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William Campbell Steere (1907-1988)

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Records of the Herbarium (RG4)
20.5 linear feet (21 boxes)


William Campbell Steere (1907-1988) was born on November 4, 1907 in Muskegon, Michigan. He came from a long line of pioneering-naturalist Irish-Quaker ancestors. His paternal grandfather, Joseph Beal Steere, was a professor of zoology and paleontology at the University of Michigan and was the principal influence on Steere's subsequent interest in, and pursuit of, a botanical career.

William Campbell Steere graduated with "high distinction" from the University of Michigan in 1929 with a B.S. in Botany. From 1929 to 1931 he moved to the University of Pennsylvania to study cytology under W. R. Taylor and serve fulltime as an Instructor at Temple University. In 1931, Professor Harley H. Bartlett persuaded Steere to return to the University of Michigan as Instructor. Shortly after his return he was awarded the M.A. (1931) and the Ph.D. (1932). Joining the faculty in Ann Arbor, Dr. Steere progressed through its ranks to Full Professor in 1946 and was appointed Chair of the Botany Department in 1947.

While his early research and publications were on phanerogamic cytology, Dr. Steere's fascination with bryophytes, mosses in particular, was formed during his second year as a university student while working as a lumberjack in Oregon ("I was attracted by the beautiful mosses of the woods."). Soon after receiving his doctorate he focussed his research on bryology, a relatively unexplored field in 1930s North America. From 1938 to 1942, and again from 1945 to 1946, Steere taught field courses in bryology and systematic biology, concentrating on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Other highlights of his career during this period include: leading a biological survey of the Maya Region of the Yucatan in 1932; serving as an exchange professor at the University of Puerto Rico in 1935, where he developed a large collection of mosses that provided the basis for Mosses of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands (co-authored with Howard Crum); leading expeditions, from 1942 to 1946, to locate and develop cinchona plantations in Latin America and provide alternative sources of quinine for the United States during World War II (he also managed to find time to collect bryophyte specimens, although they would remain uncatalogued into the last decade of his life); heading field parties to Great Bear Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories during 1948 and Alaska in the summer of 1949 to study the effects of naturally occurring radioactivity on plant life. These last two forays also introduced Steere to the world of Arctic Bryophytes, which he would continue to explore from the 1950s until the early 1970s.

Professor Steere left the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor for Stanford University in 1950. He remained at Stanford until 1954, when he accepted a one-year position with the National Science Foundation as Program Director in Systematic Biology. During his time in Washington, D.C. he became involved with Biological Abstracts, beginning a long-term commitment to BIOSIS (BioSciences Information Service). Steere returned to Stanford University in 1955 as Dean of Graduate Studies. He also continued to teach, advise doctoral candidates in the field of bryology, and gather specimens of Arctic Bryophytes.

In 1958, Dr. Steere accepted the position of Director at The New York Botanical Garden. During his tenure at the Garden, Steere was able to reinvigorate and maintain the Garden's tradition of excellence in science. The scientific staff doubled, publications increased fivefold, a new library wing was built, the graduate training program expanded; and, when Columbia University changed emphases, he successfully transferred the cooperative Graduate Program in Botany to Lehman College of the City University of New York. In the midst of the exercise of these responsibilities, Dr. Steere continued pursuit of his own rigorous research, publishing, and public speaking activities while following the careers of his former students and encouraging yet a new generation of bryologists. Steere also played a pivotal role in international scientific cooperation. The recipient of numerous awards, he was active in a variety of scientific societies in the United States, Europe and South America. Because of the relationships among Japanese flora and the flora of eastern North America, Alaska, and the Pacific Northwest, his special focus was Japan.

Dr. Steere relinquished his duties as Director of the New York Botanical Garden in 1973, assuming the title Senior Scientist. He formally "retired" in 1977. As Senior Scientist and President Emeritus, however, Dr. Steere maintained an office at the Garden and continued his work in bryology until his death on February 7, 1988.


The content of Steere's scientific papers is indicative of his research and other professional activities when employed by The New York Botanical Garden. The scientific records of Dr. William Campbell Steere document the life, professional activities, and varied interests of one of the twentieth century's foremost bryologists. Steere continued his scientific research while serving in an administrative capacity as Director of the Garden from 1958-1977

Although divided into Personal Papers (PP), Scientific Records(RG4), and Administrative Records (RG3) reflecting the original order of these records, there is a significant amount of overlap between the collections. These papers and records encompass a sixty-one year period from Dr. Steere's experience as an undergraduate in 1927 to his death in 1988. Bulk dates for his Personal Papers are 1927-1958. Bulk dates for his Scientific Papers are 1958-1988. Bulk dates for his Administrative Records are 1958-1972.


Series 1: Correspondence - General
Series 2: Correspondence - Publications
Series 3: Specimen Identification
Series 4: Arctic Bryophytes
Series 5: Associations, Institutions, and Symposia
Series 6: Ephemera

Series 1: Correspondence - General, 1958-1988
                6 lin. ft.   Arranged alphabetically by correspondent surname or topic.

This series reflects Steere's multiple interests in the field of botany. The correspondence is international in scope. It includes requests for assistance with plant identifications, exchanges about taxonomy, discussions of field trips made by William Steere and his colleagues, and participation in various conferences and projects. Also included are personal notes of introduction and appreciation, letters of recommendation on behalf of colleagues and former students, evaluations of proposals submitted to the National Science Foundation, and staff memos. Of particular interest are records of his unsuccessful attempt to mediate a three year dispute among the co-editors of Moss Flora of Arctic North America and Greenland. It should be noted that some of the letters to Dr. Steere are in Spanish, French, and German. In a few instances Steere has appended an English translation and his responses are always in English.

Series 2: Correspondence - Publications, 1958-1985
                1 lin. ft.   Arranged by correspondent surname or publishing house.

This series documents Steere's activity as a prolific writer, editor, and reviewer for the period of 1958 to 1985. Letters are both typed and handwritten. Groups of letters are arranged alphabetically by correspondent or topic and in reverse chronological order within the group. They include letters from Steere as journal editor to submitting authors, as well as his correspondence with co-editors, co-authors, and publishers of Steere's manuscripts. Notable in this series is correspondence related to Plenum Publishers, Evolutionary Biology (including the Dobzhansky Festschrift Volume), the Garden Journal, and Flora Neotropica.

Series 3: Specimen Identification, 1958-1988
                0.5 lin. ft.   Arranged alphabetically by location, then by collector.

This series details Steere's meticulous approach to plant identification. Containing location maps, observations of the terrain and environment surrounding a specimen, and illustrations, this series was Steere's reference guide throughout his career. It includes plant descriptions and Steere's additions to these descriptions, and 2 glass negatives (Box 8). The series documents Dr. Steere's taxonomic activity from 1958 to 1988, although many of the identification lists were created prior to this period. The series also includes copies of the American Geophysical Survey (AGS) blank map forms as well as maps showing specific locations and routes to collection sites for the Antarctic Continent and Antarctic Peninsula. Preliminary Determination Lists are both typed and handwritten with multiple corrections/insertions. NOTE: Box contains 2 glass negatives of Meesia Triquetra (dated July 3, 1930). The series also includes classical narrative descriptions (in English, Latin, and German) as well as Steere's additions to these descriptions. These documents are presented in a variety of media, including: original typed pages, carbons, photocopy (both positive and negative), thermal copy, spirit duplicated, and handwritten with ink, carbon lead pencil and wax pencil.

Series 4: Arctic Bryophytes, 1954-1978
                2.5 lin. ft.   Arranged alphabetically by specimen name.

This series includes specimen descriptions and checklists; maps, photographs, and portraits of Arctic wildflowers; and articles and manuscripts detailing research and findings from Alaska, Iceland, the Arctic Yukon, and Antarctica during the period from 1954 to 1978. These documents provide evidence of Steere's preeminence in this field of research.

Series 5: Associations, Institutions, and Symposia, 1958-1980
                2.5 lin. ft.     Arranged alphabetically by organization name, then reverse chronological order.

This series documents Steere's broad scientific interests and involvement in professional societies from 1958 to 1980. This series includes conference programs and presentations, reprints of articles and monographs, and related correspondence. Representative associations and institutes include: American Institute of Biological Sciences, Arctic Institute of North America, Association of Systematic Collections, Biological Abstracts, Botanical Society of America, Cary Arboretum, Desert Research Institute, International Botanical Congresses, International Congresses of Systematic and Evolutionary Biology, and the National Science Foundation. The series also contains Dr. Steere's appointment books.

Series 6: Ephemera, assorted dates
                3 lin. ft. Unsorted.

This series holds oversize materials such as ink sketches of arctic bryophytes and other arctic flora, a large computer printout of a checklist for the University of Alaska Herbarium Tundra Biome Project (1972), and a variety of black and white and color photographs that lack a specific context within the collection. Many of the photographs are unidentified, curled, and fragile. Most of the sketches and photographs are not dated.


The New York Botanical Garden

RG3 Records of the Chief Executive Officer: William Campbell Steere, 1958-1972
RG4 William Campbell Steere Records
PP William C. Steere Papers. 1927-1958
CFN Collector's Field Notebooks

Processed January 2001 by Susan Fraser  under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH-PA-23141-98).

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

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