Year 27 – 1887: Fresh-Water Algae of the United States (Exclusive of the Diatomaceae) by Francis Wolle

Published: Bethlehem, Pa., 1887
2 volumes

Francis Wolle lived a fairly quiet life. His father was a merchant, and before leaving home to pursue a career, Wolle assisted with the family business for a few years. He became a preparatory school teacher, and later ran a large school for young ladies in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. It was only when he retired at the age of 64 that he was able to concentrate fully on his first love: “natural history.”

His first book wasn’t published until he was 67 years old, but Wolle would publish a total of four substantial scientific works, all during the last nine years of his life.  For decades both Fresh-Water Algae and its predecessor volume, Desmids of the United States, were authoritative works on their topics. There’s a great deal of talk today about active seniors and deferred retirement, but Wolle’s late-life output sets a very high bar.

The illustrations shown here represent a tiny sample of the more than 2300 figures appearing in this title alone, each of them drawn by Wolle himself in India ink. Books such as this exemplify the work of those rare, patient, determined individuals who, to the eternal betterment of science, have identified, cataloged, classified, and notated the seemingly infinite variety of life forms on this planet.

When Wolle died in 1893, a warmly appreciative obituary in the Proceedings of the American Microscopical Society noted that “there are but few … who will leave behind them more important evidence of industrious microscopical research.”

But in another tribute to Wolle upon his death, a rival publication – the American Monthly Microscopical Journal – went on to note an achievement utterly unrelated to microscopy or botany, and it’s the accomplishment for which he is more widely remembered today. In 1852 Francis Wolle, following through on his experience years earlier in his father’s country store, patented the first machine for producing paper bags.

And a final fun fact from out of the blue: Wolle was also the grandfather of H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), an important Imagist poet and novelist.

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