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Otto Degener

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Records of the Herbarium (RG 4)
10.8 linear feet (10 boxes)


Otto Degener, a systematic botanist and conservationist, is recognized as the authority on the flora of the Hawaiian Islands. In addition, he was one of the first people to awaken the public to the need to conserve the native habitats which were being lost to alien species and rampant development.

Born in Orange, New Jersey in 1899, Dr. Degener received his M.A. from the University of Hawaii in 1922 and his Ph.D. from Columbia University, where he studied under N. L. Britton, P. A. Rydberg, and R.A. Harper. Moving to Hawaii in 1922, he taught botany at the University of Hawaii from 1925 to 1927 and in 1929 he was appointed the first naturalist for Hawaii National Park. Degener was appointed Collaborator in Hawaiian Botany by The New York Botanical Garden in 1935 and was associated with the Garden until his death in 1988.

Degener published the first fascicle of his great work, the Flora Hawaiiensis in 1932. This was the first such flora published since that of William Hillebrand of 1888. The Hillebrand specimens were deposited in Berlin and subsequently most were lost during World War II. During his lifetime, Dr. Degener managed to collect over 36,000 different species and preserve some 900 threatened and endangered plants. Without question, his herbarium was the largest and finest collection of Hawaiian Island specimens in existence. The cream of his specimens are now in the Herbarium of The New York Botanical Garden. While collecting in Fiji in 1942, he discovered an unknown tree which was named after him, Degeneria vitiensis. This very important tree is part of the newly established genus of angiosperms called Degeneriaceae and is the missing link between the angiosperms and the gymnosperms.

On a trip to Berlin in 1952, seeking to consult a grass specialist, Dr. Degener met and married that specialist. Dr. Isa Degener, a taxonomic botanist who studied at the University of Berlin and worked as an assistant to Drs. Hermann Otto Sleumer and Erich Werdermann, was to become her husband's lifelong collaborator. Mrs. Degener was appointed Honorary Collector of Hawaiian Botany in 1975. Collectively they would author ten books and over 400 journal articles.

Dr. Degener received several distinguished honors during his lifetime including The New York Botanical Garden Distinguished Service Award. In 1962 he was a recipient of the Linnaeus Medal from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and in 1979 he was awarded the Willdenow Medal from the Berlin Botanic Garden. Also in 1979, The Senate of the State of Hawaii issued a resolution of commendation citing the outstanding conservation efforts of the Degeners.


The Otto Degener records consist mostly of correspondence ranging from his student years at the Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts at Amherst) up to the time of his death in January 1988. The Degeners' field notebooks reside in the possession of Mrs. Degener.

In 1968, Dr. Degener began to deposit his papers with the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, beginning with his earliest correspondence from 1915. From 1973 on he began to send everything to The New York Botanical Garden Archives instead. Both depository arrangements included the provision that copies of the correspondence were to be sent back to the Degeners and the originals were to be retained by each institution. Thus, this collection has a complete set of papers with the addition of the early Hunt copies from Dr. Degener.

Some original illustrations done for Degener publications were also found with these papers but they have been removed from the archives and added to The New York Botanical Garden Botanical Art Collection. A small collection of lantern slides used by Dr. Degener in his lectures is also in this collection. A related notebook of dried Hawaiian seaweed specimens collected in 1954 for reference use can be found in The LuEsther T. Mertz Library exsiccatae collections.


Series 1: Correspondence (Subject)
Series 2: Correspondence (People)
Series 3: Topping File Card Index
Series 4: Lantern Slides

Series 1     Correspondence (Subject)
                   40 lin. in.

Included in this series are lecture notes for a course in general botany taught at the University of Hawaii; a map of Oahu in 1923; brief biographical sketches of each of the illustrators who worked for Dr. Degener; a NSF grant proposal; a typewritten manuscript in the Hawaiian language; photographs; printing bills; lists of correspondents from 1921 to 1974; files on various genera; book reviews; and several unpublished essays. There are large files on the following subjects: deer control, Canton Atoll, the Cheng Ho Expedition and Swindle, Volcanoes National Park, geothermal energy, hapuu harvesting, the silversword, Haleakala National Park, and the development of Mokuleia Beach, Waialua (site of one of the Degener homes). An avid newspaper reader, Dr. Degener clipped hundreds of articles and these are arranged by subject matter or filed under the person to whom they pertain. Also included in this series is a manuscript written by John Mortimer Lydgate and eventually published under the title A Short Synopsis of Hawaiian Ferns. This manuscript includes a four-page introductory essay which was never published. Mr. Lydgate was a member of the Hillebrand Expedition.

Series 2     Correspondence (People)
                   75 lin. in.

In addition to botanical correspondence, this series contains personal correspondence. All correspondence with relatives has been placed in a Degener family file. This file also includes information about the Degener family geneaology. Major correspondents include: Ross Bean, Nathaniel Lord Britton, Everett Brumaghim, Bill Bryan, Ray Fosberg, Charles Gunn, Bill Hatheway, Hans Hormann, Charles Long, the Moldenke family, Elmer Merrill, George Munro, Noah Pekelo, Peter Raven, Earl Sherff, Albert Charles Smith, Sy Sohmer, William Steere, Benjamin Stone, Rene Sylva, Ray E. Torrey, Herbert Whetzel, Henry Wiebke, and Keith Wooliams. Dr. Degener would often write obituary tributes to botanists he had known. Many were written for his Flora Hawaiiensis and wherever possible copies are included with that person's file. Degener's letters were never confined to one topic and often they include interesting reminiscences concerning early twentieth-century Hawaii and his opinions on various people and topics. This collection also will give insight into the early years of the University of Hawaii, the Bishop Museum, The New York Botanical Garden, and the Massachusetts Agricultural College (now part of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst).

Series 3     Topping File Card Index
                   12 lin. in.

This file of index cards once belonged to Dr. David LeRoy Topping, a fern expert. They were bequeathed to Dr. Degener along with the remaining portion of his fern specimens. The ferns were mostly collected in the Phillipines, and in Dr. Degener's words "they do not concern our Flora Hawaiiensis project." They are, however, annotated by Dr. Degener on the back of each card.

Series 4    Lantern Slides
                4 lin. in.

These slides dating from the 1920's and 1930's were used by Otto Degener in his illustrated lectures delivered at The New York Botanical Garden.


The New York Botanical Garden

ART The Otto Degener Artwork Collection #18

EXSICCATA Student collections assembled for the reference use of Dr. Otto Degener in recognizing some of the genera of Hawaiian Limu

Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation
The Otto Degener Papers

Processed January 2000 by Stephen Sinon under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) PA-23141-98 and a grant from the Harriet Ford Dickenson Foundation.

For more information and a complete description contact:
Susan Fraser, NYBG Archivist
The LuEsther T. Mertz Library
The New York Botanical Garden
Bronx, NY 10458-5126
(718) 817-8879

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