Thursday, April 30, 2015

Elizabeth Britton, Bryologist

Written by Kristen Gilpin

Born: 1858
Died: 1934

S.T.E.A.M. Powers:
  • Botanist
  • Bryologist (Study of mosses)
  • Preservation of native North American Wildflowers
  • Co-Founded the New York Botanical Garden
  • Listed as one of the top 1000 scientists, and was one of only 19 women listed in the publication "American Men of Science"
  • Honorary Curator of Mosses at the New York Botanical Garden
Her Story...

Elizabeth Gertrude Knight was born in 1858 to James and Sophie Anne Knight in New York City. As a child, she spent her time between New York City and her family's sugar plantation and furniture factory in Matanzas, Cuba. Elizabeth graduated from Normal (later Hunter) College at the Early age of just 17 and then joined the staff of the college as a critic teacher and tutor.

In 1879 Elizabeth joined the Torrey Botanical Society which studied the flora of New York City and it's surrounding lands. As a member, she began publishing papers in the Society's Bulletin. By 1883, she was a known bryologist, a scientist specializing in mosses. During these years with the Torrey Botanical society, Elizabeth met and later married Nathaniel Lord Britton, a fellow botanist and taxonomist.

Nathaniel Lord Britton was a professor of Geology at Columbia College (now Columbia University) in New York City. Elizabeth became acquainted with the Botany department and was soon given charge of the department's collection of mosses. Through physically collecting mosses and purchasing collections from other bryologists, Elizabeth was able to establish an impressive collection.

Working together, the Brittons helped to gather support for an lead the charge on the creation of the New York Botanical Garden, of which Nathaniel served as the first director. Elizabeth was presented with the title Honorary Curator of Mosses and oversaw the move of the botanical collection of Columbia College to the New York Botanical Garden, including the mosses she had been carefully collecting.

In addition to the study of mosses, Elizabeth Britton was also a devotee of native plants and helped to found the Wild Flower Preservation Society of America. This society was one of the first of its kind, working to preserve endangered wildflowers. She was also one of the founders and later president ofthe Sullivent Moss society, which later became the American Bryological and Lichenological Society, which is still active today.

In their later years, the couple was studying the flora of Puerto Rico. Both Elizabeth and Nathaniel died in 1934, within months of each other and the pair were interred at the Moravian Cemetery in New Dorp, Staten. The moss genus Bryobrittonia was named in honor of the "Mother of American Bryology", as were 15 other species.
Photo credit: Lisa Vargues via the Plant Talk Blog

Elizabeth Britton published 346 papers and articles, and 170 of those were about her favored topic, mosses. The standard botanical author abbreviation for her words is "E. Britton"
Vintage postcard showing the greenhouse at the
New York Botanical Garden
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