two as loose-boxed specimens. In all four sets deterioration of the specimens had occurred due to what is now considered inappropriate mounting systems used for this material over 100 years ago. In some cases the specimens had fragmented due to the mechanical stress of turning of pages and flexing of card supports. In this old assembly often many specimens could be adhered to one page of the bound volume and when these are damaged fragments from different algae intermix.

The decision was made to conserve the specimens, which had such scientific and historic importance. This work involved the collaboration between the Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG) and the State Library of NSW. The RBG is a leading international scientific institution, and Australia's first registered scientific institution, that carries out research on the NSW, Australian and many southern hemisphere floras, both terrestrial and marine. With over 1,000,000 vascular plant specimens and 80,000 marine plants, it is one of the most comprehensive herbaria in the world.

In deciding how to approach such delicate items, and unusual items found within the Library, it was decided that the volumes should be examined and the specimens conserved at the RBG. Dr Alan Millar in consultation with senior Library staff decided on a course of action for the fragile specimens. The specimens would be carefully removed from the acid backing boards, but not from their backing papers applied by Harvey. They would then be stored within the botanical standard for such materials, in acid free enclosures one specimen to a page and then placed in boxes to prevent further deterioration.

The ethical dilemma posed by these items revolved around the dismantling of a 19th century assembly to protect the specimens held within. Future use and the prospect of further damage to these collections also imposed parameters on the decision. The work to preserve the specimens would also give the botanists at the RBG unprecedented access to such an important algal collection.

The specimens

Harvey's exsiccatae book unbound The made up albums were bound and numbered. Set 79 (PXD 724 vol 1) had no buyers name or price marked on it but contained 204 pressed specimens, representing 156 species of which 35 specimens were isotypes. The second set was numbered 57 (F589.3) and was marked as sold to the Rev. J.H. Pollexfen and contained 292 pressed specimens, representing 248 species and no less than 56 isotypes.

The two additional sets were unbound and wrapped in brown paper. One was labelled Set 51 (PXD 724 vol 2) and sold to John Van Voorst of London for 5 pounds, 16 shillings and 6 pence (about AUD$1500). It contained 259 specimens. The fourth volume was labelled Set 49 (F589.3), and sold to W. Stuart, London for what we think is 6 pounds, 8 shillings and 3 pence (about AUD$1700). It contains 285 specimens.

The four sets total 1040 specimens.

Treatment and Rehousing

Harvey's exsiccatae book The bound and loose volumes The original binding and boards have been retained and will be boxed at the completion of the project to provide an historical reference as to how the specimens were originally mounted and stored. The specimens on their original backing papers were mechanically lifted from the acidic backing boards. In most cases the backing papers had been adhered at the four corners with what appears to be animal glue. In the case of the unbound volumes, the specimens were not adhered to an additional card and therefore could be simply be transferred into their Mylar enclosures which have been used to contain the specimens and any fragments.

In some instances the backing papers have notations in Harvey's hand on the reverse. The backing papers Harvey used appear to be varied (as previously discussed depending on supplies available), and both wove and laid in type. The paper however is universally lightweight, with no adhesive used to adhere the specimens, as algae when wet have a naturally occurring gum.

Mounting and storage

The specimens, on the paper backings were then placed in Mylar bag to suit and attached with a stainless steel pin to a larger backing sheet ("teaton warm white cover 239 gsm, from Edwards Dunlop) on to which all botanic details are written. This sheet is placed in a plain folder ("glow pague" 70gsm acid free) however in the case of the type specimen a special orange edged folder, which designates type, is used. The specimens are then placed in a standard "pentax brown" polypropylene box, which has a polyethylene lid for flexible easy opening. These are made using RBG dies. These boxes are a RBG standard (made by APS plastic at Minto) and allow the boxes to be stored horizontally in the RBG rack storage system. The four volumes of specimens will now amount to between 50-75 boxes of material by the time the project is completed.


This project continues as a collaboration between the RBG and the SLNSW. The significance of these volumes for both institutions is still in a state of exploration. In one sense, the significance of these items as part of the great and diverse collections of the SLNSW is not a unique case, as there are many parts within the collection, which compliment the algal specimens. The Library possesses the printed book versions of Harvey's voyage and algal discoveries in the Phycologia australica (1859), which resides in the Mitchell Rare Book Collection. Harvey's work is also tied to the Manuscript collection, in that correspondence from Harvey to Dr George Bennett and Alexander Walker Scott exists here.

These volumes are also of great importance to RBG as they provide exceptional information and access to Harvey's actual specimens. The Harvey specimens are scientifically invaluable as they give a snap shot of what the marine flora was like in the 1850s from selected localities in Australia. The specimens can still be microscopically examined for reproductive and vegetative details that have not changed since the day they were collected.

This collaboration has enabled members of the Preservation Branch to visit and understand how specimens are preserved at the RBG. Materials used within conservation at the SL have also provided treatment options for the RBG team. Mylar™ enclosures have been used as it provides a more rigid sleeve to place the fragile specimens in, and these have been used through out the Harvey collection. The work on this collaborative project continues, but it would be pleasing to think that William Harvey would be happy to see his specimens so well observed and tended some 150 years after he collected them at such personal cost to himself. His remarkable work and labour still hold enormous relevance for botanists, librarians and conservators alike.


Ducker, S. C. 1988, The Contented Botanist, letters of W.H.Harvey about Australia and the Pacific. (Melbourne University Press, Melbourne) 413 pp.
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