Frederick was born on March 23, 1867, in Preston, New York. He received an AB degree at Cornell University in 1887 as an honor student and outstanding athlete. He was an instructor there before going to the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an assistant botanist in 1888 to begin 49 years as an outstanding public servant. He became botanist in 1893 upon the death of George Vasey and also curator of the National Herbarium, a title he retained when it was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1896. He became senior botanist in 1924 and principal botanist in 1928. It was a shock for him to come from the excellent library of Cornell to the meager holdings of the Department of Agriculture Library, where he began building with a passion as indicated by the strong statement inserted in the Secretary of Agriculture’s Report for 1889. When the Bureau of Plant Industries was established in 1901 he became head of the Office of Botanical Investigations and Experiments and went through a series of title changes. He was active in promoting the National Arboretum and became its acting director in 1929, when the project took definite form after almost 30 years of effort.
His first professional fieldwork was in Arkansas in 1887. His most important field work was as botanist on the Death Valley Expedition of 1891. In 1899 he was on the Harriman Alaska Expedition with T. H. Kearney, describing 25 new Alaskan willows. He was influential in the formation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Seed Laboratory. His work on blueberries led to a new commercial crop, a critical discovery being soil conditions favorable to a mycorrhizal fungus.
He was president of the Biological Society of Washington from 1899 to 1900, the Botanical Society of Washington in 1903, the Washington Academy of Sciences in 1912, the Cosmos Club in 1915, and the Arts Club from 1927 to 1929. He received an honorary DSc degree from George Washington University in 1921. He served as vice president of American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1903. He served as chairman of the National Geographic Society’s Research Committee from 1920 to 1937. Frederick received the George Robert White Medal of Honor from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1921, in recognition of his outstanding work on blueberries. The historic name for creosote bush, Covillea, of the western deserts was named for him.
Frederick was a 1900 founder of the Washington Biologists’ Field Club and served as President from 1919 to 1921. He died of a coronary thrombosis on January 9, 1937, at the age of 69 in Washington, D.C.