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William Jacob Robbins (1890-1978)

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Records of the Laboratory (RG5)
54.5 linear feet (104 boxes)


William Jacob Robbins (1890-1978), distinguished leader of American science, was the fourth Director-in-Chief of The New York Botanical Garden, serving during the World War II and post-war periods (1937-58). Following the directorships of Elmer Drew Merrill (1930-1935) and Marshal Avery Howe (1935-1936), Robbins served longer than any director since Nathaniel Lord Britton. In his 20-year tenure as director Robbins, guided the Garden through a difficult period of financial distress. In the process he placed microbiological research on a major track of the Garden's mission, while continuing to support botanical exploration and floristic study. He held a concurrent appointment as Professor of Botany at Columbia University and developed a wide range of collaborative and institutional ties in both American and international scientific communities.

Robbins was born February 22, 1890, in North Platte, Nebraska and grew up in Muncy and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He received his A.B. (1910) at Lehigh University and Ph.D. (1915) in plant physiology at the Department of Agriculture of Cornell University. In that year he married Christine Chapman, with whom he co-authored papers on David Hosack and John Torrey. In 1916 he was appointed Professor of Botany at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute at Auburn, where he began research into Bryophyllum, an important focus of his research for years to come. After serving briefly in World War I as a medical bacteriologist at the Yale University Laboratory School, he served as Professor of Botany and Chairman of the Department of Botany of the University of Missouri (1919-1937). During his eighteen years here, he also served as Dean of the Graduate School (1930-1937) and as Acting President (1933-1934).

The New York Botanical Garden appointed Robbins Director-in-Chief in 1937; he assumed duties in March, 1938. He was the first director who specialized in plant physiology and microbiology rather than taxonomy. His primary research interests were the tissue culture of higher plants, including Hedera helix; the nutritional requirements of filamentous fungi; and vitamin synthesis, normal and abnormal growth, and the physiology of aging in plants. During World War II he began an experimental program to extract antibiotic substances from basidiomycetes, the fleshy fungi. The program was supported by a grant from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to screen chemical extractions for antiviral application. Dr. Igor N. Asheshov assisted him in this effort.

As Director, Robbins reversed the deterioration of the Garden's infrastructure, instituted sound budgetary practices, and improved employee benefits and conditions of work. Renovation and construction programs increased through his effective procurement of private funding. He initiated the establishment of a permanent research laboratory in 1956, making The New York Botanical Garden unique among botanical institutions in the scope of its research and accomplishments. In 1947 The New Yorker published a profile of Robbins entitled "Square Deal among the Fungi" that characterized him as "a man in whom the qualities of an efficient administrator, a zealous promoter, and a physiological mycologist, or student of the behavior of fungi, are rather unexpectedly joined."

In 1947 Robbins traveled to Japan as one of six scientists of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate and make recommendations on rebuilding Japan's educational, research, and scientific institutions in the aftermath of World War II. Afterwards, he was involved in negotiations to bring the Lloyd Library of Cincinnati to the Garden while his experiments on the regeneration of Bryophyllum, the vitamin needs of Euglena gracilis, and the inhibition of bacterial viruses continued. In 1955 Robbins was a National Academy of Sciences delegate to the Seventh Pakistan Science Conference. The following year he toured Europe and the British Isles to collect data on plant growth and to deliver a paper at the Colloque International in Paris. During these years he oversaw a team of scientists engaged in research on genetics (Barksdale, Dodge, and Stout), exploration of the Guyana Highland (Bassett Maguire), and publication of the New Britton & Brown Illustrated Flora (Henry Gleason). He assisted Robert Gordon Wasson in his ethnomycological studies of the Mazatecs of Oaxaca and was involved in the recruitment of Oswald Tippo to succeed him as director. Tippo declined, and William Steere became the director, serving from 1958 to 1972.

Though William Robbins retired from The New York Botanical Garden for reasons of health, he continued his research at Rockefeller University and maintained associations with many scientific societies. Among his many appointments and distinctions, he served as: Vice President, 3rd International Microbiological Conference (1939); President, Torrey Botanical Club (1943-44); President, Botanical Society of America (1943); Vice President, American Association for the Advancement of Science (1943); board of directors member, Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research (1944-73); Treasurer, National Academy of Sciences (1948-60); Vice President, Mycology and Bacteriology, International Botanical Congress VII (1950); President, American Philosophical Society (1956-59); board of trustees member, Rockefeller University (1956-65); President, Fairchild Tropical Garden (1962-69); and Chairman, Conference on Tropical Botany, Fairchild Tropical Garden (1960). He held honorary Doctor of Science degrees from Lehigh University (1937) and Fordham University (1945). William Robbins died oCTOBER 5, 1978.


The William Jacob Robbins collection consists of correspondence, institutional records, research papers, laboratory notebooks, manuscripts and typescripts, grant records, certificates, awards, photographic material, and reprints. It covers the periods of his associations with the University of Missouri (1921-1937) and The New York Botanical Garden (1937-1957), as well as his post-retirement work. In addition, there are correspondence and organizational records pertaining to his association with the American Philosophical Society (1956-59), Boyce Thompson Institute (1944-73), Fairchild Tropical Garden (1940-78), and his participation in the United States Scientific Advisory Mission to Japan in 1947.


Series 1: Correspondence
Series 2: American Philosophical Society
Series 3: Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research
Series 4: Fairchild Tropical Gardens
Series 5: Japan Scientific Advisory Group, 1947
Series 6: Research Papers
Series 7: Abstracts
Series 8: Laboratory Notebooks
Series 9: Manuscripts and Typescripts
Series 10: Research Grants
Series 11: New York Botanical Garden Administration
Series 12: Certificates and Awards
Series 13: Photography
Series 14: Negatives
Series 15: Lantern Slides
Series 16: Reprints

Series 1    Correspondence, 1921-1976
                  12.5 lin. ft. Arranged alphabetically.

There are 10 boxes of correspondence files identified by individual, organization, and subject. One sequence (see Box #4, #5, and #6) entitled "General Correspondence" includes 30 files from the period 1938 to 1949; 6 files from 1940; and 9 files from 1952 to 1957. These are organized alphabetically within each chronological period. Notable correspondents are Henry F. Du Pont, Rene d'Harnoncourt (UNESCO), Blanche Hooker, Frank Kingdon-Ward, Robert Moses, Kenneth Raper, Jonas Salk, and R. Gordon Wasson. Subjects include antibiotics, cultures, General Electric "Science Forum" radio broadcasts (1940), Kingdon-Ward's expeditions to Nyasaland (1947) and India/Burma (1948-49), research for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, and a worldwide search for cortisone-bearing plants in the genus Strophantus.

Series 2    American Philosophical Society, 1938-1971
                  1.0 lin. ft. Arranged alphabetically.

Dr. Robbins was president of the American Philosophical Society, 1956-59. This series contains 32 files of correspondence and papers relating to his administration of committees and programs. These include the Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Committee on Research, a research grant to E. J. Alexander to complete John Kunkel Small's unfinished Manual of the South Central Flora, the construction of a library building, and the Michaux Fund. Robbins was also involved in planning a commemorative event in 1959 for the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species and extended an invitation to Sir Charles Darwin, the author's grandson, as a speaker for the occasion.

Series 3    Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, 1944-1973
                  1.4 lin. ft. Arranged alphabetically.

As Board of Directors member, Robbins directed the activities of the Boyce Thompson Institute's Scientific Advisory Committee. There are 18 files of correspondence, minutes, and reports. One file pertains to a search for a successor to Boyce Thompson's director, Dr. William Crocker, in 1948.

Series 4    Fairchild Tropical Garden, 1940-1978
                  1.0 lin. ft. Arranged alphabetically.

As President of the Fairchild Tropical Garden, Robbins was involved in all aspects of the direction and progress of the institution. There are 30 files of correspondence and institutional records. Twelve general correspondence files (1940-78) are arranged chronologically. The material includes correspondence with officers and benefactors of the garden, including founder Dr. David Fairchild and director John Popenoe.

Series 5    Japan Scientific Advisory Group, 1947-1948
                  0.8 lin. ft. Arranged alphabetically.

There are 33 files of presentation material and reports used by Robbins as a member of the Scientific Advisory Mission to Japan in 1947, organized by the National Academy of Sciences, to assist the rehabilitation of scientific and educational institutions in post-war Japan. Included are prospectuses on the history, faculty, and curricula of major universities; status/progress reports of governmental entities; and records of scientific activities of private research laboratories. There are also reports from the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers to the Imperial Japanese Government and to the Japan National Research Council, some with Robbins' annotations.

Series 6    Research Papers, 1921-1978
                  5.0 lin. ft. Arranged alphabetically.

This series consists of 7 boxes of notes and records of experiments and research findings. Subject matter includes antibiotics and their action, cultures, plant morphology and biochemistry, floral and fungal growth, pathogens, chemical derivatives, and a variety of botanical topics. There are written notes, tables, lists, graphs, chemical formulae and processes, lab procedures, annotated reprints, photographs, and correspondence. Robbins received inocula for experimental cultures from his associates and subsequently named several series of experiments for these individuals. These include the Baxter, Cardoso, Davidson, Gray, Jackson, Lopes, Nobles, Whetzel, White, and Wilkins series. Additional information may be found in related correspondence files and laboratory notebooks under these names.

The research records fall into the following categories: (a) species of organism; (b) plant physiology and biochemistry; (c) plant forms and functions; (d) named culture experiment series, (as above); (d) named and/or numbered experiments; (e) laboratory methods and procedures; and (f) bibliographic notes. See also Series 7: Abstracts; Series 8: Laboratory Notebooks; Series 9: Manuscripts and Typescripts; and the photographic media for related information. Also included is Robbins' personal, annotated copy of Asa Gray's Flowering Plants and Ferns.

Series 7    Abstracts, 1921-1978
                  1.7 lin. ft. Arranged alphabetically.

Robbins compiled a series of abstracts of the botanical and biological literature pertinent to his research. Each abstract entry cites name, title, date, and publication together with Robbins' summaries and annotations. There are 73 files of abstracts arranged by research topic.

Series 8    Laboratory Notebooks, 1923-1969
                  14.6 lin. ft. Arranged alphabetically.

There are 187 laboratory notebooks containing detailed records of laboratory research conducted over the course of Dr. Robbins' career. Some notebooks were created and maintained by students or associates under his direction. Records of Annette Hervey and Frederick Kavanaugh appear in notebooks associated with their published articles. Robbins titled and numbered the notebooks using Roman numerals. In some cases, dating is absent or experiments from disparate years appear in a single notebook. These records document the conditions, progress, status, and findings of laboratory experiments. Data in the notebooks include experimental conditions, tables, graphs, lists, charts, and summaries. In some cases, photographs and correspondence are attached within; e.g., see "Potato Factor Z, Book II" (Box #34) for correspondence with George W. Beadle, February 20, 1942.

Series 9    Manuscripts and Typescripts, 1936-1974
                  1.0 lin. ft. Arranged alphabetically.

There are 70 files of manuscripts and typescripts of published articles. In some cases, research notes and annotated reprints are attached. Four files consist of notes for speeches and conference presentations and one for a radio talk. Most of the material relates to research findings, some with subjects of botanical history. There is a small selection of manuscripts of other authors including two by Dr. Robbins' wife, Christine Chapman Robbins.

Series 10    Research Grants, 1959-1964
                    0.1 lin. ft. Arranged alphabetically.

There are 6 files of applications, correspondence, and reports on grants from the National Science Foundation, Guggenheim Foundation, and Rockefeller Foundation. Information on grants may also be found in the correspondence, especially that of the American Philosophical Society and the Rockefeller Foundation and Institute.

Series 11    New York Botanical Garden Administration, 1949-1959
                    0.1 lin. ft. Arranged alphabetically.

There are 7 files pertaining to administrative activities, including New York Botanical Garden Planning Committee and staff publications.

Series 12    Certificates and Awards, 1943-1959
                     Two files. Arranged chronologically.

There are 4 items: National Victory Garden Institute award (1943); National Academy of Sciences certificate of delegation for International Botanical Congress VIII (1954); Certificate of Merit, Botanical Society of America (1956); and New York Botanical Garden Distinguished Service Award (1959).

Series 13    Photography, 1936-1974
                    7.0 lin. ft. Arranged by size, then alphabetically by subject.

There are 14 boxes of photographs of cultures and laboratory subjects that supplement the research record (see Series 6: Research Papers). Major subjects include Acacia, Bryophyllum, Coleus, Hedera, dermatophytes, Drosophila, Euglena, Morchella, Penicillium, Phycomyces, Polyporus, Poria, Stereum, Tomato roots, Trichophyton, and various species of fungi. Photographs are cross-referenced with corresponding negatives. There are some microphotographs of microscopic organisms, as well as portraits of Dr. Robbins and colleagues.

Series 14    Negatives, 1936-1974
                    4.2 lin. ft. Arranged by size, then alphabetically by subject.

There are 19 boxes of photo negatives that correspond to the photographic record as described in Series 13: Photography. Negatives are cross-referenced with positive prints where applicable.

Series 15    Lantern Slides, 1947-1958
                    4.0 lin. ft. Arranged by subject.

There are 31 boxes of lantern slides largely duplicating the photo record of Series 13: Photography (see above). There is also a sequence on topophysis and on Robbins' trip to Japan in 1947.

Series 16    Reprints, 1936-1969
                    1.3 lin. ft. Arranged by volume number.

This series consists of Robbins' (and his colleagues') reprints collected in four bound presentation volumes titled Operae Laboratorii Horti Noveboraci e Conlegio Robbinsii. Robbinsiaceae, presented to him on the occasion of his 80th birthday, February 28, 1970.


The New York Botanical Garden

PP     Kenneth B. Raper Papers

RG3     Administrative Papers of the Chief Executive Officer (William J. Robbins, 1937-1958)

RG4     John Kunkel Small Records

RG5     Marjorie Anchel Records

RG5      Igor Nicholas Asheshov Records

RG5     Alma Whiffen Barksdale Records

RG5     Bernard Ogilvie Dodge Records

RG5     Annette Hervey Records

Processed September 1999 by David Rose under 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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