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Elizabeth Gertrude Knight Britton (1857-1934)

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Records of the Herbarium (RG4)
10.2 linear feet (22 boxes)


Elizabeth Gertrude Knight Britton (1857-1934) was a bryologist and educator, and one of the founding leaders of The New York Botanical Garden. Born Elizabeth Gertrude Knight in New York City on January 9, 1857, she was the first of five daughters of James and Sophie Anne (Compton) Knight. She spent part of her early childhood on her grandfather's sugar plantation in Matanzas, Cuba. Elizabeth Knight graduated from the Normal School (now Hunter College) in 1875 and taught there as a critic teacher (1875-82) and Tutor in Natural Science (1882-85). She married Nathaniel Lord Britton on August 27, 1885. Their parallel botanical careers lasted until their deaths within months of each other in 1934. Both are intrinsically associated with the creation of The New York Botanical Garden, and Elizabeth Britton became one of the foremost authorities in bryology of her time.

Elizabeth Knight joined the Torrey Botanical Club (1879), published her first paper in the club's bulletin (1883), and served as Curator of Mosses (1884-85) and editor (1886-88). She and her Torrey Club associates, such as John Strong Newberry and Nathaniel Lord Britton, were leaders in botanical science during the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. In 1893 she was the only woman nominated to be one of 25 charter members of the Botanical Society of America. She joined Columbia College as an unofficial curator of its moss herbarium, where she was instrumental in acquiring the collection of the Swiss bryologist August Jaeger. Though she lacked an advanced degree, she oversaw the work of doctoral students at Columbia, including Abel Joel Grout, who became a leading North American bryologist in the 20th century.

Mrs. Britton began her botanical career with the discovery of the fruit of the moss Eustichium norvegicum and the presence of a rare curly grass fern, Schizaea pusilla, in Nova Scotia in 1879. She was a fervent fieldworker and made extensive collections in the Adirondack and Appalachian Mountains, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Jamaica. In 1888 the Brittons sailed to England to examine the Bolivian collection of Henry Hurd Rusby at the Kew Botanic Garden. This visit has become legendary as Mrs. Britton's inspiration to create a similar institution in New York. On their return to New York they became involved with the Torrey Botanical Club to establish a botanic garden in New York City, and Mrs. Britton became a prime mover in the fundraising efforts in the 1890's that led to its creation. In 1912 she became Honorary Curator of Mosses for The New York Botanical Garden, an unpaid position, providing annual reports from 1914 to 1929. In 1906 the Garden purchased the William Mitten moss herbarium and she spent years on its reorganization and integration into the Garden's collection.

Mrs. Britton wrote 346 papers, 170 of which were on mosses, with many more on ferns and wildflower preservation. In 1889 she began a series of 11 papers titled "Contributions to American Bryology" that described the genera Orthotricum, Ulota, Physomitrium, Bruchia, and Scouleria. Soon afterwards she wrote a series of eight articles, "How to Study the Mosses," for a popular botanic periodical, The Observer. In 1892 she published a list of the mosses of West Virginia and from 1903 to 1914 a series of 12 papers on moss taxonomy in The Bryologist. While her research of the 1890's led toward a systematic study of the mosses of the eastern United States, a proposed Handbook of Mosses of Eastern America, she abandoned this project in favor of shorter papers. She also contributed papers on moss systematics to the project known as the North American Flora.

Early in the history of the Garden she launched a public effort to raise people's consciousness about wildflower preservation. In 1902 she helped organize The Wild Flower Preservation Society of America and published a series of articles on the subject in the Journal of The New York Botanical Garden (1912-29). In recent years Elizabeth Britton has become the focus of several studies on women in the sciences in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Among her many distinctions, Mrs. Britton served as president of the Sullivant Moss Society (1916-19) and chaired the Conservation Committee of the Federated Garden Clubs of New York (1925), but her stature as a brilliant, and female, scientist makes her unique. At a time when professional opportunities for women were rigidly delimited, Elizabeth Britton seems all the more outstanding through her leadership, influence, strong personality, and indomitable will. Her enthusiasm and dedication to botany have left a lasting mark on the Garden and its moss collections.


The Elizabeth Gertrude Knight Britton collection consists of correspondence, research and personal papers, manuscripts and typescripts, photographic material, artwork, and printing plates covering her teaching career at the Normal School and her association with the Torrey Botanical Club and The New York Botanical Garden. Mrs. Britton's field notebooks are located in The New York Botanical Garden Collectors' Field Notebook collection. In some cases, her field notes are located in notebooks of associated collectors, especially Nathaniel Lord Britton.


Series 1: Correspondence
Series 2: Research Papers
Series 3: Manuscripts and Typescripts
Series 4: Photography
Series 5: Artwork
Series 6: Personal Papers
Series 7: Printing Plates

Series 1    Correspondence, 1883-1932
                  4.8 lin. ft. Arranged alphabetically.

There are four boxes of correspondence with colleagues, personal friends, and social leaders covering the period from her instruction at the Normal School through her New York Botanical Garden career. Notable correspondents are Helen Brown, Edward Chamberlain, Alice Eastwood, William Farlow, Jane Gray, John Holzinger, James Macoun, William Maxon, William Mitten, George Nichols, Henry Hurd Rusby, Richard Spruce, Anne Morrill Smith, Josephine Elizabeth Tilden, Hugo de Vries, and Alfred Russell Wallace. There are 10 letters from Nathaniel Lord Britton (1891-98). One (May 29, 1912) is a notice of her appointment as Honorary Curator of Mosses, passed by the Garden Board of Managers on May 23, 1912. In some instances, correspondence to Elizabeth Britton appears in the Nathaniel Britton collection, and vice versa. Such cases are not cross-referenced. It may be advisable to refer to each collection for related correspondence, especially in cases where the same correspondent appears in both collections.

Series 2    Research Papers, 1892-1920
                  1.1 lin. ft. Arranged alphabetically.

This series consists of 58 files of research papers and 5 boxes of bibliographic index cards relating to moss systematics. These consist of botanical descriptions, annotations of lists and catalogues, and notebooks, some with accompanying sketches. Notebooks and annotated publications (e.g. Musci Appalachiani by Coe Finch Austin) appear in Box 6. An annotated copy of Musci Austro-Americani by William Mitten (1869) appears in Box 7. Notes are organized variously by family, genus, geographical region, or habitat; some material relates to bryological organizations. The index cards pertain to the Acrocarpus and Pleurocarpus genera of mosses.

Series 3    Manuscripts and Typescripts, 1888-1930
                  0.25 lin. ft. Arranged alphabetically.

Manuscripts and typescripts include annotated botanical lists, drafts of published articles, book reviews, and 2 files of New York Botanical Garden reports of the "Honorary Curator of Mosses." All pertain to moss systematics. There are 4 typescripts of collaborative publications with G. B. Kaiser and Robert Statham Williams, and translations of an article by P. Vuillemin and of the journal of Nicolas Valverde on an expedition to Turquino, Cuba. In some cases, pencil sketches accompany the notes and manuscripts.

Series 4    Photography, 1882-1924
                  0.5 lin. ft. Arranged by subject.

Photo subjects include the Knight family, including portraits of Elizabeth alone and with her mother. There are portraits of Nathaniel Lord Britton, and one of John Strong Newberry (1892) inscribed to Elizabeth Britton. There are many unidentified nature scenes of lakes, meadows, farmlands, woodlands, and other scenic and floral subjects. One photo depicts the Brittons at a picnic at Middlesex Falls, in Melrose, Massachusetts in 1924. One envelope contains photos taken by Lucien Marcus Underwood in Switzerland, including shots of the Matterhorn.

Series 5    Artwork, 1901
                  1.6 lin. ft. Arranged by subject.

There are 9 colored photo engravings of mosses (mounted and framed) and 4 plates of Alexandrina Taylor's diagrammatic studies for "Life History of Schizaea pusilla," published in the Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, Volume 28, 1901. Two oversize drawings of Ms. Taylor have been separated and removed to The New York Botanical Garden Art & Illustration Collection #59.

Series 6    Personal Papers, 1882-1934
                  1.1 lin. ft. Arranged alphabetically.

This series consists of an address book, diaries, scrapbooks, correspondence, clippings, and a small box of personal effects. There are 2 files of news clippings and correspondence (1917-27) regarding the preservation of trees and other flora of New York City parks. There is a diary of the Brittons' wedding vacation (1885) and trip to Kew Botanic Garden (1888) each with a typed transcription. The wedding diary also includes a journal kept by Nathaniel Lord Britton on a United States Geological Survey expedition to the American west in 1882. There is a bound leather volume (entitled "Zoe") by Miriam Barnett Fridenberg, inscribed to Elizabeth G. Knight. One scrapbook contains personal correspondence and clippings relating to the Normal School, and one photo scrapbook has been disassembled and filed.

Series 7    Printing plates
                  0.8 lin. in. Arranged by subject.

This series consists of 2 boxes of 17 printing plates for illustrations of mosses.


The New York Botanical Garden

RG4    Nathaniel Lord Britton Records, 1875-1934
           Robert Statham Williams Records, 1888-1938

PP       William Mitten Papers, 1846-1910

RA     Wildflower Preservation Society of America Records, 1894-1933

CFN    Numbers 43-45, 52, 67-68, 132-55, 171-72, 174, 177-81, 194-97, 222

Gray Herbarium and Arnold Arboretum Combined Libraries, Harvard University

James Franklin Collins Papers, 1884-1935
George Edward Davenport Papers, 1872-1907
Walter Deane Papers, 1881-1929
George Golding Kennedy Papers, 1864-1896
Thomas Morong Letters, 1874-1888

Processed September 1999 by David Rose 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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