A New Day For Vassar’s Herbarium

The Botanist
The Botanist, c. 1875. Alfred Ronner,
Belgian, 1852-1901.
Oil on canvas. Gift of Rezin A. Wight. Courtesy of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.

The Vassar College Herbarium is almost as old as the college itself.  It was established in 1865 by Professor of Natural History Sanborne Tenney, one of the nine original faculty.  Just as Maria Mitchell’s observatory was key to providing a top-notch education in astronomy; collections of animals, plants, minerals, etc. were essential for studying Natural History, which at the time encompassed much of what we now call the Natural Sciences.  Collecting plants, pressing them, and affixing them to pages of a book to make a personal herbarium was a popular activity for Victorian women, so it is likely that some of Vassar’s first students came already well acquainted with the idea of an herbarium.  Vassar’s herbarium grew rapidly through acquisitions of gifts from well-established herbaria and prominent botanists, and through collections made by Vassar students and faculty.


While herbaria have always been central for scientific work on the taxonomy, biogeography, ecology, and evolution of plants, the perceived importance of herbaria has waxed and waned over time.  Starting in the 1950s, conceptual unification of biology around aspects of genetics, biochemistry and molecular biology that are common to all living things tended to focus undergraduate education more on the unity of life than its diversity.  Natural history collections became somewhat obscure.  Though many smaller herbaria were neglected, given away to large universities or botanical gardens, or even lost, Vassar’s herbarium has  survived.


Today, concern for the future of biodiversity has spurred a new recognition of the importance of herbaria.  Through digitization, we can make images of herbarium specimens and information associated with those images available to anyone with access to the internet.  As digital information from herbaria throughout the world are compiled, it has become possible to conduct broad regional and global studies of the effects of climate change including shifts or declines in the geographical distributions of species and changes in the timing of life-history events like the blooming of flowers or the leafing out of trees.  By studying these past changes, we can build models of future changes and develop strategies for coping with them.


New developments in the very disciplines that once tended to obscure herbaria are now refocusing interest in them.  It is now possible to extract DNA from herbarium specimens and sequence the entire genome of the plant.  For many plant species that are inaccessible, rare or already extinct, herbarium specimens may be the only genetic material we can get.  We can also use herbarium specimens to study the responses of plants to pollutants, and to changing amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere.


The debut of this website is part of a renewed focus on our herbarium made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation to Advance Digitization of Biological Collections.  Obtaining the grant would not have been possible without strong collaboration with the Environmental Monitoring and Management Alliance (EMMA) and the Vassar Libraries.  Special thanks to grant co-PI Nicole Scalessa, Head of Digital Scholarship and Technology Services, for developing and putting up the site.


Mark Schlessman


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