The Herbarium as Photo Album

4 Field Cantua candelilla

Photograph of Cantua candelilla specimen from the Berlin-Dahlem Herbarium taken by J. Francis Macbride and in the Field Museum Herbarium, Chicago

When I want to define the word “herbarium” for a non-aficionado (the vast majority of the population) I usually say that it’s a collection of preserved plant specimens and leave it at that, which is more than enough for most people.  I might add that most of the specimens are dried, pressed, and mounted on sheets of paper.  This obviously short changes the riches in most institutional herbaria, and in the following posts I am planning to explore some of the other types of items.  Right now I want to discuss photographs.  These are not uncommon on 20th and 21st century herbarium sheets, often attached to provide information on a plant’s color and form, and perhaps on its habitat.  The photos are usually just adjuncts to the specimens.  However, there are herbarium sheets that only have a photograph or two, no specimens at all.  Some herbaria, such as the Field Museum in Chicago, have substantial collections of negatives of type specimens, as well as photos made from the negatives, mounted on herbarium sheets, and filed in the collection.

Many of the Field images were taken between 1929 and 1939 by a museum botanist, J. Francis Macbride.  He was working on the flora of Peru and had already collected thousands of Peruvian plant specimens.  However, in order to make sense of them, he needed to compare them to type specimens, most of which were in European collections, a result of the numerous expeditions over centuries undertaken by countries attempting to solidify their naval power, conquer lucrative markets, discover new riches, and colonize distant lands in the New World.  Plants were seen as strategically key since they might provide the basis for new wealth in the form of foods, woods, drugs, and other materials.

As the United States built its botanical infrastructure in the 19th century, the discrepancy between the wealth of plant information stowed away in European herbaria and its paucity in the US became more apparent.  It was even a problem in identifying native plants.  When Asa Gray was asked to work on the specimens from the Wilkes Expedition, which had explored areas in the Pacific including parts of Oregon and northern California, Gray argued that he wouldn’t take on the task unless the government financed his travel to herbaria in Europe.  Wilkes balked, wanting this to be a totally US operation, but finally had to relent (Viola, 1985).  Gray, with the help of John Torrey, who had also visited European collections, published descriptions of many new plants from the expedition (Dupree, 1959).  They also continued to add to their own herbaria, with Torrey’s eventually becoming part of the New York Botanical Garden’s Steere Herbarium, and Gray’s the foundation for the Harvard University Herbaria.

In Missouri, Gray’s collaborator, George Engelmann began to build the collection of what became the Missouri Botanical Garden Herbarium in St. Louis by buying the 60,000-specimen herbarium of the German botanist Johann Bernhardi (Shaw, 1986).  The Field Museum was founded after Chicago’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893 and started developing a broad collection of natural history materials including plants.  Still, American botanists were at a disadvantage.  However, they were becoming numerous enough and distinguished enough to make their voices heard at International Botanical Congresses including the Paris meeting of 1867 during which Alphonse de Candolle proposed the first taxonomic code for botany.  By the end of the century, the Americans had developed a version of the code that called for one type specimen to represent each species, while the Europeans argued that this was too limiting and that several types could be designated, not necessarily all in the same institution (Nicholson, 1991).  Access was at the heart of the matter, and botanists such as Oakes Ames, whom I discussed in an earlier post, made photographing types part of his work in European collections (Plimpton, 1979).

The American version of the code was finally agreed to in 1930, but still most types were in Europe (Nicolson, 1991).  This is why the Rockefeller Foundation, supporting development in South America, saw fit to fund Macbride’s trips to Europe to photograph Peruvian specimens in nine different European herbaria, include the massive collections at Geneva, Paris, Vienna, and Berlin, which had the largest number of types from the New World tropics.  In all, Macbride photographed over 40,000 species.  These images were invaluable in the work he and his colleagues did in producing the Flora of Peru, completed in 1960.  What makes Macbride’s photos particularly important is that much of the Berlin herbarium’s collections were destroyed during World War II.  The loss of its type specimens means that the Macbride photographs are often the only visual records of these types.

While dried plant material can survive for centuries, photographs and negatives, particularly those produced in the 1930s, are not nearly as durable because of the instability of the chemicals used at the time.  The Field Museum, recognizing the importance of these images, have duplicated them, and where the originals are intact, these are kept in cold storage to slow further deterioration.  The photographs are available digitally and can be considered to represent the first attempts to make type specimens open to a larger audience, a move that has led to the massive digitization projects of the past decade.  These included the JSTOR Global Plants initiative to digitize type specimens, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  The project’s vision was to make type specimens accessible to systematists in developing nations who didn’t have the financial resources to visit the herbaria that house most of the types for their native species.


Dupree, A. H. (1959). Asa Gray: American Botanist, Friend of Darwin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nicolson, D. H. (1991). A history of botanical nomenclature. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 78, 33–56.

Plimpton, O. (Ed.). (1979). Oakes Ames: Jottings of a Harvard Botanist. Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

Shaw, E. (1986). Changing botany in North America: 1835-1860 The role of George Engelmann. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 73, 508–519.

Viola, H. J., & Margolis, C. (Eds.). (1985). Magnificent Voyagers: The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.


I am grateful to Christina Niezgoda, herbarium manager at the Field Museum, for discussing the Macbride photos and many other interesting items.

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