University of Chicago. Department of Botany

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In 1894, University of Chicago President William Rainey Harper appointed John Merle Coulter (1851-1928) to lead the newly established Department of Botany. Coulter was a leading American botanist and a friend of Asa Gray (1810-1888), the famed Harvard botanist whose Manual of Botany and other texts dominated plant science in the United States. Coulter had founded the Botanical Gazette nearly twenty years earlier, and he brought the editorship of the professional journal with him to his new position. In 1896, botanical research at the University of Chicago was further enhanced with the erection of the Hull Biological Laboratories. This complex of four buildings included the Botany Building, which housed classrooms, labs, and a rooftop greenhouse, and Botany Pond, an adjacent outdoor plant study facility.

The University of Chicago's Department of Botany quickly grew to become one of modern botany's most influential centers of research and teaching. By the 1930s, the roster of notable researchers serving on the Botany faculty included Henry C. Cowles and George D. Fuller in ecology, Charles J. Chamberlain in plant morphology, Merle C. Coulter in plant genetics, Adolf C. Noe in paleobotany, and Charles Barnes, William Crocker, and Charles A. Shull in plant physiology. The Botanical Gazette, published under the direction of an editorial board drawn from the department's faculty, was American botany's leading journal, and national university evaluations such as the Hughes Report of 1925 ranked the Department of Botany first among its academic peers.

None of the Department of Botany's achievements loomed larger than the new field of plant ecology developed by Henry Chandler Cowles (1869-1939). Cowles was a graduate student of John M. Coulter, a member of the Botany faculty from 1897 onward, and chairman of the department from 1925 until his retirement in 1934.

Cowles's formulation of ecology was first expressed in his Ph.D. thesis, "The Ecological Relations of the Vegetation on the Sand Dunes of Lake Michigan" (1898). Cowles based his thesis on detailed field work he had undertaken in the Indiana Dunes, a wild, unsettled region of beaches, sand dunes, bogs, and woods along the southern shore of Lake Michigan about twenty-five miles from the University of Chicago. Cowles argued that the natural succession of plant forms in time could be traced in physical space as one moved inland from the open lake beach across ancient shorelines through the shifting dunes to the interior forest.

Henry C. Cowles and his theories and methods attracted many students to the Department of Botany, and these students in turn secured positions at other

universities and research institutions. One study of scientific influences by Douglas Sprugel in 1980 concluded that of the seventy-seven recognized American scientists dominant in the field of ecology from 1900 to the early 1950s, no fewer than forty-six were students of Cowles or were directly influenced by professional mentors who had been students of Cowles.

The Chicago school of ecology is generally regarded as one of the most influential forces in the development of ecological studies. While Cowles's theories of ecological community and plant succession have been modified and extended by more recent generations of scientists, they continue to be considered among the most significant departures in the modern understanding of the natural environment.

In 1967, the Biological Sciences Division's proposal for a merger of the Departments of Botany and Zoology was approved. The merger, which formed the Department of Biology, responded to the need for flexibility in the use of resources and funding, as well as broader trends in research and teaching in the biological sciences.

From the guide to the University of Chicago. Department of Botany. Records, 1882-1972, (Special Collections Research Center University of Chicago Library 1100 East 57th Street Chicago, Illinois 60637 U.S.A.)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf University of Chicago. Department of Botany. Records, 1882-1972 Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library,
referencedIn Kraus, Ezra J. Papers, 1915-1947 Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library,
referencedIn Olmsted, Charles E. Papers, circa 1880s-1980s Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library,
referencedIn Coulter, Merle C. Papers, circa 1909-1919 Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library,
referencedIn Cowles, Henry C. Collection, circa 1860s-1985 Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library,
referencedIn Voth, Paul D. Papers, 1884-1989 Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library,
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Beal, John M. person
associatedWith Bird Haven corporateBody
associatedWith Chamberlain, Charles Joseph, b. 1863 person
associatedWith Coulter, John Merle, 1851-1928 person
associatedWith Coulter, Merle C. (Merle Crowe), 1894- person
associatedWith Cowles, Henry Chandler, 1869-1939 person
associatedWith Friends of Our Native Landscape corporateBody
associatedWith Fuller, George D. (George Damon), 1869- person
associatedWith Kraus, Ezra J. person
associatedWith Kraus, Ezra J. person
associatedWith Nichols, George E. (George Elwood), 1882-1939 person
associatedWith Olmsted, Charles E. person
associatedWith Voth, Paul D. person
Place Name Admin Code Country

Corporate Body



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