Exploring the science of plants, from the field to the lab

Examining the John Torrey Papers During #ClimateWeekNYC

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on September 17, 2019 by Stephen Sinon

Stephen Sinon is the William B. O’Connor Curator of Special Collections, Research and Archives at The New York Botanical Garden.

Photo of John Torrey
John Torrey—Harvard University Library,
Weissman Preservation Center.

John Torrey is considered one of the most important botanists in the early development of scientific botany, horticulture, and agriculture in 19th-century America. He corresponded with hundreds of scientists, educators, explorers, and natural historians throughout America and Europe, and his wide network of correspondents enabled him to collect, describe, and classify plant specimens from around the world; when comparing Torrey’s accurate records with herbarium specimens and current data, a clear picture arises as to changes in the flora of these regions since his time, due to climate change, urbanization, and other factors. While Torrey’s correspondence contains important information on his botanical work, the documents are also a valuable resource to scholars, students, and members of the public studying American history, including North American expeditions, westward expansion, and the evolution of American science in the 19th century.

The LuEsther T. Mertz Library and Archives of The New York Botanical Garden has embarked on a project to make the John Torrey Papers available online through the Biodiversity Heritage Library. The project began in 2016 with grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Some 10,000 sheets of Torrey’s correspondence—consisting primarily of letters received by him from over 350 individuals—were digitized, then made available for crowd-sourced transcription. Interested volunteers can currently register to transcribe letters in the collection which will then be made available to scholars alongside the digital images.

During the Library’s Open House event on Friday, September 20, a display of Torrey artifacts and letters will be on view and the Project’s Transcription Coordinator will be available to speak with visitors.

Photo of a botanical illustration

The themes discussed in the day’s Second Annual EcoFlora Conference—the ecological history of New York, the future of plant conservation in our city, the role of civic institutions in the protection of our flora, and more—will also be explored through several displays of related materials held in the Library’s collections. These include illustrated folios and colored prints examining the work of botanist Alexander von Humboldt, threatened and extinct species from our region impacted by urbanization and climate change, food distribution and supply issues, cookbooks, Brazilian rainforest plants, and works on ecology from the Library’s children’s literature collection. The public is invited to attend the LuEsther T. Mertz Library’s annual Open House event and try their hand at various puzzles, discover colorful and interesting images exploring climate change, and register for an NYBG Library card.