The genus is named after Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire (1860–1910), the district commissioner of Tanga province who discovered the plant in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in Africa in 1892 and sent seeds back to his father, an amateur botanist in Germany. Two British plant enthusiasts, Sir John Kirk and Reverend W.E. Taylor, had earlier collected and submitted specimens to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in 1884 and 1887 respectively, but the quality of specimens was insufficient to permit scientific description at that time. The genus Saintpaulia, and original species S. ionantha, were scientifically described by H. Wendland in 1893.
Revisions of the genus by B.L. Burtt expanded the genus to approximately 20 species. Due to recent studies which showed most of the species to be very poorly differentiated, both genetically and morphologically, the number of species has been reduced to six, with the majority of former species reduced to subspecies under S. ionantha, in a recent floristic treatment. As of 2009, 9 species, 8 subspecies, and 2 varieties have been recognized.