Anna Murray Vail

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Anna Murray Vail
Anna Murray Vail.jpg
Born(1863-01-07)January 7, 1863
DiedDecember 18, 1955(1955-12-18) (aged 92)
Vieux Logis
Resting placeHéricy
Scientific career
Library science
InstitutionsNew York Botanical Garden

Anna Murray Vail (January 7, 1863 – December 18, 1955) was an American botanist and first librarian of the New York Botanical Garden. She was a student of the Columbia University botanist and geologist Nathaniel Lord Britton, the force behind the founding of the New York Botanical Garden, and was active in its creation.

Early life[edit]

Anna was born in New York's east side, the first child of David Olyphant Vail and Cornelia Georgina (Nina) Van Rensselear.[1] On her mother's side, she is descended from two of New York's most elite Dutch families, the Van Rensselear and Van Cortlandts. Her great-great-grandfather was General Robert Van Rensselaer, who fought at Ticonderoga during the American Revolution under the orders of his mother's brother in law, General Philip Schuyler.[1] Her younger sister, Cornelia, married Henry Golden Dearth a distinguished American painter.

Her father, David Olyphant Vail, was the son of Benjamin C. and Eliza Ann (née Archer) Vail.[2] David O. Vail's connection to the Olyphant family is through his maternal grandmother, Ann Mckenzie (1782 – November 5, 1857). Her first husband was Zeno Archer, whom she married in 1803. Their daughter was Eliza Ann who married Benjamin Vail. Following Zeno's death, Ann McKenzie Archer married David W.C. Olyphant.

David O. Vail is listed as a "merchant" on an 1862 ship manifest[3] and in a Van Rensselaer family history is described as "...resident partner of the house of Olyphant & Company at Shanghai, China."[4] His death notice describes him as being "...lately of China...", but it is not clear where or of what he died in 1865 at age 32.[5] His middle name, Olyphant, and the fact that he worked for Olyphant & Company reflect his connection to that family on his mother's side. Olyphant and Company, founded in 1827 by David WC Olyphant and Charles N. Talbot, was one of the pioneers of the Old China Trade.[6]

Professional activities[edit]

Her early education was in Europe but by 1895 she was back in the United States and working at Columbia University with Nathaniel Lord Britton, who with his wife Elizabeth Gertrude Britton, was the founding force behind the New York Botanical Garden. In January 1900, she became the first librarian of the newly founded Bronx institution's library, a post she held until September 1907.[7] While in New York, she was the author of over a dozen scientific papers (see bibliography). Her notes, preserved in the Archives and Manuscripts collection of the New York Botanical Garden, include sketches of some of the plants she studied.

In 1903 Vail traveled to Paris, France, for an auction of the botanical literature of the late Professor Alexis Jordan. She obtained over 400 items, including ten volumes of John Sibthorp's Flora graeca.[8]

Vail wrote on numerous botanical topics; for example, her 1898 co-authored work (with Elizabeth Gertrude Britton, among others), details "New or Rare Mosses", such as Anacamptodon Splachnoides.[9]

An account in the records of the New York Botanical Garden presents Vail's resignation from the Garden's Library as resulting from her indignation of being accused of smoking cigarettes in the library. However, this account is disputed by a letter in the files of Nathaniel Lord Britton dated September 28, 1907, which mentions her departure as being due to an extended separation from her mother, who was living in France. This letter indicates no ill will.[10]

Pen & ink sketch of Cynanchum sp by Anna Murray Vail. This was created by Ms. Vail in 1899 when she was librarian at the New York Botanical Garden.

In 1911 she moved to France. During World War I, she became active in the American Fund for French Wounded, eventually becoming its treasurer.[11] A letter to the head of the U.S.-based organization, Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer, was published in The New York Times.[12] The letter reads, in part,

Every department of the Red Cross has borrowed nurses and aids, and we of the American Fund have given everything we had for the emergency. If it gets worse, I shall offer my own services, for I can make beds and clean up, and no part of the work will terrify me, even if I am not a trained nurse.

Later years[edit]

While living in France she acquired a house in Hericy. Here she would spend her remaining years, continuing her work as a librarian until blindness forced her to stop. She died in Vieux Logis on December 18, 1955 and is buried in the municipal cemetery at Hericy.



See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b W. W. Spooner, THE VAN RENSSELAER FAMILY, American Historical Magazine, vol 2 # 1, 1907.
  2. ^ "Rhode Island, Marriages, 1724–1916," index, FamilySearch ( : accessed March 4, 2013), David Olyphant Vail and Cornelia Georgina (King) Van Rensselaer, March 27, 1862.
  3. ^ Arrival Record, SS Africa March 14, 1862 in NY,
  4. ^ Van Rensselaer and Allied Families, Americana, vol 14, page 299, 1920
  5. ^ "DIED". The New York Times. April 18, 1865. Retrieved April 29, 2013.
  6. ^ "A WIDE-REACHING FAILURE". The New York Times. December 8, 1878. Retrieved April 29, 2013.
  7. ^ List of Staff Members New York Botanical Garden 1896 to 1939, J. NY Botanical Garden, vol 41 #485, May 1940
  8. ^ Callery, Bernadette G. (January 1, 1995). "Collecting Collections: Building the Library of the New York Botanical Garden". Brittonia. 47 (1): 44–56. doi:10.2307/2807247. JSTOR 2807247.
  9. ^ Britton, Elizabeth G.; Vail, Anna Murray; Burnett, D. A.; Classon, E.; Kennedy, George G.; Best, George N. (April 1898). "New or Rare Mosses". The Bryologist. 1 (2): 41. doi:10.2307/3238611.
  10. ^ Anna Murray Vail Papers, Mertz Library, New York Botanical Garden,, accessed January 25, 2017.
  11. ^ American Fund for French Wounded Monthly Report, Vol II, Sept – Oct 1917, Nos. 21 – 22
  12. ^ "OUR WOUNDED SPLENDID". The New York Times. August 8, 1918. Retrieved April 29, 2013.
  13. ^ IPNI.  Vail.

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