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Harold Norman Moldenke (1909-1996)

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1.3 linear feet (3 boxes)


Harold Norman Moldenke (1909-1996) was born in Watchung, New Jersey. He received his bachelor's degree from Susquehanna University in 1929 and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Taxonomic Botany from Colombia University in 1934.

The Moldenkes of Watchung, New Jersey were an extraordinary family. The grandfather, Edouard Friedrich Moldehnke, was sent to Wisconsin as a Lutheran missionary from East Prussia. Eventually he became pastor of St. Peter's Lutheran Church in New York City. Moldenke's father, Charles Edward Moldenke (1860-1935), was a renowned Egyptologist. In 1935, Harold republished Charles's The New York Obelisk, a translation of the hieroglyphics on Cleopatra's Needle, the obelisk behind the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. The family home, built in 1901, was named Villa Elsinore. Across the road was the home of Charles Moldenke's brother, Richard George Gottlub Moldenke (1864-1930), who was a renowned metallurgist and mining engineer, specializing in iron smelting. Richard Moldenke's home was called Castle Elsinore and, popularly, Moldenke's Castle.

Harold Moldenke began his career at The New York Botanical Garden as a Research Fellow and part-time assistant in 1929. He was Assistant Curator (1932-1937) and Associate Curator (1937-1948) under Henry A. Gleason. In 1949 he was named Curator and Administrator of the Herbarium. He was a member of the Graduate Faculty, Department of Botany at Columbia University from 1936-1942 and from 1946-1952. He also taught a course at the Garden in Systematic Botany for gardeners.

During the war years, Moldenke served in the Civilian Public Service with the Soil Conservation Service and as a hospital attendant in Warren, Pennsylvania. He wrote a series of papers on "Plants Strategic to the War Effort" and on curare-producing plants of Amazonia with B. A. Krukoff .

Moldenke's taxonomic expertise was in the fields of Verbenaceae, Avicenniaceae, Stilbaceae, Dicrastylidaceae, Symphoremaceae, Nyctanthaceae, and Eriocaulaceae of the world. He published botanical handbooks on those families, and he wrote the volume on Eriocaulaceae, Avicenniaceae, and Verbenaceae for Flora of Texas (Vol. 3, pt. 1).

His collections ranged through every state except Alaska, and Europe, Central and South America, the Middle East, Africa, Malaysia, and Japan. They numbered 31, 279 in 1977. His bibliography that year numbered 2,584 titles, including journal articles, lectures, pamphlets, and monographs.

A library reference question directed to Moldenke, regarding whether the "crown of thorns" plant sold by florists was actually the same plant mentioned in the Bible, led to twelve years of research and the publication in 1941 of the ground-breaking Plants of the Bible, still in print in 1999. In 1941 Moldenke supervised illustrations for this work, made by artists employed at The New York Botanical Garden through the Federal Arts Project. Another federal Works Project Authority project he provided was the enumeration of his collection numbers at the time.

Moldenke's collaborator on Plants of the Bible  was his wife, Alma Lance Ericson Moldenke. Mrs. Moldenke attended graduate courses in Botany and Education at Columbia University from 1931 to 1938. She taught biology at Hunter College High School and Evander Childs High School in New York City. In 1980 Mrs. Moldenke assumed the co-editorship of the journal Phytologia, which had been initiated by Harold Moldenke and Henry A. Gleason in 1933. The journal was transferred from the Moldenkes to B. L. Turner and Michael Warnock in 1989.

Moldenke resigned from the Garden in 1952. He returned to Watchung to undertake a career in botanical and ecological education as Director of the Trailside Museum, later the Trailside Nature and Science Center in Mountainside, Union County, New Jersey. Concurrent with these duties, he was professor of botany at Newark State College (now Keane State College) in Union, New Jersey. He also taught enrichment courses at Westfield and Livingston Adult Schools, both in New Jersey. During his stewardship, the Trailside Center developed into a year-round facility and visitation grew from 60,000 in 1952 to 290,000 in 1966.

In 1955 Moldenke advised Beth Israel Memorial Park, a cemetery in Woodbridge, New Jersey, on the construction of the "Bible Gardens of Israel," which contained plants and shrubs and rocks selected by him and imported from Israel. He resigned from Trailside in 1967 to accept a professorship at Paterson State College (now William Paterson College) in Wayne, New Jersey.

Moldenke created and marketed a series of 30 slide lectures, which were delivered to civic and youth groups either by himself or by sending slides and audio-tapes to the group. Moldenke maintained a close relationship with the Garden, and he donated educational materials from Trailside to The LuEsther T. Mertz Library. In 1969, he was named an Honorary Life Member of the Torrey Botanical Club . He was made Honorary Curator of The New York Botanical Garden in 1970.

In the late 1980's, both Harold and Alma Moldenke were stricken with heart attacks. They moved to Corvallis, Oregon to be close to their son, Andrew R. Moldenke, now an entomologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz (1999). In 1984 Moldenke sold the major portion of his herbarium, papers, and books to the University of Texas. His herbarium is housed in the Moldenke Room at the Plant Resources Center, at the University of Texas in Austin. An inventory of his unprocessed papers is located at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center on that campus.

Harold N. Moldenke died at Corvallis, Oregon on January 7, 1996.


The Harold N. Moldenke Papers, 1927-1990, document the career of Moldenke after his association with The New York Botanical Garden, primarily his work with the Union County Parks Commission in New Jersey. It includes mimeographed lectures and guides, brochures, correspondence, specimens, and photographs. The collection is divided into six series.


Series 1: The New York Botanical Garden, 1932-1940
Series 2: Personal Files, 1930-1990
Series 3: Correspondence, 1945-1974
Series 4: Publications, 1927-1979
Series 5: Trailside Museum, 1951-1960
Series 6: Ephemera

Series 1     The New York Botanical Garden, 1932-1940
                    0.33 lin. ft. Arranged by subject.

This series contains mimeographed lectures, quizzes, and final examinations for the Systematic Botany course taught by Moldenke at Columbia. Other material includes a horticulture classification key by W. H. Camp, lectures by Henry A. Gleason, and notes by Elizabeth C. Hall. Also here are memorabilia from the 7th and 9th International Botanical Congresses.

Series 2      Personal Files, [ca. 1930]-1990
                    1.5 lin. in. Arranged chronologically.

This series contains Christmas letters received by by staff of the Garden's LuEsther T. Mertz Library, Alma Ericson's literature search on Saponaria officinalis with one piece of correspondence, brochures and scripts for Moldenke's public lectures, and a brochure for Set 46 of his specimen centuries.

Series 3      Correspondence, 1945-1974
                    1.0 lin. in.  Arranged alphabetically.

This series contains miscellaneous pieces regarding Moldenke's research and teaching work. A photograph of Egbert Walker and his family is found in that folder.

Series 4         Publications, 1927-1979
                      5 lin. in.  Arranged chronologically.

This series contains manuscripts. A photocopy of the typescript bibliographic volumes of "The Published Writings of Harold N. Moldenke" is here, although the years 1966, 1967, 1974 and all years between 1980 and 1996 are absent. Most of the material was self-published and sent to the Garden by the author. The "List of Collection Nos. 1-11, 277" was a federal Works Project Authority project. Moldenke's manuscript inserts for N. L. Britton's unpublished "Catalogue of the Flora of Cuba" is found here. His work on the Avicenniaceae and Verbenaceae is represented in this series, and a small research file for Plants of The Bible also is found here.

Series 5       Trailside Museum, 1951-1960
                     4.5 lin. in.  Arranged chronologically.

This series contains mimeographed publications produced by Moldenke in his capacities as Director of the Trailside Museum and as professor of botany at Newark State and Patterson State Colleges in New Jersey. A statistical report for the year 1955-1956 is also included.

Series 6     Ephemera, n.d.
                  1 item

Series 6 consists of a nature poem by Blythe Sherwood.


The New York Botanical Garden

RG 4      The Henry A. Gleason Records, 1921-1983

RG4       The Otto Degener Records, 1920-1987

ART       Plants of the Bible Collection

University of Texas, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center

Moldenke Collection
Plant Resources Center, Moldenke Room

Processed October 1999 by Laura Zelasnic 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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