Watching some fireworks, going to the local parade, grilling burgers and hot dogs, maybe even finding time for a nap. Sounds like a classic Fourth of July. Collecting plant specimens is notably missing from this list. And yet, for botanists, our nation’s birthday is not necessarily a day off.
A search of the C. V. Starr Virtual Herbarium, where The New York Botanical Garden’s digitized herbarium specimens are made available online to researchers and the public, reveals that it includes no fewer than 6,808 specimens that were collected on a Fourth of July. They come from around the world, but more than 1,000 were snipped or dug up in the United States on Independence Day. They eventually found their way to the Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, where they are now part of the 7.8 million specimens that are preserved there and are now being digitized for the Starr Virtual Herbarium.
Like most scientific research institutions, The New York Botanical Garden regularly hosts visiting scientists, but it’s especially gratifying to welcome back former graduate students who have gone on to important positions elsewhere.
That was the case recently when Natalia Pabón-Mora, Ph.D., returned to the Garden for several weeks. Dr. Pabón-Mora, who received her Ph.D. in 2012, is currently a professor at the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellin, Colombia.
She took a break from her research to talk with Lawrence M. Kelly, Ph.D., Director of the Commodore Matthew Perry Graduate Studies Program at the Botanical Garden, about what attracted her to the Garden as a place to study plant science.
While making high-resolution digital images of lichen-covered rocks that are part of the collection in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, I came across a specimen not long ago with an unusual and rather alarming label. Plainly written as part of the collection data on this otherwise inconspicuous box was the statement that the specimen was “on bone of Eskimo child.” I opened the box to find, indeed, a bone of some kind with bright orange and yellow lichen growing on it.
I happen to have studied anthropology in college. One of the most important things you learn in a modern anthropology class is that many of the interactions between researchers and indigenous peoples during the long history of the discipline were downright exploitative and unethical by today’s standards. For example, archaeologists and anthropologists have had an unfortunate history of taking artifacts and even human remains from groups of people without consent from the members of that community—and sometimes even when they were explicitly asked not to. Today, many indigenous peoples are working to repatriate these artifacts and human remains back to their original communities. This possible human bone in the Steere Herbarium immediately concerned me, and I wondered whether the NYBG should attempt to return it to the people it came from. Dr. Barbara Thiers, the Garden’s Vice President for Science Adminstration, agreed that we should look into it, and we began to investigate the history of the specimen.
Novels are full of unconventional women, from Jane Austen’s spunky Elizabeth Bennet to the brilliant botanist Alma Whittaker in Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent novel The Signature of All Things. But Mary Katharine Layne Curran Brandegee (1844-1920), a real-life botanist, could certainly have taught these fictional women a thing or two about forging your own path.
Born Mary Katharine Layne in 1844 to a Tennessee farmer, she was a young girl when the Laynes moved west to California during the 1849 gold rush, eventually settling in Folsom, California. She married Hugh Curran, a constable, in 1866, but he died of alcoholism in 1874. Often described as strong-willed, Mrs. Curran moved to San Francisco the following year and enrolled at the University of California’s medical school. She was only the third woman to do so.
At that time, botany was an essential component of medical science education, and after receiving her degree, Curran followed the advice of an instructor and pursued botany rather than practice medicine. She became a member of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco in 1879, continuing her botanical training by collecting plants throughout California and working in the Academy’s herbarium. In 1883, Curran was appointed a curator of botany, one of the first women to hold such a position at a major museum, and in 1891 she became the sole botanical curator.