The Work of Taxonomy: Donovan Correll and the Flora of the Bahama Archipelago

I just read an article by Jan and Dennis Stevenson on the plant systematist Donovan Correll’s project to product the Flora of the Bahama Archipelago.  The essay appeared in the Botanical Review  (80:135-147, 2014) as part of a special issue on the Bahama flora.  It’s a wonderful story about a great piece of taxonomic literature, and it’s written by two people who knew and worked with Correll.  He managed to complete the Flora in eight years, beginning when he arrived at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden Research Center in 1973.  He set up an infrastructure for the project by trading herbarium specimens from other parts of the world for those from Florida and the Bahamas.  He found that the work went quicker when he didn’t have to sift through a lot of irrelevant specimens to find what he needed.  He also set out to collect the needed literature by requesting duplicates and Xeroxes of books and articles.  In the course of his work, he also visited key herbaria to examine their collections.

During the years of the project, Correll spent about a third of his time in the field.  In 1974 alone he took 13 trips to the Bahamas and made 2000 collections.  Most of the rest of the time was spent working at the Fairchild herbarium on the collections.  He also consulted with a number of taxonomists, but only those who were able to assist in a timely fashion.

One aspect of the project that slowed him down a little was the production of illustrations by the Fairchild’s staff illustrator, Priscilla Fawcett, who prepared most of 600 full-page illustrations for the Flora.  This was a massive project.  She didn’t work from herbarium specimens, but from live and pickled material.  In one case, Correll criticized a drawing because it showed too many flower parts.  However Fawcett had drawn exactly what she saw, and as a result, Correll had to correct the species description to note this variant.

Correll worked at a rapid pace because he had seen many flora flounder on the shoals of delay.  He was determined to complete the project and set daily goals for himself, working until he reached them.  If things went faster than expected, then he went on to the next goal.  His co-author and partner in this massive project was his wife, Helen Butts Correll, who had a Ph.D. in zoology from Duke University.  She “converted” to botany and worked alongside Correll, in both the field and the herbarium.

While Helen Correll and others contributed to the flora, it was Donovan Correll who made most of the taxonomic decisions and drove the project to its conclusion.  He took the viewpoint that no flora was ever complete, that taxonomic work always continued and it would be more fruitful if based on available published work.  It was thanks to this attitude, and to his work ethic, that this contribution was published in 1982.