Biography of William Albert Setchell
Richard L. Moe and D. Browne

Setchell was born in Norwich, Connecticut on April 15, 1864 into a family that had deep roots in New England. Setchell's father, a businessman associated with a printing company that made wooden type, was a prisoner of the Confederate army at the time of his son's birth. Setchell, in an autobiographical fragment written in 1934, chronicled an early interest in natural history, especially botany, which was encouraged by family and friends and fostered in his prep school years at the Norwich Free Academy. He collected plants and sent interesting specimens to Daniel Cady Eaton, the pteridologist of Yale, and to Edward Tuckerman, the lichenologist at Amherst College, who replied with identifications and notes in Latin.

Setchell entered Yale University in 1883. The curriculum was heavily weighted towards classics, with the result that Setchell's botanical studies, with the exception of one formal course taught by Eaton from Gray's Textbook of Botany, were extracurricular. He became acquainted with Isaac Holden, an enthusiastic amateur botanist and joined him on numerous collecting forays. Holden, a former teacher who was well versed in botany and spoke several languages fluently, was vice-president and manager of the Wheeler and Wilson Sewing Machine Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Setchell noted in his abortive autobiography that his life at Yale was that of an ordinary undergraduate of the time—he was elected to a fraternity, he studied Greek, Latin, and mathematics and he attended morning chapel daily. (An admonitory note from the college dean that has been preserved among the Setchelliana in the Bancroft Library at the University of California attests to occasional lapses in attendance.) As his undergraduate years drew to a close, Setchell changed his goals, deciding to pursue the study of natural history in graduate school rather than teaching classics in a preparatory school. He graduated ninth in a class of 175 in June 1887, and in the fall of that year began graduate school at Harvard.

At Harvard, Setchell studied with W.G. Farlow, the pre-eminent American cryptogamic botanist of the time. He took as his research topic the study of kelps (Laminariales), concentrating on Saccorhiza dermatodea. The published version of his thesis (Setchell, 1891), entitled "Concerning the life-history of Saccorhiza dermatodea, (De la Pyl.) J. Ag.", is an account of the anatomy and morphology of growth stages of the sporophyte (kelp gametophytes not being discovered for another 25 years). As a collateral project, Setchell studied the fungal genus Doassansia, but he had to conceal this work from Farlow until his thesis was completed, at which time Farlow pronounced the work important enough to publish.

In 1889, Setchell met F.S. Collins of Malden, Massachusetts, an amateur phycologist and indefatigable collector, who was an accountant in the Boston Rubber Shoe Company. Collins had been involved in the preparation of various exsiccatae, and he, Setchell, and Holden conceived the idea of issuing a series of fascicles of dried specimens with printed labels of North American freshwater and marine algae. The initial intention was for each of the trio to prepare 50 uniform specimens of each collection, so that 50 copies of each fascicle could be produced. Eventually, 80 copies of each fascicle were produced. The first fascicle of this exsiccata, which came to be known as the Phycotheca boreali-americana (Collins, Holden, & Setchell, 1895–1919) , was sent to subscribers in 1895. Fascicles of the PBA, each consisting of 50 numbers, continued to be issued until Collins's death, with the last, no. 46, in 1919.

After receiving his doctorate, Setchell returned to the Sheffield Scientific School of Yale as an Assistant in Biology. He taught at Yale until 1895, becoming Instructor, and finally, with the death of Eaton, Assistant Professor of Botany. In the summer he supervised work in Marine Botany at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory. During this time he continued research on kelps, becoming interested in the influence of temperature on their distribution, following a suggestion by Professor William H. Brewer (Setchell, 1893). He developed interests in Cyanophyceae and physiology.

In 1895, the Regents of the University of California, needing to replace the departing Professor of Botany, Edward L. Greene, offered the 31-year old Setchell an associate professorship, acting headship, and a salary of $2800 per year. Setchell, who was happy at Yale, refused. The offer was raised to full professorship, headship, and $3000 per year. Unable to induce Yale to match this offer, Setchell accepted, and with moving expenses of $250 left for Berkeley, where he remained as head of the Department of Botany until his retirement in 1934.

During his academic career, Setchell's interests included floristics (Pacific coast of North America, South Pacific, Hong Kong), taxonomy of algae (Microdictyon, Laminariaceae, Sargassum, Gigartinaceae, Corallinaceae, Cyanophyceae, Scinaia), taxonomy of fungi (especially smuts and hypogeous gasteromycetes), and taxonomy of a few groups of angiosperms (Balanophoraceae, Salix), parasitism (angiosperms, red algae), genetics (Nicotiana), biogeography (kelps, Zostera, island floras), ethnobotany (algae, tobacco), coral reefs, and thermal algae. His pioneering ideas on the influence of temperature on algal distribution are still cited today. He was the first to emphasize the role of macroalgae in the formation of coral reefs. Setchell's work on thermal algae was not as well documented as his work on other subjects, so we will take this opportunity to review it.

Setchell travelled widely, and wherever he went he collected plants, and if possible, visited herbaria and established contacts with other botanists. He made three trips to Alaska, the first to the Bering Sea in 1899, and two round-the-world trips, in 1903 and 1926 during sabbaticals. He spent several summers on the East Coast and in Europe looking at type specimens in herbaria and parts of other summers at a camp in Foresta near Yosemite National Park. He visited Yellowstone National Park three times.

Setchell was a very popular teacher. His Introductory Botany attracted so many students that it is suspected that his grading policy may have influenced the attendance. According to Lincoln Constance (pers. comm.), Setchell prided himself on being able to teach any of the courses in the department. He was especially proud of his course on botanical history (Botany 150, still available on microfilm at the Bioscience Library at Berkeley). Setchell directed several master's students and three PhD students specializing in phycology during his career, but none of his students continued in phycology. In his later years he acted as unofficial advisor to many young phycologists (among them E.Y. Dawson and F. Drouet) and other botanists at Berkeley and elsewhere. He referred to these students as his nephews and nieces, and they addressed him (in letters, at least) as Uncle Bill.

Under his leadership, which was apparently autocratic, the Department of Botany achieved world renown. The series University of California Publications in Botany was initiated, the Herbarium and the Botanical Garden were built up. The founding of the Botanical Garden owes a great deal to Setchell's addiction to cigars and pipes. He became interested in all aspects of the smoking habit, and wanted to discover the geographic origin of Nicotiana. Cultivars and aboriginal tobaccos from around the world were grown in the Garden. These same tobacco stocks later were the basis of mutation research in the Department of Genetics.

Setchell's extracurricular life was as rich as his life on campus. He delighted in theater and opera, an interest beginning in his Boston days and documented in his scrapbooks by numerous tickets and programs. He was a member of many academic and social societies at the University and was also a member of the Athenian Club in Oakland and the Bohemian Club in San Francisco. He took part in an annual retreat at the Bohemian Grove in Sonoma County, which included an elaborate theatrical piece. He wrote a play for this retreat, but it was never performed. One of his closest friends and fellow club member was the playwright and short story writer C.C. Dobie, who accompanied him on many recreational collecting trips.

In 1920, at the age of 56, Setchell married Clara B. Caldwell of Providence, Rhode Island. From then on, she assisted him at the University and accompanied him on all his trips. She died in 1934 following an unsuccessful operation for breast cancer.

Setchell retired in 1934, but continued to work on botanical projects until his death in 1943. During these years he was a semi-invalid, suffering from heart problems and complications from prostate surgery. He continued to travel and collect, and in fact was accompanied by a nurse on some of his last collecting trips.

An extensive biographical sketch of Setchell, including a bibliography of all published work, was included by T.H. Goodspeed (1936) in the Festschrift produced in honor of Setchell's seventieth birthday. Other bibliographical and biographical information, including references to obituaries, can be found in Stafleu & Cowan (1985). Setchell's manuscripts, notes, fieldbooks, and correspondence are housed in UC. Much of his non-botanical reliquiae can be found in the Bancroft Library.


Campbell, D.H. 1945.
Biographical memoir of William Albert Setchell 1864–1943. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A., Biogr. Mem. 23: 127–147.
Goodspeed, T.H. (ed.) 1936.
Essays in geobotany in honor of William Albert Setchell. University of California Press, Berkeley. xxv + 319 pp.
Setchell, W.A. 1891.
Concerning the life-history of Saccorhiza dermatodea, (De la Pyl.) J. Ag. Proc. Amer. Acad. Arts Sci. 26: 177–217.
Setchell, W.A. 1893.
On the classification and geographical distribution of the Laminariaceae. Trans. Conn. Acad. 9: 333–375.
Stafleu, F.A., & Cowan, R.S. 1985.
Taxonomic literature ... Volume V: Sal–Ste. Bohn, Scheltema & Holkema, Utrecht. 1066 pp. [Regnum Vegetabile vol. 112.]
Extracted from Moe, R.L. and Browne, D. 1996. W.A. Setchell (1864–1943) & N.L. Gardner (1864–1937) In D.J. Garbary and M.J. Wynne (eds.), Prominent phycologists of the 20th century. Pp. 102–114. Lancelot Press, Hantsport, Nova Scotia, Canada.