William Sherard (1659-1728), eldest son of a Leicestershire landowner, was awarded a fellowship at St John's College (Oxford) in 1677, where he read law and graduated in 1683. Sherard's interest in plants appears have matured in Oxford, probably through his friendship with Jacob Bobart the Younger (1641-1719), son of the first keeper of the University's physic garden; a friendship maintained until Bobart's death.
In 1685, Sherard went to Paris, where he attended Joseph Pitton de Tournefort's (1656-1708) botany lectures at the Jardin du Roi between 1686 and 1688. He also visited the Netherlands, establishing a close relationship with Paul Hermann (1646-95), keeper of the Leiden Botanical Garden. When he returned to England, Sherard became travelling companion and tutor to various wealthy individuals.
From 1690, Sherard stayed with Arthur Rawdon (1662-95), at Moira in County Down, Northern Ireland. In 1694, he became tutor to Lord Townshend (1674-1738) on a European Grand Tour. During this tour, he completed editing Hermann's Paradisus Batavus (1698), a catalogue of the plants in the Leiden Botanical Garden. In 1697, Sherard made another European Grand Tour as companion to Wriothesley Russell (1680-1711), later 2nd Duke of Bedford. Such extensive European travel gave Sherard the opportunity to visit the great European gardens and meet prominent botanists. It also increased his enthusiasm for producing a Pinax, a list of all known plant species, originally suggested to him by Tournefort.
He returned to England at the end of 1698 and, in 1700, became tutor to the grandson of Mary Somerset (1630-1715), gardener and dowager Duchess of Beaufort. In 1703, Sherard was appointed Consul at Smyrna (Izmir), Turkey, where he maintained his botanical interests, and bought a house. Sherard returned to England in 1717, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1718.
For the final years of his life, Sherard was based in London. However, he continued to travel to the continent, visiting botanists, maintaining and renewing friendships and acquiring new contacts. In particular, he acquired the services of the young German botanist Johann Jacob Dillenius (1684-1747) to help with the Pinax, although the Pinax was never completed. Sherard died in 1728 and was buried at Eltham, the home of his brother James (1666-1738).
In his will, Sherard bequeathed his herbarium, library, notes and the manuscript of the Pinax to the University of Oxford. In addition, he offered the University £3,000 to establish a new chair of botany to which Dillenius was to be the first occupant. Years of dispute followed until Dillenius finally took up the position of first Sherardian Professor in 1735.
Through his amiability, intellect and diligence Sherard emerged as a key figure in early eighteenth-century European botany. In Britain, as a pre-Linnaean collection, Sherard's herbarium is only rivalled by that of his contemporary and colleague Hans Sloane (1660-1753), whose collection founded the British Museum.