Wille, Johann Nordal Fischer, 1858-1924

Alternative names
Birth 1858-10-28
Death 1924-02-04

Biographical notes:

The botanist Frank Shipley Collins (1848-1920) was an authority on American algae. He spent his life in Massachusetts where he worked for the Malden Rubber Shoe Company for over three decades. Despite the fact that Collins’ formal education never extended beyond high school, he became a noted phycologist with a particular interest in New England algae. He is generally considered the foremost American algologist of his time.

Frank Shipley Collins was born in 1848 in Boston, the son of Joshua Cobb Collins and Elizabeth Ann Carter Collins. As a young boy he preferred books and the instructive stories of two aunts, who were teachers, to outdoor play. He was introduced to modern and ancient languages as well as mathematics and botany at an early age. He subsequently enrolled at a private school in Malden, and, after the death of his father, attended public schools in that town. He continued his home studies of Greek, Latin, French, mathematics, and astronomy, and at age sixteen graduated from high school. A severe case of asthma kept him from most activities, and he spent the next couple of years at home, focusing on the study of music and art. In 1873 he spent seven months in Europe, much of which he devoted to activities related to music and art.

His mother and aunts hoped that young Frank would attend Harvard University but his grandfather decided that work would be a better choice. Collins evidently tried his hands in different trades until he settled on bookkeeping. He eventually found employment with the Malden Rubber Shoe Company as a ticket clerk. He also worked on improving the methods by which the shoes were made. He quickly rose to the rank of manager and remained with the company for over thirty years; even after his retirement in 1913 he returned to the company as an efficiency expert during WWI.

While Collins’s formal education never extended beyond high school, he displayed a keen interest in a range of subjects, including art and music, Spanish, and, for a time, theosophy, a field in which he subsequently published an essay. He also devoted considerable time to scientific endeavors, especially botany. As early as the 1870s he seems to have been associated with George Edward Davenport (1833-1907) and Lorin Low Dame (1838-1903) in the activities of the Middlesex Scientific Field Club, later the Middlesex Institute, which was founded in 1878. He was elected vice-president in 1878, and he delivered a paper before the club in 1879.

In 1875 Collins married Anna Lendrum Holmes. Shortly thereafter he became interested in algae when during a visit to the sea shore he saw cards with sea mosses for sale to tourists. Collins was fascinated by the cards, partly because he recognized right away that the naming was quite inadequate. He set out to correct the botanical names and to examine algae more carefully. At that time little was known about American species of algae, especially local environments, and the existing literature tended to be incomplete and unreliable. Collins began to explore New England’s coast in search of algae, and he soon acquire an understanding of marine flora that was unrivaled. By the late 1870s Collins was speaking on the subject, and in 1879 he announced in The Naturalist that he was actively seeking to exchange New England algae with specimens from other parts of the country, especially Florida and California. Several collectors in these regions responded by sending speciments to him. By 1882 he published the first in a series of “Notes” on New England algae in the Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club . He subsequently extended his work from biodiversity assessments with a regional focus on New England to include studies of marine flora along the Atlantic coast to Jamaica and Bermuda, which he visited several times.

In 1888 Dame and Collins published their “Flora of Middlesex County, Massachusetts” under the auspices of the Middlesex Institute. Over the following years Collins published several essays on algae, culminating in his most important publication, his book The Green Algae of North America (1918). In addition, with the botanist William A. Setchell (1864-1943) and his fellow businessman and amateur botanist Issac Holden (1832-1903), Collins compiled the Phycotheca Boreali-Americana (1912-1917), a published set of dried North American algae that required the handling of over 200,000 specimens. With the help of collectors and students, Collins undertook much of the work required for the completion of the fascicles, including not only the assembling, sorting, labeling, and design, but also the necessary financial details. From 1895 to 1919, the collection was issued in forty-six bound volumes and five elephant folio volumes.

Collins assembled one of the finest marine herbaria of his time. He donated specimens of New England algae to the Boston Society of Natural History and to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. He also completely rearranged the algae in the collections of the Boston Society of Natural History, Missouri Botanical Garden, and Harvard University. Collins’ own collections of algae survive in museums and universities across the country, including the New York Botanical Garden.

Despite the fact that Collins lacked a college education and spent much of his time with business pursuits, his accomplishments in botany and especially phycology earned him the respect of the highest authorities in the field. His correspondents included Eduoard Bornet (1828-1911), Ferdinand Hauck (1845-1889), George W. Traill (1836-1897), and Anna Weber-van Bosse (1852-1942). Collins was a member of the biological stations at Woods Hole, Masachusetts, and South Harpswell, Maine. He was also a member of the Middlesex Institute, the Boston Society of Natural History, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society (1913), American Society of Naturalists (1918), and the New England Botanical Club, whose journal Rhodora he co-edited for several years and of which he was president from 1902 to 1905. He was corresponding member of the Torrey Botanical Club and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1901). Tufts College awarded him an honorary master’s degree in 1910, and Harvard made him an associate in its museum. Collins died in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1920.

From the guide to the Frank Shipley Collins papers, 1872-1919, 1872-1919, (American Philosophical Society)


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