Focus: Plants & Fungi - History

The Field Museum acquired its first botanical collections from the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 when Charles F. Millspaugh, a physician by training but an avid botanist and naturalist, began soliciting donations of exhibited collections for the Museum. These were largely materials of economic use which had been displayed in the Horticulture Building at the fair (pictured at right): collections of gums, resins, fibers, oils, waxes, tannins, dyes, starches, cereals, sugars, spices, medicinal plants, timbers and cabinet woods offered by more than twenty countries. In this manner the Department of Botany began with a fine collection of cabinet woods, forest products and useful plant products. These original specimens today comprise the Economic Botany collection at The Field Museum.

Millspaugh, who in 1887 published a major work on American medicinal plants, became the first appointee to the scientific staff as the Curator of Botany. The herbarium was established in 1894, and numbered 50,000 specimens by 1898. Millspaugh made important collections in the Yucatan Peninsula in the period 1894–1896, and in the West Indies during 1899–1907. From this time on, the Museum concentrated its efforts on the American tropics, sponsoring or co-sponsoring more than sixty botanical expeditions to the region, and establishing one of the world's major collections of Central and South American plants. Some major contributors to the development of the collections are noted throughout.

B. E. Dahlgren became the Museum’s second Botany curator in 1918 and focused primarily on the palms, remaining at the Museum until his retirement in 1947. Jesse H. Greenman collected extensively in Mexico and Central America from 1904–1912. J. Francis Macbride, who joined the staff in 1922, worked in Peru and initiated one of the department's major floristic works, the Flora of Peru, (8,508 pages of which have been published to date). Paul C. Standley joined the staff in 1927 and began extensive fieldwork in Central America. Among his many publications are The Flora of the Lancetilla Valley(Honduras), The Flora of Costa Rica, The Rubiaceae of Colombia, also of Ecuador, of Bolivia and of Venezuela. In 1938 he began The Flora of Guatemala, which also attracted many new collections to the Museum. Standley's many achievements, together with a phenomenal memory that allowed him to identify on sight an estimated 20,000 species from Mexico and Central America, earned him an enduring place in the history of American botany. Standley was later joined in the Flora of Guatemalaproject by Julian Steyermark, who joined the staff in 1937 and made numerous valuable collections in Guatemala and contributed to the published flora. Steyermark also completed the Flora of Missouriwhile at Field Museum, and deposited his study specimens here. In the 1940's, Steyermark initiated collecting programs in Venezuela and Ecuador, and The Field Museum's holdings of these early collections are not duplicated elsewhere in North America. Louis O. Williams joined the staff in 1960 and supervised the completion of the Flora of Guatemala(thirteen parts, 6,528 pages). Williams also collected widely in Central America and developed an active research program that supported the work of other collectors, such as Antonio Molina of Honduras. Williams served as departmental chair from 1964–1973.

While the floristics of neotropical flowering plants has been a major focus in the history of the department, several staff have distinguished themselves in other areas. Llewelyn Williams started at the Field in 1926 and served as Curator of Economic Botany from 1938 to 1952. Francis Drouet, Curator of Cryptogams from 1939 to 1958, was a specialist in the study of algae. Theodor Just, Chief Curator from 1947 until 1960, published widely on evolution, biogeograohy, and pharmacology, but is best known for his work in paleobotany.

In 1965 Louis Williams appointed William Burger (now Emeritus Curator), to begin working on the Flora of CostaRicaproject.Bill’s major work throughout the years was the Flora Costaricensis, and he has described 104 plant species, primarily in the Lauraceae and Moraceae.  Bill served as Department Chair from 1978-1985 and remains Curator Emeritus of Vascular Plants.  Since his “retirement” Bill has written two books aimed at a general audience, Perfect Planet, Clever Species: How Unique Are We?(2002) and Flowers: How They Changed the World(2006), and he currently has another manuscript under review by a publisher.

Tim Plowman joined The Field Museum in 1976.  An ethnobotanist, his primary emphases during his years at The Field Museum were the taxonomy of Erythroxylumand the ethnobotany of coca.  Because of Tim’s work, The Field Museum is the most important repository in the world of collections and literature pertaining to the classification of this important genus.  He collected over 700 specimens of the genus from South America, and the Field collection contains over 5,000 specimens collected worldwide.  He authored more than 80 scientific papers, 46 of them on Erythroxylum, but was unable to complete his treatment of the genus for the Flora Neotropica before his untimely death in 1989.  He did, however, leave behind massive data resources in a form easily accessible to later workers, including a specimen card file, and a large type specimen photograph collections.  Tim and his mentor Richard Evans Schultes are the subjects of the book One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest, by friend and colleague Wade Davis.

Michael O. Dillon (now Emeritus Curator) continued building the neotropical collections from the 1970s to the present.  His research entails exploration, description, systematic study and conservation efforts within the New World tropics, with a particular focus on flowering plants in diverse habitats in the Andean Cordillera, ranging from the hyper-arid deserts of coastal Chile and Peru, to mid-elevation mountain forests of northern Peru, to high-elevation plant communities known as páramos, jalca or puna throughout the Cordillera.  In conjunction with these studies Dr. Dillon has also been studying the impact of El Niño on the coastal plants of Chile and Peru for the past three decades.

Also in the 1970s, the Museum strengthened a long-standing research program in bryophytes (mosses and liverworts).  John Engel (now Emeritus Curator) has focused for more than 30 years on the systematics and phytogeography of hepatics or liverworts of south temperate and subantarctic regions, areas that present an ideal natural laboratory to investigate biological questions relevant to evolutionary persistence, dispersibility, and survival and evolution of plants faced with environmental change.  In 2009 John completed the first of three planned volumes of the Flora of Liverworts and Hornworts of New Zealand, with David Glenny of the LandCare Institute, and is currently hard at work on volume 2.  The department’s bryological area has been further enhanced via the energetic fieldwork, research, and curation efforts of Adjunct Curator/Collection Manager Matthew von Konrat.  Thanks to several NSF grants Matt has upgraded the physical care and data management of the collection, acquired thousands of new specimens through fieldwork and purchase, and continues an active research program in systematics and phylogeny of bryophytes.  As of 2011 Drs. Engel and von Konrat are co-investigators on a project to document the little-studied bryophyte flora of the Antarctica Chilena and the Fijian Islands through extensive field collecting and research.  

In the late 1970s, Robert Stolze came to the Museum as a collections assistant, and embarked on the revision of a genus of ferns in collaboration with Rolla Tryon at Harvard.  Stolze later became Associate Curator, and completed the fern treatments for both the Flora of Guatemalaand the Flora of Peru.  Fern research at the Museum was further strengthened with the arrival of Kathleen Pryer (now at Duke) in 1996, who charted the evolutionary relationships among ferns and their relatives, drawing on morphology, molecular analysis and the fossil record, including a oivotal study demonstrating that ferns and horsetails constitute the closest relatives to seed plants (not, as previously held, that they were lower, transitional evolutionary grades between mosses and seed plants).

Since the 1980s, with the hire of Gregory Mueller (now at the Chicago Botanic Garden) The Field Museum has been an international leader in fungal research, with groundbreaking research on fungal systematics and biodiversity, evolution and molecular phylogeny, the importance of fungi in ecosystems, fungal chemistry and its applications, guides to edible and poisonous fungi, and conservation and land management.  Between 2002 and 2012, Sabine Huhndorf conducted research on Ascomycetes (the sac fungi), the largest known group of fungi worldwide, occuring in all ecosystems and geographical areas.  Thanks to two major NSF “PEET” grants Dr. Huhndorf completed two long-term projects on little-studied genera of Ascomycetes, and trained several postdoctoral scientists, Ph.D. students, and undergrad interns.

In the late 1990s the Museum quickly developed as a leading center for the study of lichens, first with the arrival of Francois Lutzoni (now at Duke University), and later with the hire of Thorsten Lumbsch (2002) and Robert Lücking (2001).  Thorsten’s research program centers on the systematics, taxonomy and evolution of lichen; current projects include the phylogeny and systematics of Graphidaceae, species delimitation in North American parmeloid lichens, and monographic studies in the genus Lecanora.  Recent fieldwork has taken him to Kenya, Tanzania, Thailand, Vietnam, Tasmania, Germany, and Michigan, and he has active collaborations with colleagues in Kenya, Thailand, and Spain.  Robert has supervised many collections improvement and digitizing initiatives.  His research emphasizes tropical lichens, crustose microlichens, and leaf-inhabiting lichens, and his approaches include alpha-taxonomy and systematics (molecular and phenotype phylogeny), biogeography, ecology, and applications. For the past three years he has led NSF-funded lichen workshops in 12 countries across the Neotropics, and is working on a global monograph of the lichen family Graphidaceae.

Also in the late 1990s the Museum developed a new focus on plants of Asia.  Jun Wen (now at the Smithsonian) collected widely on the continent, researching the ginseng family and the floristic similarities between China and eastern North America.  Associate Curator Richard Ree focuses on the Sino-Himalayan region and its spectacular evolutionary radiations, especially the louseworts (genus Pedicularis).  His phylogenetic work draws on molecular analysis, and he has been a pioneer in innovative techniques bringing statistical modeling to bear on biogeographical questions, and not just for plants.  His work emphasizes bioinformatic approaches, in particular high-throughput next-generation DNA sequencing technology, to synthesize knowledge about the entire tree of life.  Rick is also Assistant Director of the Biodiversity Synthesis Center, a Field Museum-based component of the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) project.

Christine Niezgoda, Collections Manager of Flowering Plants since 1979, has been instrumental in making The Field Museum a leader in the digitization of plants.  In large part though her efforts, the Botany Department has become an active member of the Global Plants Initiative (GPI) project, an international collaboration aimed at creating a coordinated database of information and images of plants worldwide. This global effort to digitize and provide access to plant types was launched in 2003 by the Mellon Foundation, and the GPI network includes more than 263 partner herbaria in more than 71 countries. With support from the National Science Foundation, the Global Biodiversity Information Project, and the Mellon Foundation, Christine and her team have digitized more than 124,000 Field Museum specimens—including flowering plants, fungi, and bryophytes—and thousands of specimens for partner institutions.

More information on the research programs of current Botany staff can be found on the “Research” and “People” pages.