Cook, born in Clyde, New York in 1867, graduated from Syracuse University in 1890. He worked for one year as an instructor at Syracuse. In 1891 Cook became a special agent of the New York State Colonization Society. He worked in Liberia, and in 1896, he was elected president of Liberia College. He held that position until 1898. That year he joined the United States Department of Agriculture as a plant scientist, and eventually became Principal Botanist and traveled throughout the world investigating crop species for the United States government. He specialized in cotton and rubber plants and the classification of palms, particularly the palms of Hispaniola. He published almost four hundred books and articles during his career, and was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Science by Syracuse University in 1930. Cook served as Honorary Assistant Curator of Cryptogamic Collections at the United States National Herbarium from 1898 until 1948.
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