Nathaniel Lord Britton (1857-1934) received the Pugsley Silver Medal "for his services in founding the New York Botanical Garden". He was a botanist, taxonomist, and first director-in-chief of The New York Botanical Garden. He was born on January 15,1857 at New Dorp, Staten Island, New York, the son of Jasper Alexander Hamilton Britton and Harriet Lord Turner. His parents envisioned a religious career for their son; instead, John J. Crooke and John Strong Newberry, two "all-around naturalists" of Staten Island, nurtured his native curiosity about the natural world and guided him easily into a botanical career. From the beginning Britton created a sizeable botanical collection, and his father reinforced his interest with visits to the Columbia College herbarium. As the young Britton's education progressed at the Staten Island Academy, Crooke, a neighbor of the Brittons, convinced his parents to allow him to attend the Columbia College School of Mines.
In 1875 Britton began his undergraduate study under John Strong Newberry, who taught geology, mineralogy, and paleobotany at Columbia. Soon after, again at the instigation of Newberry and Crooke, Britton and his friend Arthur Hollick joined the Torrey Botanical Club. This organization proved to be of enormous importance to Britton. He published his findings in its bulletin and discoursed with the finest botanists of the age. Aside from his formal schooling and private study, he used the forum of the Torrey club to press on with his development as a botanist and administrator in a very public fashion. He led the club toward affiliations in New York's scientific community and used it to launch the project of planning and creating a botanical garden. It was said that he never missed a club meeting until well advanced in age.
Dr. Britton and his friend Charles Hollick worked as field assistants with the Geological Survey of New Jersey (1879-84), traveling to the Wyoming Territory to collect fossils. They later published The Flora of Richmond County, New York based on botanical investigations of Staten Island.
During this period Dr. Britton and the bryologist Elizabeth Gertrude Knight became leading members of New York City's Torrey Botanical Club. Their marriage in August 1885 was grounded in mutual botanical interests and career aspirations. Both worked at the forefront of a movement to establish a botanical garden in New York City.
The Torrey Botanical Club circulated a public appeal in 1889 to establish a botanic garden and two years later by an act of the New York State legislature; the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) was founded. Dr. Britton, as Professor of Geology & Botany at Columbia University, curated its herbarium and botanical library, resigning in 1895 to become the Garden's first director-in-chief. By agreement with Columbia, the collections followed him.
In the decade of the 1890s, Britton stood at the pinnacle of a career in which his energy and acumen as a leader seemed boundless. Always in the thick of botanical research and publication and firmly dedicated to goals set for the NYBG, he proposed in 1890 at a meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences a plan for formal cooperation among the scientific societies of New York City. This led to the establishment of The Scientific Alliance of New York, an umbrella organization and forum for collaboration and the exchange of ideas. The Alliance, which flourished until 1907, was yet another manifestation of Britton's unique talent of managing and sustaining shared purposes and of forging links among the city's scientific organizations. His influence thus extended over the Torrey Botanical Club, Columbia University, the New York Academy of Sciences, the Botanical Society of America, the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences, the New York College of Pharmacy, and elsewhere.
At a meeting of the Botanical Club of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1892, Britton developed and promulgated a set of rules of botanical nomenclature, known as "The Rochester Code" (later, with modifications, it was called "The American Code"). He embraced through the Rochester Code the concept of "type," a herbarium specimen with which a name is permanently associated, and a rigid system of assigning priority of names to botanical entities. Britton's efforts to re-systematize nomenclature were based on his own careful consideration of the classification of plants he discovered (or re-classified) as well as close collaboration with botanists in the United States. The nomenclature issue unfortunately led to controversies that pitted European taxonomists against American to become a battleground of competing philosophies that was left unresolved until after Britton's death.
From 1896 to 1898 he published the landmark floristic study An Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States and Canada. Financed by Judge Addison Brown, the work became known as the Britton & Brown Illustrated Flora. In 1902 the Brittons began the first of their annual botanical excursions to the Caribbean. Dr. Britton's investigation of tropical flora culminated in the Scientific Survey of Puerto Rico through the auspices of the New York Botanical Garden and New York Academy of Sciences and it was published in eight parts through the 1920s.
In 1906 he began collaboration with Joseph Nelson Rose of the Carnegie Institute on The Cactaceae, a four-volume work published in 1924. Other monographs included The Flora of Bermuda (1918) and The Bahama Flora (1920) with Charles F. Millspaugh. As director of the Garden, Britton directed botanical research throughout North America and the West Indies, founded its public education and horticulture programs, launched several serial publications, and built alliances and collaborations with scientific organizations throughout the United States, especially in New York City.
Britton�s own botanical research and publication proceeded apace through the formative years of the institution. Dr. Britton retired from the Garden in 1929 and spent his final years writing a Puerto Rican flora (Flora Borinquena) left unfinished at his death. His wife Elizabeth died in February 1934. This was an emotional shock from which he never recovered. Dr. Britton soon followed her in death in June of that year.
Records of the Herbarium (RG4), NATHANIEL LORD BRITTON RECORDS (1875-1934) http://www.nybg.org/bsci/libr/Britwb2.htm
Sterling, et al. (1997). Biographical dictionary of American and Canadian naturalists and environmentalists. Westport, Ct: Greenwood Press.
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