Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Past and Future of Rochester Academy of Science

Elizabeth Pixley; Herbarium Curator gave a presentation on the Past and Future of Rochester Academy of Science

The RAS was formed in 1881 at the University of Rochester bringing together several existing collections to form the Herbarium.

Most specimens were collected with the help of horse and buggy and many early samples came from the Bergen Swamp (Bergen Swamp Preservation Society was formed in the 1920s). Women played a leading role in the RAS.

As early as 1687, when the Denonville Expedition occurred, this area was identified as having enough sugar maples to provide all of “America” with sugar. For more information on the Denonville Expedition and the Mendon area check out: http://www.crookedlakereview.com/articles/136_167/143fall2007/143sheret.html


Elizabeth shared some chronological highlights:

1842 – Dr. Chester Dewey, Professor at University of Rochester, published a Catalogue of Plants and Time of Flowering In and About the City of Rochester for 1841.

1843 – John Torrey publishes Flora of the State of New York.

1860s – Listings of Native and Naturalized plants

1881 – Rochester Academy of Science formed a Botanical Section with 11 members for the purpose of making the collection of plants of Rochester, NY known through collecting, preserving, mounting and identifying. (Orchids were a popular focus.)

1896 – RAS Proceedings volume 3 number 1: Plants of Monroe County New York and Area

1896 – Species no longer present and new plants introduced from nurseries were noted.

1911-17 – Descriptive Supplementary List including 1761 species. Many from Bergen Swamp, Mendon Ponds, Ravine at Holley.

Elizabeth explained that many species were found along Railroad lines – probably transported that way as well.


Some important people of the RAS:

George T. Fish, 1838-1926, was a charter member who “discovered” Bergen Swamp. In 1864 he collected a Lady’s Slipper – the first in NY State.

Mary Streeter and Major Streeter hosted many meetings. Mary collected most specimens with her horse, Bonnie, and her dog, Gypsy including an orchid collected within a buggy ride from her city home.

Charles Booth, a charter member with connections to South America (Quinoa) collected lots of specimens and lists duckweed from Irondequoit Bay. The duckweed took us on a short discussion about ways of mounting specimens such as in casings.

Florence Beckwith held the RAS presidency from 1897-1929. She ruled meetings with a heavy hand and was all business with no humor. Florence traveled widely and had a concern for preservation. She was noted for saying, “Flowers have nerves. I've seen them tremble when I pick them.”

Mary McCauley was a Cornell University graduate and popular teacher. Botany was her favorite subject. She would often take students to the Genesee Gorge for field trips.

Joseph Fuller was a printer by trade and the first curator for the RAS. Joseph had a special interest in the study of systemic botany.

Edward Hankinson was a Newark, NY resident and lifelong corresponding member for Wayne County.

Milton Baxter joined RAS in 1893 and became a curator. He most enjoyed trips to the Bergen Swamp. Milton worked for Bell Telephone’s international division and collected specimens from places such as Switzerland, Holland, and Russia.

Warren Matthews was a very large collector specifically interested in sedges and grasses. Warren exchanged specimens with others all around the globe and contributed many specimens pressed and labeled but not mounted.

Babette Brown Coleman is remembered as the cheerleader for the RAS back when Elizabeth joined the RAS. The Herbarium was housed at the Parks Department on Westfall Road. Babette taught at the U of R and traveled extensively, especially to the Arctic, bringing back shoe boxes of mosses and lichen. She was actively involved in the Bergen Swamp Preservation Society.


The ROCHESTER ACADEMY OF SCIENCE HERBARIUM has around 60,000 specimens in assorted cabinets at the Rochester Museum and Science Center basement. Specimens include an amazing diversity with a number from Central America. A majority of the collections date from 1860-1950.

Currently volunteers work with maintenance and repair as their main focus. Most specimens are not on acid free paper. Volunteers work at monthly workshops to replace folders family by family. Remounting is done a few times each year.

The future goal is to have all of the data digitalized and photographed. This requires a lot of time, effort, and equipment. Hopefully, through a grant for Natural History Collections there will be a time when RAS can loan duplicates out to teaching colleges and museums.

RAS has visitors including researchers and taxonomists who come to borrow plants an add labels or corrected information to specimens. Elizabeth has E-mailed digitally photographed orchid labels to someone in Poland. This year an Anthropology/Art student from Geneseo came looking for information on Indian uses of plants. Another student from Saint John Fisher was looking to add to a DNA database for plants and snipped of bits into vials.

Elizabeth brought several samples including the American Elm and American Ash trees.

If you are interested in volunteering at the RAC Herbarium please contact Elizabeth Pixley at epixley@rochester.rr.com.

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