The NYBG Graduate Studies Program
Current NYBG Graduate Students
A Brief History of the Graduate Studies Program
at The New York Botanical Garden

David L. Lentz & Marlene Bellengi

      From its conceptual beginnings, being modeled after Kew Gardens with its affiliated universities, the New York Botanical Garden was designed by its founders to be a seat of higher learning and a place where students could receive advanced training in botany.  Nathaniel Lord Britton, a professor of botany at Columbia University before becoming the first Director of the Garden, was himself an academician.  Columbia University (Columbia College until 1895) was one of the largest donors to the initial subscription that brought the Garden into being. They supplied not only financial backing, but also transferred their entire collection of herbarium specimens to the new NYBG herbarium and their botanical and horticultural literature holdings to the Garden library.  Along with these valuable transfers went the bulk of their graduate program in botany.  A formal agreement to this effect was signed between the Garden and Columbia and the first classes in the joint program commenced in 1896.  With the completion of the Museum Building in 1899, many of the Columbia classes were moved to the Garden (Britton 1915).  The program was an immediate success and by 1900 there were 8 graduate students at the Garden. The agreement with Columbia allowed students to register and/or take classes at either institution.  It also permitted students to select a mentor from either institution to guide their graduate research.  The Garden quickly amassed an impressive staff which included not only Dr. Britton and his wife, Elizabeth B. Britton, an accomplished botanist in her own right, but also D.T. MacDougal, L.M. Underwood, C.C. Curtis, M.A. Howe, P.A. Rydberg, G.V. Nash, J.K. Small, F.E. Lloyd, and E.S. Burgess. 

      From its robust origin, the collaboration with Columbia University continued as a strong graduate program through the administrations of Drs. E.D. Merrill, M.A. Howe,  H.A. Gleason, W.W. Robbins, and W.C. Steere.  During this period, students affiliated with Fordham also attended classes at the Garden and conducted their research in the Museum Building. From the earliest times it was recognized that not only was the study of North American plants important, but the tropics, especially the American tropics, offered even greater opportunities for new floral discoveries.  Students often accompanied the small legion of botanists that ventured into the hinterlands of North America as well as tropical regions to help uncover the secrets of biological diversity in this hemisphere and elsewhere across the globe.

      Since the graduate program was initiated in 1896, more than 200 students have completed their graduate research at the Garden.  Most of the early students were from the United States with a few from Europe, Canada, and Asia, so research projects in the early days tended to focus on North America.  As the program grew and developed with time, the student body and regions of botanical interest took on a more international focus.  A quick perusal of the chronological list of alumni reveals a long list of botanists who received their training at the Garden and went on to make significant contributions in their chosen fields of study.  Space limitations prohibit the mentioning of each of the many notable figures, so we shall limit the discussion to a few of the early graduates who made an impact on botany through their research and leadership. 

      One of the earliest graduates of the program, Joseph Kirkwood, who received his doctorate in 1903, began his career studying the comparative embryology of the Cucurbitaceae.  During World War I, his skills as an economic botanist were called upon in the effort to produce rubber from guayule (Parthenium argentatum A. Gray) when rubber supplies from the East Indies were threatened.  After the war he joined the faculty at the University of Montana and helped to develop the botany program there.

      Roland M. Harper, a graduate of the class of 1905, completed a dissertation on the phytogeography of the coastal plain of eastern North America.  After graduation, he became interested in the flora of the southeastern U.S. and worked for the Geological Surveys of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, his native state.  He was a prodigious collector and to this day his specimens represent the prized collections at the university herbaria in those three states.  Furthermore, his collections were the basis for his Forests of Alabama and essential to the compilation of subsequent works on the southeastern flora.  In 1911 he returned to Columbia University and eventually became the Torrey Professor of Botany and departmental chairman (Hansell 1957).

      A year after Roland Harper graduated, Henry A. Gleason completed his dissertation on the systematics of the genus Trillium.  Later his interests broadened to include studies of the Asteraceae and the Melastomataceae, mostly from specimens collected in the U.S. but also from Mexico and the West Indies.  His first job was at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, but later he assumed a faculty position at the University of Michigan.  Following his academic sojourn in the Midwest, he returned to New York and joined the curatorial staff at the New York Botanical Garden, eventually becoming Head Curator and even serving one year as Acting Director.  He is perhaps best remembered for his revision of the New Britton and Brown Illustrated Flora, and for his fertile collaboration with Arthur Cronquist on the Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada.

       In 1908, the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from the program, Gertrude Simmons Burlingham, completed her studies.  A model of fortitude and dedication and an ardent mycologist, her treatments of Lactarius and Russula (Agaricaceae) were carefully prepared and extraordinarily detailed.  A devoted teacher, she instructed biology classes at East District High School in Brooklyn.  Sadly, even though she loved teaching and possessed a doctorate, she never obtained a university faculty position, undoubtedly because few universities hired women at the time.  Nevertheless, during all vacations and in the summers she would collect mushrooms or conduct research at the Garden.  Her numerous publications were a testament to her commitment to scientific research and form part of her intellectual legacy.  Another aspect of her legacy was formed just before her death when she created an endowed fellowship for mycology students at the Garden, now known as the Burlingham Fellowship.

       Homer D. House, who graduated the same year as Gertrude Burlingham, studied the Convolvulaceae of North America.  After leaving the Garden, he taught at the State University of New York at Albany and in 1942 became the State Botanist of New York, a position he held for several years.

      The renowned fern taxonomist, Ralph Benedict, graduated from the Garden's program in 1911.  Among his works were revisions of Antrophytum, Ceratopteris, and Nephrolepis.  From his position on the faculty at Brooklyn College, he continued his research and collected from all corners of North America and the West Indies.  He was one of the organizers of the American Fern Society, served as President from 1952-1955, and was on the editorial board of the American Fern Journal for 50 years (Allison 1966).

      Le Roy Abrams graduated in 1910 and spent most of his life studying the flora of the western U.S., particularly southern California.  After receiving his doctorate, he became an assistant curator at the U.S. National Museum in the Smithsonian Institution.  One year later, he accepted a faculty position at Stanford University and remained there until retirement. During the course of his active scientific life, he wrote numerous floristic treatments for California and revisions of the genus Penstemon for the southwestern U.S.

      Bernard O. Dodge, a noted mycologist, completed his doctoral studies in 1912.  His research focused on the taxonomy and morphology of the Ascobolaceae.  After graduation he served as pathologist at the USDA Bureau of Plant Industry for many years where he continued his research and long record of publication.

      Otto Degener received a Master's degree from the Garden's program in 1925.  His botanical interests focused on the ferns and flowering plants of the South Pacific.  He undertook the position of naturalist for the Hawaii National Park and later joined the faculty at the University of Hawaii.  Even though his work was interrupted by fighting during World War II, he still managed to complete Flora Hawaiiensis, a monumental achievement.

      Albert C. Smith, another NYBG graduate interested in the South Pacific flora, graduated in 1933.  His studies covered a wide range of taxa including the Eleocarpaceae, Combretaceae, Piperaceae, Myristicaceae, and Degeneriaceae (named after Otto Degener).  Smith worked at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University for 13 years prior to employment by the Botany Department of the U.S. National Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

      Harold N. Moldenke, the well-known Verbenaceae specialist, graduated in 1934.  An avid collector, his specimens arrived at the NYBG Herbarium from all parts of the Western Hemisphere.  His topics of study also included the systematics and economic botany of the Eriocaulaceae.  In 1933 he founded the botanical journal Phytologia.  After two decades of serving on the curatorial staff at the Garden, Moldenke became Director of the Trailside Nature and Science Center in Mountainside, New Jersey where he pursued his interest in public education and the publication of popular plant guides.  In 1967, he left Trailside to become professor of biology at William Patterson State College in New Jersey.

       Edmund Fulling, in the class of 1935, focused his studies on Gymnosperm anatomy and taxonomy.  As an economic botanist and NYBG curator, he wrote on such topics as wood products and paper-making.  He was quite active in publication management and served as the first editor of Economic Botany, a journal he founded.  Today, the Society for Economic Botany has an Edmund H. Fulling Award in his honor for best student paper presented at the annual meeting.  Also, he helped to found Botanical Review and upon his passing left an endowment to support the journal.  Since the time of Edmund Fulling, there have been many fine botanists who have come out of the NYBG Graduate Studies Program, many of whom are still active and their careers form part of the Garden's lasting contribution to botany.

      Despite the achievements of its botanical graduates, in the late 1960s the administration of Columbia University decided to reduce its commitment to organismal studies and focus its biological efforts on laboratory-oriented research.  As part of this new focus, Columbia discontinued the joint program in botany with the Garden.  In the wake of this disappointing development, a new program was forged in 1968 with the cooperation of a branch of Hunter College, later renamed Lehman College, of the City University of New York (CUNY).  The agreement was drafted with the help of Bassett Maguire, Howard Irwin, and Arthur Cronquist from NYBG and Leonard Leaf, Mary J. Kingkade, Norman R. Eaton, and Jack Valdovinos from CUNY.  In many ways the new program mirrored the old arrangement, except that courses would be offered through Lehman College with CUNY as the degree granting institution.  Today, the association with CUNY continues to be one of the most active of the Garden's joint programs.

      In recent years the Garden has sought to broaden the scope of its Graduate Studies Program by developing new partnerships with other universities.  To take advantage of the excellent faculty in systematics and the resources of the Bailey Hortorium, the Garden entered into an agreement in 1992 with the Institute of Systematic Botany at Cornell University.  This is a small but vital program that attracts students of the highest caliber.  Because of a desire to strengthen the curriculum in molecular biology, the Garden established another affiliation with the Department of Biology at New York University in 1993.  With the help of a grant from the National Science Foundation, this program has grown rapidly and has attracted students of outstanding ability who will be trained as molecular biologists with significant field experience.  Following a decade of fruitful collaboration, Garden officials signed a formal agreement with Yale University in 1995.  The program, affiliated with the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, focuses on agroforestry, forest ecology, and silviculture in the tropics.  This course of study holds great promise because of the urgent need for tropical forest studies in threatened ecosystems where biodiversity is greatest.  And finally, as the pendulum swings back again, a new program with the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation of Columbia University has been initiated.  The strength of this program is a new emphasis on conservation, a diverse Biology Department, and a vibrant Anthropology Department at Columbia.  Such a combination provides avenues for study that focus on the plant-human interaction and mechanisms for future conservation of resources.   All of these programs have been modeled after the design established during the original agreement between the Garden and Columbia University: students can register concurrently at their selected university and at the Garden, and complete their research using the facilities of their university and the Garden's resources, including the library and herbarium with their outstanding collections.  Thus, the Garden is at the nucleus of a series of exciting programs designed to meet the multifarious challenges of botanical research for today and into the third millennium.


     We wish to thank Clark T. Rogerson (in memoriam), John T. Mickel, and Patricia K. Holmgren for sharing insights and information.

Literature Cited

Allison, B. R.  1966.  Ralph C. Benedict 1883-1965. American Fern Journal
Britton, N. L.  1915.  History of the New York Botanical Garden.  Paper presented
        at the  Twentieth Anniversary of the New York Botanical Garden, on file at the
        New York  Botanical Garden Library, 16 pp.
Hansell, D. E.  1957.  The New York Botanical Garden. AIBS Bulletin, November
        issue:  17-20. 

Reprinted with permission from The New York Botanical Garden Press. Originally published in Brittonia, Vol. 48, pp 404-412, copyright 1996,
The New York Botanical Garden.

Complete List of Alumni
of the
New York Botanical
Garden Graduate Program

Alphabetically by Surname

Chronologically by Year
of Graduation

Nathaniel Lord Britton, NYBG
students, and staff on a field trip
to Long Island in 1915.



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