History of the University of Washington Herbarium
Early Years (1880s - 1930s)

The Hitchcock Era (1937 - 1972)

The Denton Years (1972 - 1994)

Recent History (1994 - present)

The Early Years - 1880s - 1930s

The vascular plant collection was started by members of the Young Naturalists' Society of Seattle, who were active from 1879 to 1905. The more enthusiastic plant collectors in the society were C.V. Piper, Trevor Kincaid, and Edmond S. Meany. Their collections, made mostly in "Seattle" attest to the presence then of species no longer extant in King County.

In 1892, L.F. Henderson was commissioned to prepare an exhibition of native plants for the Chicago World's Fair. His display plants, consisting of both flowering and fruiting material, have been widely cited in taxonomic literature and are a valuable element in the present herbarium.

Both T.C. Frye and George B. Rigg, earliest members of the department, were especially active in the period 1906 - 1937, and added materially to the Herbarium. Frye started the Bryophyte Herbarium in 1904. He collected widely, from Alaska to Mexico and eastward from the Pacific Coast to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Through his collecting and through exchange, he developed one of the best bryophyte herbaria west of the Mississippi River.

Dr. J. W. Hotson joined the Department of Botany in 1914 and started the fungal herbarium. His research interests included bulbiferous fungi, fireblight, Sphagnum as a surgical dressing, rusts, and the Agaricaceae.

The Hitchcock Years (1937-1972)

Many years prior to 1937, the Botany Department's collections of vascular plants were either given or loaned to the Washington State Museum (now the Thomas Burke Memorial Washington State Museum). In the fall of 1937, under the leadership of C.L. Hitchcock, the herbarium was returned to Botany. It was first housed in small cubicles between rooms 301 and 302 Johnson, but was soon expanded into those rooms.

In 1938 Hitchcock initiated exchanges with several other herbaria of the Pacific Northwest, and for several years departmental collecting was done chiefly in connection with field trips under the summer school program. The trips lasted for nine weeks and enrolled an average of 30 students. As a result of this activity, the vascular plant collection grew to about 50,000 specimens between 1937 and 1942.

Dr. D. E. Stuntz joined the Department of Botany in 1940. He was instrumental in developing amateur mycology in the Pacific Northwest, including helping to found of the Puget Sound Mycological Society. Dan Stuntz would go on to perform almost continuous fieldwork in Washington for nearly 50 years. His numerous specimens added tremendously to the fungal herbarium and document the distribution of fungi throughout the Northwest. Stuntz developed the fungal herbarium to include almost every group of fungi, with major emphasis on the macrofungi, particularly Basidiomycetes. His research interests included taxonomy of Agaricaceae and forest pathology.

Dr. Ruth D. Svihla, an affiliate of the Bryophyte Herbarium, collected actively from about 1930 to 1959. She made extensive collections in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, but also in Burma, India, South America, Hawaii, and New Zealand. She gave her collection to the Herbarium, including many replicate specimens to be used for exchange.

In the vascular plant collection, little collecting was done during 1942-43 and little material was incorporated into the Herbarium. However, in 1943 Mr. J.W. Thompson, one of the best field botanists in the western United States, and the owner of the best private herbarium and botanical library in the Pacific Northwest, gave both his herbarium and library to the Department of Botany. A token payment of $1,500 was made to him. The herbarium is particularly rich in topotypes, since Thompson made a consistent effort to visit type localities of as many northwest taxa as he could. His collection also includes much type material from such early Pacific Northwestern collectors as Cusick, Leiberg, Elmer, Heller, Howell, Flett, Abrams, Blankinship, Macbride, Sandberg, and Aven Nelson, as well as more recent collectors such as St. John, Peck, Maguire, Eyerdam, English, Ownbey, Cronquist, Holmgren, Constance, and Detling.

The next twelve years saw a very active collecting program by C. Leo Hitchcock and C.V. Muhlick, mainly in Idaho and Montana, but also in Oregon, Washington, and southern British Columbia. J.W. Thompson did much of the work involved in getting the material ready for exchange, and did all the mounting, stamping, and filing of an average of the 15,000 numbers added to the Herbarium in each of these years. The first duplicate set of the huge Suksdorf collection, mainly from Klickitat County, was received through exchange with Washington State University during this period.

In 1948 a wing was added to Johnson Hall and the vascular plant and bryophyte collections were moved to room 345. In the 1950s and 60s, Hitchcock, Muhlick, and A.R. Kruckeberg concentrated their field work less on general collecting and more on field studies of particular families or genera, such as Sidalcea, Lathyrus, Astragalus, Delphinium, Sisyrinchium, Streptanthus, and many genera of grasses that were undergoing study for treatment in the monumental work Vascular Plants of the Pacific Northwest. During the writing of this work, the medium of communication between several authors was mainly by reference to collections made by Hitchcock and Muhlick or by J.W. Thompson, such collections being cited frequently. Consequently, the University of Washington Herbarium became very important to persons interested in the flora of the Pacific Northwest. The five-volume illustrated flora was published over a span of 15 years; volume 5 appeared in 1955 and the series culminated in 1969 with volume 1. The abridged one-volume Flora of the Pacific Northwest was published in 1973.

In 1953, Dr. Elva Lawton assumed the curatorial duties of the Bryophyte Herbarium after retiring from a teaching position at Hunter College. She pursued studies of western North American mosses, and between 1962 and 1971, she received grants from the National Science Foundation to prepare the comprehensive Moss Flora of the Pacific Northwest. Other research associates during this period were Lois Clark (hepatics) and Grace Howard (lichens).

During the Hitchcock years, the vascular plant Herbarium maintained an active exchange with 56 other herbaria. By 1973, the vascular plant herbarium contained about 280,000 sheets. Most were housed in wooden cases made by the University of Washington's Buildings and Grounds Department. [back to the top]

The Denton Years (1972 - 1994)

When C. Leo Hitchcock retired in 1972, having served as Curator for 35 years (1937 - 1972), Melinda F. Denton became Curator. She devoted most of her efforts to strengthening the holdings of certain plant groups or families, and improving the physical layout and accessibility of the collections. In 1979, after Dan Stuntz's retirement, mycologist Dr. J. F. Ammirati, joined the Botany faculty, and began an active research and collecting program.

Beginning in 1980, the day-to-day operations of the Herbarium were handled by a collections manager (Bonnie Tucker, 1980-82; Anna Zeigler 1982-88; Sarah Gage 1988- 2001).

In 1983, under the leadership of Melinda Denton, and with funding she obtained from the University and the National Science Foundation, the Herbarium moved from Johnson Hall to the new biological sciences building on campus, named C. Leo Hitchcock Hall. Along with the move to new facilities, the holdings were consolidated and a 35% increase in storage space was provided by installation of a compactor system. Specimens were moved out of the old wooden cases and into modern steel ones. The improvements in physical layout and access to the collections enabled much easier handling of special requests and accomodation of visitors.

Melinda Denton's research interests were systematics of vascular plants, evolutionary processes, and phytogeography. She made monographic studies of Oxalidaceae, Crassulaceae, and Cyperaceae. Specimens added to the Herbarium during her years as curator (1972 - 1994) reflected those interests. [back to the top]

Recent History (1994 - present)

After Melinda Denton's untimely death in 1994, mycologist Joe Ammirati served as curator. He and the mycology lab have added thousands of mushroom specimens to the Herbarium, through their studies of old-growth forest fungi, mycorrhizae, and genera such as Cortinarius, Agrocybe, Phaeocollybia, and Inocybe. Currently their main emphasis lies in species level taxonomy of mycorrhizal brown-spored agarics (mushrooms).

Richard G. Olmstead joined the Department of Botany in 1996 and serves as the curator and director of the University of Washington Herbarium. Estimated holdings of over 560,000 specimens include approximately 375,000 vascular plants, 80,000 mosses, 35,000 fungi, 23,000 algae, 16,000 hepatics, and 13,000 lichens.

The information in this history was taken liberally from the following sources:

Denton, Melinda F. 1986. A collection of botanical treasures - The University of Washington Herbarium. UW Arboretum Bulletin 49(4): 22-25.

Denton, Melinda F. 1993. Biography of Elva Lawton (3 April 1896 - 3 February 1993). The Bryologist 96(4): 641-644.

Kruckeberg, A.R. 1970. C. Leo Hitchcock: A tribute from the California Botanical Society. Madrono 20(8): 387-380.

Kruckeberg, A.R. 1994. Melinda Fay Denton (1944 - 1994). Taxon 43: 505-509.

University of Washington. Dept. of Botany 1973. The University herbaria, Department of Botany, University of Washington, Seattle: a history, summary of activities and future needs. [Seattle]

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