Skip Navigation and banner
This site will look much better in a browser that supports web standards, but it is accessible to any browser or Internet device.
University of Wyoming

A Brief History of the Rocky Mountain Herbarium


The Rocky Mountain Herbarium (RM) was founded by Aven Nelson in 1893. A collection of about 300 plants made by B. C. Buffum during the summer of 1892 formed the nucleus. While identifying these plants, Dr. Nelson's interest in plant taxonomy was kindled, thus leading to a lifetime of study of the flora of the Rocky Mountains. A summary of some of the highlights of the RM and its staff follows. For a detailed account of the life of Aven Nelson, the history of the herbarium, and the early history of the University, see "Aven Nelson of Wyoming" by Roger L. Williams (1984, Colorado Associated University Press).

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

1896 He published the bulletin "First Report on the Flora of Wyoming," 172 pages, through the Agricultural Experiment Station.

1898 Elias Nelson (unrelated to Aven) received a B.A. degree in botany; he completed a M.A. the following year with a thesis entitled "Revision of the Western North American Species of the Genus Phlox."

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 The herbarium is moved from the (Old) Main Building to the new Science Hall (now the Geology Building).

1902 The herbarium had ca. 40,000 accessions; ca. 75,000 by 1913.

1909 Dr. Nelson published "New Manual of the Botany of the Central Rocky Mountains (Vascular Plants)" with John M. 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.

1911 Vie Willits (B.A., University of Wyoming, 1904) completed a masters degree entitled "The Vascular Plants of the Little Goose Water-Shed."

1917 Dr. Nelson 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.

1921 Dr. E. B. Payson (Ph.D., Washington University, St. Louis, 1921), a former student of Dr. Nelson (B.A., University of Wyoming 1913), joined the staff. "His monographic studies in the Cruciferae and Boraginaceae, etc., were outstanding. His early death [1927] cut short a brilliant career." (J. A.. Ewan, 1950, Rocky Mountain Naturalist, University of Denver Press).

1927 The RM was moved to the fourth floor of the Engineering Building.

1929 Drs. C. L. Porter (Ph.D. in bryology, University of Washington, 1937) and W. G. Solheim (Ph.D., University of Illinois, 1928) joined the Department of Botany.

1937 Mr. George E. Osterhout of Windsor, Colorado, gave his personal herbarium (ca. 25,000) and library to the University of Wyoming as did Dr. C. L. Shear of Washington, D.C. These additions brought the number of accessions to ca. 150,000.

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

1942 Dr. Nelson was named curator emeritus and Dr. C. L. Porter became curator. The number of accessions was ca. 192,000.

1951 Dr. Harry Hapeman of Minden, Nebraska gave his personal herbarium (ca. 30,000 sheets) and library to the RM.

1960 The RM (ca. 265,000 specimens) was moved to its present quarters on the third floor of the Aven Nelson Memorial Building. The Botany Department occupies the second floor and part of the third.

1968 Dr. Porter retired and Dr. John R. Reeder (Ph.D., Harvard University, 1947), a grass specialist from Yale University, became curator and head of the Department of Botany. Dr. Reeder's wife Charlotte shared in his research and volunteered generously of her time in the herbarium. The daughter of Leslie M. Goodding (B.A. University of Wyoming, 1903), she received an M.A. (1939) with a thesis on Muhlenbergia under the guidance of C. L. Porter; her assistantship was with Dr. Nelson in the herbarium. The number of accessions reached ca. 296,000.

1969 Dr. Daniel J. Crawford (Ph.D., University of Iowa, 1969) was hired to strengthen the systematics program. In 1977 he accepted a new position at Ohio State University.

1974 Burrell "Ernie" Nelson completed a M.A. degree and was hired as the herbarium assistant (now herbarium manager).

1976 Dr. Reeder retired and a year later Dr. Ronald L. Hartman (Ph.D., University of Texas, Austin, 1975; university postdoctoral fellow, Ohio State University, 1975-1977) became curator. The RM had ca. 299,000 specimens.

1978 The W. G. Solheim Mycological Herbarium was established with ca. 48,000 specimens. Dr. Raymond Umber (Ph.D., Harvard University, 1978) was hired to fill the position vacated by Dr. Crawford.

1982 The U. S. Forest Service National Herbarium (ca. 120,000 sheets) was moved to the RM. The combined herbaria contained ca. 509,000 accessions with an additional 60,000 specimens in various stages of processing.

1985 Dr. Gregory K. Brown (Ph.D., Arizona State University, 1980) was hired to fill the vacancy left by the departure of Dr. Umber. Dr. Meredith A. Lane (Ph.D., University of Texas, Austin, 1980) of the University of Colorado was acting curator during the academic year while Hartman was on sabbatical at the Department of Botany, University of California, Berkeley.

1986 A National Science Foundation grant (with Lane co-PI, $238,859) was obtained for a movable storage system that was installed the following summer. One hundred new cases were added. The USFS was intercalated into the RM with the ownership of each sheet clearly marked. The combined herbaria were reorganized alphabetically by family and species within each of the major groupings (algae, fungi, mosses and liverworts, ferns and allies , gymnosperms, angiosperms-monocots, and angiosperms-dicots). The RM (including the RMS and USFS) had ca. 551,000 specimens. The Rocky Mountain Herbarium Library was officially designated a branch of the University of Wyoming Libraries.

1993 The RM held its "100th Birthday Party." There were ca. 629,000 specimens with an additional 100,000 specimens in various stages of processing. Dr. John H. Beaman of Michigan State University was the guest speaker.

2000 The RM plant specimen database has 350,000+ records from recent inventory work. The herbarium has 719,000 accessions and an additional 200,000 specimens in various stages of processing, all accessible for study. The expanding backlog is due to a marked increase in the past eight years in graduate students in floristics and in projects funded by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Washington.

2001+ See Research.