Harvey, William Henry (1811–66), botanist, phycologist, and systematist, was born 5 February 1811 at Summerville, Limerick city, youngest of eleven children of Joseph Massey Harvey, a quaker merchant, and Rebecca Harvey (neé Mark), also of that city. He was educated at Newtown, near Waterford, and then at Ballitore, Co. Kildare (1824–7). Though he was initially interested in molluscs, his family's summer residence on the Atlantic coast at Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare, canalised his interest to lower plants – especially algae. His discovery (1831) of Hookeria laetevirens, a moss species never before recorded from Ireland, led to a lifelong friendship with Sir William Hooker, then at Glasgow but later director of Kew. In 1832 he undertook the algal account for J. T. Mackay's (qv) Flora Hibernica (1835).
The deaths of his mother (1831) and father (1834) allowed Harvey to travel more freely. He was nominated by Thomas Spring Rice (qv) for the post of colonial treasurer, accountant general, and registrar of deeds in the Cape Colony. However, the appointment was made out in the name of his brother Joseph; the government fell, the name could not be altered, and Harvey then accompanied Joseph and his family as unofficial assistant (1835). Joseph's severe depression led to his almost immediate return to Europe; his death en route led to William inheriting the post. William then spent six to seven years at the Cape, interrupted by two trips home. He collected assiduously and began one of the works for which he is now famous, Flora Capensis (7 vols; he was partly responsible for the first 3 vols), and published two others, The genera of South African plants and A manual of the British algae. He was finally obliged to return to Limerick (1842) due to recurrent severe depression.
An hon. MD from TCD failed to ensure his election as professor of botany, though he was appointed keeper of the TCD herbarium (1844). The latter job was highly suited to his talents and abilities – Harvey was exceptionally hard-working even by Victorian standards. ‘I rise at 5 a.m. or before it, and work until breakfast time at the Antarctic algae ... Again at plants until dusk' summarises a typical day. He presented his personal herbarium (then containing 10,000 specimens) to TCD. Deeply committed to his job, he spent at least one-third of his salary purchasing books for the herbarium library, to which they were all later willed as a gift.
Harvey was elected professor of botany of the RDS (1848). In 1849 he undertook a lecture tour and collecting trip to America (where he made his well known ‘Key West’ collections). By delivering the Lowell lectures at Boston he made the acquaintance of and became friends with Asa Gray, the best-known American botanist of his day, and his wife. He published a popular work, The seaside book (1849). In 1851 he completed Phycologica Britannica (4 vols; conceived in 1849) while also working on another book, Nereis Australis, and, towards the end of that period, starting work on a third – Nereis Boreali-Americana. He also worked on specimens sent to him by Darwin from the Beagle, thereafter published in Flora Novae-Zeylandiae. He visited Switzerland with Hooker and J. P. Thompson (1852). He then began an extended collecting trip (1853–6) which took him around the world. The bulk of his time was spent in Australia but he also visited Gibraltar; Malta; Egypt (travelling, in part, overland to Suez as neither the Suez Canal nor railway from Alexandria to Cairo was completed); Trincomalee, Ceylon, where he met and befriended George Thwaites; Tasmania; Fiji; Tonga; and Valparaiso, Chile. On Fiji his guide was Koroe, whose name, Harvey was reliably informed, ‘was a title of honour only given to those who had committed at least five murders’. On his return to Ireland (1856) he was made professor of botany in TCD. He was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society (1857) and became FRS (1858). He published Phycologica Australica (5 vols, 1858–63) and Thesaurus Capensis (2 vols) (an illustrated supplement to Flora Capensis).
Harvey's ability as a plant-collector was formidable: in Australia he collected at least 20,000 specimens (700 in one day at King George's Sound). Gray later commented that he attracted friends wherever he went. His friendship with Gray and W. Hooker allowed him free access to duplicate specimens from Harvard, Kew, and hence most of the known world. Any gaps were taken care of through his acquaintance with the best-known botanists of his day (Darwin, Griffith, J. D. Hooker, Montagne, Spruce, Ward) and by the purchase of key material. At least 100,000 specimens were added to the TCD herbarium by Harvey. His book production is also remarkable: not only did he collect the material, describe it, and draw it, he also engraved the lithographs (he produced an average of one lithographic plate per week from 1856 until his death).
A deeply religious man, he was baptised (1846) into the Church of Ireland at St Mark's, Dublin. Though he admitted, both in writing and in lectures, that natural selection might be the cause of much change, he was reluctant to accept that species arose through its action; nevertheless, he retained Darwin's esteem. His religious views were published in 1862 in a letter to a friend, Joseph Gough: Charles and Josiah, or friendly conversations between a churchman and a quaker.
One of his brothers was J. R. Harvey (qv), professor of midwifery, QCC. After the death of his sister Hannah Todhunter, with whom he had lived at 19 Sir John Rogerson's Quay, Dublin, and that of Mary Christy Harvey, daughter of his eldest and only surviving brother (1857), his loneliness increased. It was later ameliorated by his marriage (1861) to a childhood friend, Elizabeth Lecky Phelps, and a move to 4 Winton Road, Dublin; they had no children. Unfortunately and coincidentally his physical health declined, and he died 15 May 1866 of tuberculosis, in Torquay, where he was buried. Many species of alga and one genus of higher plant (Harveya) are named after him. Papers and portraits are in TCD and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and other correspondence in Harvard. A portrait by Sir F. W. Burton (qv) is in the NGI.