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University of Wyoming

Aven Nelson


The following chronology of the life of Dr. Nelson was prepared by Charlotte Goodding Reeder for the Honor's Dinner (1969) at the request of President Carlson. It has been updated and supplemented by information from "Aven Nelson of Wyoming" by Roger L. Williams (1984, Colorado Associated University Press) and "Wyoming University, The First 100 Years, 1886-1996" by Deborah Hardy (1986, University of Wyoming).

Dr. Nelson published over 115 scientific articles and two books.

1859 March 24, Aven Nelson was born to Norwegian emigrants in a log cabin the year Darwin published "Origin of Species." The small farm was on Sugar Creek, Lee County, southeast Iowa, near Keokuk. "Even" (his given name until he entered primary school) was the youngest of four children in a Quaker family.

1875 At age 16 he became a teacher of a country school for $25, later $30 a month.

1883 He graduated with a B.A. degree after three years from Normal School at Kirksville, Missouri, where he won a gold medal in an oratorical contest. He was appointed assistant professor of natural sciences and instructor in English at Drury College. Later he received an honorary degree in science from Drury.

1884 He attended a summer Institute for Teachers at Cottage City, Massachusetts, on Martha's Vineyard.

1885 He led students on a tour to Cotton Exposition in New Orleans during spring recess. In September he married Celia Alice Calhoun and they moved to Ferguson, Missouri (near St. Louis) where he became superintendent of schools. He dug the basement for their new home; this dismayed many town's folk who considered it below his position in life.

1887 They arrived in Laramie City, Wyoming Territory, where he was the first of five faculty members on campus. He would be the first librarian for the University and teach economic botany, zoology, animal physiology, hygiene, physical geography, and calisthenics. He came to teach English and literature, but another faculty member was considered more qualified.

1891 The Agricultural College and Agricultural Experiment Station were established; Nelson became botanist of the latter. In September he took a leave of absence to attend Harvard University where he studied physiology and morphology of plants and animals, visiting the Gray Herbarium only once!

1892 June 29, he received a M.A. degree from Harvard University. B. C. Buffum, Nelson's substitute while he was at Harvard University, made a collection of Wyoming forage plants for the Chicago World's Fair of 1893.

1894 He made his first botanical trip accompanied by Dr. Wilbur C. Knight, a geologist, (8 weeks). The route included Douglas, Casper, Lander, Jackson Hole, Green River, South Pass, and Bates Hole. He collected 1,200 specimens each with 6 to 20 duplicates for sale or exchange.

1895 He made another trip, this time to northeastern Wyoming, passing through Sundance, Sheridan, Ranchester, Buffalo, and Newcastle.

1896 Nelson published the bulletin "First Report on the Flora of Wyoming," 172 pages, through the Agricultural Experiment Station and his first botanical paper in the Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club.

1899 The collection was officially designated the Rocky Mountain Herbarium by the Board of Trustees of the University of Wyoming. Dr. Nelson, his wife, and two children, ages 10 and 13, accompanied by two students (Elias E. Nelson and Leslie M. Goodding), spent 12 weeks botanizing in Yellowstone National Park (1,142 collections of 15 to 40 duplicates each; also 130 collections in Montana and Idaho en route, 177 subsequently in the Tetons and in Jackson Hole).

1901 He was made fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

1903 He served as secretary of the Building Commission for the Carnegie Public Library.

1904 He received a Ph.D. from the University of Denver based on a bound volume of thirty-six of his published papers. He was special demonstrator for the University of Wyoming's exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis.

1905 He taught summer session. The State Board of Horticulture was formed and Dr. Nelson served as secretary, a position which he held until 1922.

1909 Dr. Nelson published "New Manual of the Botany of the Central Rocky Mountains (Vascular Plants)" with John Coulter as senior author but completely rewritten by Nelson. The work published by American Book Company contained 2788 species, 1788 synonyms, 55 new species, and 113 new combinations.

1912 He published "Spring Flora of the Intermountain States" through Ginn & Company.

1917 He was named acting president, then president (1918) of the University of Wyoming after the sudden resignation of Dr. Duniway, a position Dr. Nelson held until 1922. Since 1914, Nelson had been vice president of the University. During his term, Hoyt Hall and the Power House were built; construction was begun on the Library Building which would include the ancient language, English, and history departments and the Law School (corner stone laid June 14, 1922, completed 1923). The Library Building was renovated and renamed the Aven Nelson Memorial Building in 1960 at which time the Herbarium and the Botany Department occupied the second and third floors.

1926 He attended the Botanical Congress in Ithaca, New York. He received an honorary doctor of science degree from the University of Colorado.

1927 The Rocky Mountain Herbarium moves to the Engineering Building.

1929 Dr. Nelson was chairman for local arrangements for the Botanical Society of America summer field trip.

1930 He attended the Fifth International Botanical Congress in Cambridge.

1931 He began a term (four years) as president of Phi Kappa Phi and visited many western chapters. He married Ruth Ashton in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Dr. Nelson retires from teaching (continued at $3,000 "salary" level for no retirement pay existed; pensions were not allowed by the state until 1944).

1934 At the age of 77, he and Ruth spend 12 weeks in Arizona collecting 1,000 plant specimens. December, he was elected president of the Botanical Society of America and was the delegate to the Sixth International Botanical Congress in Amsterdam. He becomes the first president of the Wyoming chapter of Sigma Xi.

1935 December, upon completing his term as president for the Botanical Society of America, he was elected chairman of the first governing board of the American Society of Plant Taxonomists, thus becoming the first president of the newly founded organization.

1936 He became an honorary member of the Laramie Rotary Club and receives the annual distinguished service award from the Casper Kiwanis Club.

1937 He receives an honorary doctor of law degree from the University of Wyoming, its 50th anniversary.

1939 Dr. Nelson, age 80, and his wife Ruth botanized Mount McKinley National Park.

1942 He is named curator emeritus. Dr. Nelson, Ruth, and his daughter Neva took a trip to southern Texas and Mexico. He and Ruth spend winters in Norman, Oklahoma.

1952 March 31, Dr. Nelson dies at age 93 in Colorado Springs.