Dr. Charles F. Millspaugh became the first appointee to the scientific staff as the curator of botany. He was a physician by training but an avid botanist and naturalist who published a classical work on American medicinal plants. Millspaugh began soliciting donations of exhibited collections for the Museum during the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. Field Museum’s first botanical collections were largely materials of economic use: collections of gums, resins, fibers, oils, waxes, tannins, dyes, starches, cereals, sugars, spices, medicinal plants, timbers, and cabinet woods. In the following years he made important collections in the Yucatan Peninsula during 1894-1896, and in the West Indies from 1899‑1907. This early work set the stage for the Department's long and continuing history of botanical exploration in tropical America.
Jesse H. Greenman collected extensively in Mexico and Central America from 1904-1912. B. E. Dahlgren concentrated on collecting palms in Cuba, Brazil and British Guiana, his most active field work being conducted between 1909 and 1938. J. Francis Macbride initiated the Flora of Peru in 1922, and added significantly to the Peruvian holdings through his own expeditions and through attracting collections of others. Specimens generated from this project provided Field Museum with one of the world's best overall collections of Peruvian plants. In connection with the Flora of Peru, Macbride spent about ten years in Europe photographing type specimens of South American plants at major European botanical institutions. During this time he arranged for exchange of significant numbers of Latin American specimens, many of them unmarked types, from the herbaria in Vienna, Paris, Madrid, Geneva, Munich and Berlin. Many of these early collections, such as those of Ruiz and Pavón, Blanchet, Glaziou, Pohl and Schott, are not well represented in other U.S. herbaria. Paul C. Standley joined the staff in 1927 and began extensive fieldwork in Central America. Since Standley frequently did not make duplicates, many of his collections at Field Museum are unique, at least within United States herbaria. 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. He was later joined in this project by Julian Steyermark, who made numerous valuable collections in Guatemala and contributed to the published flora. Steyermark also completed the Flora of Missouri while at Field Museum, and deposited his study specimens here. In the 1940's, Steyermark initiated collecting programs in Venezuela and Ecuador, and 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 (13 parts and 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.
In recent years the Botany department has collaborated on the Flora of Veracruz, Mexico project from 1973-1985 resulting in the herbarium housing the nation's best collection of plants from that area. During the 1980's South American representations increased due to the collecting efforts of Timothy Plowman whose expeditions included trips to Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.
More recent floristic projects and collection‑oriented research programs have continued to build on our Neotropical strengths, particularly in Central America with William Burger's Flora Costaricensis and Michael Dillon's coordination of the Asteraceae for the Flora of Nicaragua project. The collections of Michael Dillon have greatly improved our holdings from Peru and Chile as he continues floristic and monographic efforts in the Peruvain flora. His work on the Asteraceae over the past twenty years has added numerous specimens to that family's holdings. Thomas Lammers provided monographic efforts for the Campanulaceae in Peru and Chile. Resident Research Associates maintain active programs that contribute to collection strength, including Robin Foster's inventory projects in Peru, Panama and Bolivia, and Doel Soejarto's drug plant exploration in Guatemala and the Paleotropics.
The herbarium expanded through purchase of major private collections and through acquisition of the herbaria of the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Catholic University and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Field Museum is likely to continue to play an important role in the future, serving as a repository for such orphan collections.