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Mycology at the New York Botanical Garden

The Fungal Collections of George Washington Carver at NYBG

George Washington Carver was an extraordinary scientist and role model.  To this day, his name is synonomous with black ability and achievement.  He represents a man who has contributed greatly to science throughout his lifetime.  Carver was born of slave parents on a farm near Diamond Grove, Missouri, around 1864.  His boyhood, which was full of struggle against poverty and illness, ended when he entered Simpson College in Iowa, and from there he went on to Iowa State University.  After graduation, he received the appointment of Assistant Botanist at the Experiment Station.  In 1896 he became Head of the Agricultural and Dairy Department at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama.  Very soon after his arrival in Tuskegee in 1896, Carver cooperated with Franklin Sumner Earle, the Chair of Biology and Horticulture in the Alabama Polytechnic Institute at Auburn, Alabama, in compiling a preliminary list of the fungi of Alabama which was later published. This study formed the basis of a relationship that lasted the entire time that Earle was at Auburn. In 1901, F. S. Earle came to The New York Botanical Garden, serving as the Garden's first mycologist.

     Throughout his career, Carver developed hundreds of products from peanuts, sweet potatoes, and clays; promoted home-canning and the addition of natural fertilizers to improve soil fertility; studied insect and fungal diseases; and developed new varieties of cotton and Amaryllis. Of the many contributions G. W. Carver made to science, one that has been under-emphasized is his role as a fungal collector. Throughout his career, Carver maintained a steady interest in mycology. While at Iowa State, he developed a talent for collecting fungal specimens. Since mycology was a scientific discipline that required a high degree of training and sophisticated equipment for proper identification, and Carver had neither training nor equipment, he often sought the aid of trained mycologists. While his preliminary identifications were remarkably accurate, Carver's real gift was for finding rare and new species. Throughout his career, he sent specimens to numerous mycologists and plant pathologists.

      Job Bicknell Ellis, a prominent mycologist whose herbarium was purchased by NYBG, received many valuable specimens in return for aiding Carver in identification. It is suspected that Carver's collections ended up at NYBG because of his relationship with J. B. Ellis. In 1902, Ellis collaborated with Benjamin Matlack Everhart on an article entitled 'New Alabama Fungi' which listed 60 important species he had received from Carver.  Included in the list were two new species that Ellis and Everhart had named for the Tuskegee scientist.

     The fungus herbarium at The New York Botanical Garden has more than 100 specimens collected by Carver. Most of these specimens are represented in the exsiccati 'Fungi Columbiani' by Ellis & Everhart.  It is suspected that many more of Carver's collections exist in the herbarium. These specimens will be available in an on-line searchable catalogue in the near future.

Photograph of G. W. Carver courtesy of Iowa State University Archives
Fungal specimen image by Gord Lemon
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