Monday, April 23, 2012

A Publication of the Botanical Society of America, Inc.
June 1966   Volume Twelve   Number Two

The United States National Herbarium
Conrad V. Morton and William L. Stern
Smithsonian Institution

The United States National Herbarium dates back almost to the foundation of the Smithsonian Institution in 1846. Collections of plants resulting from various early government expeditions were first deposited in the National Institute, named originally in 1840 as the National Institution for the Promotion of Science. Later these plants were turned over to the newly founded Smithsonian. Of particular interest among these were the large collections of the U.S. South Pacific Exploring Expedition, under the command of Lt. Charles Wilkes, U.S.N., which formed the real basis for a national herbarium. The earliest expeditions sponsored in part by the Smithsonian Institution itself included the explorations of Charles Wright in Texas and New Mexico in 1848. The early Smithsonian plant collections, together with those gathered during government-sponsored expeditions to the new West, were turned over to Asa Gray, a Regent of the Smithsonian Institution and Professor of Botany at Harvard University, and John Torrey, Professor of Botany at Columbia College. The assembled botanical collections were in the actual custody of Torrey and were kept at Columbia College in New York City.

The Smithsonian assisted with all the U.S. Government exploring expeditions, among others those of Emory, Whipple, King, Gunnison, Pole, Stevens, Hayden, and Powell. Especially noteworthy were the botanical collections of Charles Wright undertaken in conjunction with the U.S. North Pacific Exploring Expedition under the command of Ringgold and Rodgers which provided plant specimens from the Bering Straits, Japan, China, Hong Kong, and elsewhere.' A great many botanical papers resulting from these expeditions were published in the reports of the U.S. Railroad Surveys. The Smithsonian Institution itself published several important monographs dealing with plants from these explorations, namely, Asa Gray's "Plantae Wrightianae Texano-neo-mexicanae" (1853-1854), John Torrey's "Plantae Fremontianae" (1854), and especially Professor William Henry Harvey's "Nereis Boreali-Americana," the first general account of our marine algae and still a fundamental reference work.

In 1868, only a few years before his death, Torrey decided that he could no longer retain custody of the herbarium. In the absence of suitable quarters and staff in the Smithsonian building in Washington, D.C., the first Secretary, Joseph Henry, made arrangements that the Smithsonian collections be deposited with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which had been amassing a working collection of herbarium specimens for the use of its personnel.

Some years later the noted paleobotanist Lester F. Ward began gathering another collection of plants in the U.S. National Museum'' for use in comparing living plants with fossil materials for the purpose of identification of the latter and also because of his interest in the local Washington area flora. It is of interest to note in this connection that in 1881 the Smithsonian Institution published Ward's "Guide to the flora of Washington and vicinity." Ward was given the title of Honorary Curator of Recent Plants at the Smithsonian Institution and later was named Honorary Associate in Paleobotany, a position he held until his death in 1913.

Spencer F. Baird, the second Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was concerned about maintaining two herbaria in Washington. Because of this and his personal desire to establish a great museum in the Capital, he made arrangements for returning to the Smithsonian the plant collections that had been turned over to the Department of Agriculture by Secretary Henry and also to bring along the assembled Agriculture specimens. Thus was formed the U.S. National Herbarium,; a joint project of the U.S. National Museum, under the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Frederick Vernon Coville, Chief Botanist of the Department of Agriculture, was appointed Honorary Curator of the National Herbarium, March 28, 1893. He retained this post

1Some of these explorations are described in S. F. Baird. 1855. Report on American explorations in the years 1853 and 1854. Appendix to the [Ninth Annual) Report of the Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. Beverley Tucker, Senate Printer. Washington, D.C.

2The U.S. National Museum is that branch of the Smithsonian Institution comprising the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of History and Technology.

3The U.S. National Herbarium is a quasi-official organization previously administered by the Division of Plants and now by the Department of Botany of the Smithsonian Institution. It was established in 1894 as the name for the joint plant collections of the U.S. National Museum and the Department of Agriculture.


until his death in 1937. In 1894, Joseph Nelson Rose was made Assistant Curator of the National Herbarium and thus became the first, full-time, professional botanist associated with the Smithsonian Institution. The next year, C. L. Pollard was appointed Assistant Curator and served in this capacity until 1903. At the time of the union which finally took place July 1, 1896, the National Her-barium contained an estimated 250,000 specimens.

In 1899 William Ralph Maxon was appointed Aid in the Division of Plants; he subsequently became its first Curator following Coville's death in 1937. Maxon was chiefly responsible for building up the National Herbarium to its present position among the herbaria of the world. Several other botanists were associated with the Museum in its early years, notably Joseph H. Painter, a promising young botanist appointed as Aid in 1904. .Painter drowned while swimming in the Potomac River at Plummer's Island in 1908. Others, who subsequently made their names elsewhere, were LeRoy Abrams (Assist-ant Curator, 1905-1906), E. O. Wooton (Assistant Curator, 1910), and Homer D. House (Assistant Curator, 1905). Also to be mentioned is the talented botanical artist F. A. Walpole who was with the herbarium for a number of years and died in 1904; many of Walpole's beautiful paintings and drawings are still maintained by the Museum. Associated with the herbarium was the controversial figure of E. S. Steele, highly regarded as the botanical editor of the Contributions from the U.S. National Herbarium, but debatable as an authority on the taxonomy of Rubus, Liatris, and other "difficult" groups of plants.

In the early part of the century two prominent taxonomists were associated with the herbarium. The distinguished authority on North American plants, Edward L. Greene, resigned his position as Professor of Botany at Catholic University and became an Honorary Associate in Botany at the Smithsonian in 1904. At this time he was working on his monumental "The Landmarks of Botanical History," the first volume of which was published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1909; since Greene's death in 1915 the manuscript of the second volume has lain unpublished, but consideration is now being given to publishing it. Captain John Donnell Smith was appointed an Honorary Associate in 1905, a position that he retained until his death in 1928. He was an authority on the flora of Central America and gave his extensive her-barium and library, which contained a fine collection of books on classical botany, to the Institution during his lifetime.


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