Division of Biology and Medicine
Brown University Herbarium


A brief history of the Brown University Herbarium


The history of the Brown University Herbarium begins in 1868 when local manufacturer and accomplished botanist Stephen Thayer Olney (1812 – 1898), in his third and final will, bequeathed his personal herbarium and other associated materials to Brown University. The collections were transferred to Brown a year later, along with the collections of the Providence Franklin Society. Olney’s collections included a wide variety of valuable specimens, including a large collection of sedges in the genus Carex. Olney further supported the development of a strong program in botany at Brown with the addition of a codicil in 1974 that designated funding “to promote the study, advancement and progress of botany in the State of Rhode Island” and established a professorship of natural history. 

William Whitman Bailey (1843 – 1914), botanist and student of the acclaimed Asa Gray, was the first professor of botany, named the first Stephen Thayer Olney Professor of Natural History in 1881. Bailey taught Brown’s first botany class and developed the Brown University Herbarium in 1877, donating 2,000 specimens from his own personal collection, as well as a number of dissecting microscopes. By 1878, the Herbarium collections were housed in the Butler Exchange, a commercial block that stood at the site of what is today the Industrial Trust Co. Building, referred to more commonly as the “Superman Building.” A year later, in 1879, the collections were transferred to the fireproof basement of the newly constructed Brown University Library, later known as Robinson Hall and which houses the Department of Economics today. By 1883, though, the basement was judged to be too damp and the collections were moved to the first floor of Manning Hall.

 In 1880, Bailey and James Lawrence Bennett (1832 – 1904), another local botanist, examined the Olney collections and found that much of the collection had been destroyed by insect damage, leaving them no choice but to discard one third of the specimens. At the same time, Bennett donated his own private collection of 13,000 specimens. The collections of Olney, Bailey, and Bennett formed the basis of the Herbarium and remain a critical core of the collections. Bennett was appointed the first curator of the Herbarium in 1890.



Stephen Thayer Olney writes will leaving personal herbarium to Brown



William Whitman Bailey begins teaching and establishes Herbarium



Olney specimens transferred to the basement of the newly constructed Brown University Library



Herbarium moves to the first floor of Manning Hall



Prominent collector James Bennett appointed first Curator



James F. Collins succeeds Bennet as curator 



Collections moved to the basement of Maxcy Hall in wooden cabinets



Harlan York succeeds Collins's role as Professor, though it is unclear whether he ever assumes curatorial duties



Walter Henry Snell succeeds York as Assistant Professor of Botany



George L. Church assumes duties as Curator of the Herbarium. Botany moves to Rogers Hall. It is unclear at what point the collections themselves are relocated. 



Snell named Stephen Thayer Olney Professor of Botany

1894 - 1938

Bennett was succeeded by James Franklin Collins (1863 – 1940) in 1894, another prominent collector who oversaw the transfer of the collections to the basement of Maxcy Hall in 1895. During this move, specimens were transferred in wooden cabinets. State of the art at the time, these cabinets continued to house these specimens for over a century. In 1911, Harlan York succeeded Collins in his position as Professor of Botany. Though York took over Collins’s teaching duties, it is unclear when, if ever, York assumed curatorial duties. Collins had left Brown to work as an agent in the Office of Forest Pathology in the US Department of Agriculture. When Brown opened a branch laboratory in the Office of Forest Pathology in 1913, Collins returned to head it, resuming some teaching responsibilities and acting as Curator once more. It is unclear if Collins ever paused his curatorial duties or when he retired. 

York resigned in 1920, at which time renowned mycologist Walter Henry Snell (1889 – 1980) became Assistant Professor of Botany. Snell had been York’s lab assistant and followed in Collins’s footsteps as well, briefly working as a forest pathologist. George L. Church, who had joined the department in 1928, became Curator of the Herbarium in 1938. Snell was named Stephen Thayer Olney Professor of Botany in 1942, a position that was renamed to Professor of Natural History three years later. Snell retired in 1959. 

The history of the Herbarium in the mid-twentieth century remains murky. Church notes in his own history of the Herbarium that the Botany Department was relocated in 1938 from Maxcy Hall to Rogers Hall, now the site of the Salomon Center. A note dated on or after 1964 says that the Herbarium occupied room 205 in Rogers Hall, though it is unclear when the collections themselves were moved. The rate of collecting dropped precipitously after 1900, slowing even further after 1950. In 1987, the Herbarium was moved to the basement of Arnold Lab. During her tenure at Brown, which spanned from 1982 to 2012, Johanna Schmitt was appointed the Stephen Thayer Olney Professor of Natural History and assumed the responsibilities of Herbarium curator. 


Professor Erika Edwards gave new life to the Brown University Herbarium, starting by developing the current Herbarium space in 2012. Under her leadership, the collections moved from the basement of Arnold Lab to the current space in the BioMed Center. During this relocation, the specimens were moved out of the wooden cabinets they had occupied since 1895. Today, the specimens are held in a climate controlled environment in accordance with current standards of collections management. Tim Whitfeld arrived in 2013 as Collections Manager and Assistant Professor (Research) of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, becoming Director in 2017. Under Edwards and Whitfeld, the Herbarium began the process of digitizing the collections with the help of a number of dedicated student digitizers. Rebecca Kartzinel was appointed Director in 2019, continuing to steward the revival of the Herbarium. Since 2012, the collections have once more begun to grow at increasing rates. Today, faculty, community scientists, and students collect actively, continuing to write the history of the Herbarium.



In a note dated on or after 1964, curator George L. Church notes that the Herbarium collections occupy room 205 of Rogers Hall



Herbarium collections moved to the basement of Arnold Lab



Herbarium director Erika Edwards develops current Herbarium space in BioMed Center. moving specimens from the cabinets that had occupied continuously since 1895 into climate-controlled storage



Mass digitization effort begins



Tim Whitfield succeeds Edwards as Director



Rebecca Kartzinel succeeds Whitfield as Director

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