Elizabeth Gertrude Britton

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Elizabeth Gertrude Britton (née Knight)
Elizabeth G Knight - 1886.jpg
Born (1858-01-09)January 9, 1858
New York City, New York, United States
Died February 25, 1934(1934-02-25) (aged 76)
The Bronx, New York, United States
Citizenship American
Fields Botany, Bryology
Alma mater Hunter College
Author abbrev. (botany) E.Britton

Elizabeth Gertrude Britton (née Elizabeth Gertrude Knight) (January 9, 1858 – February 25, 1934) was an American botanist, bryologist, and educator. She and her husband, Nathaniel Lord Britton played a significant role in the fundraising and creation of the New York Botanical Garden. She was a co-founder of the predecessor to the American Bryological and Lichenological Society. She was an activist for protection of wildflowers, inspiring local chapter activities and the passage of legislation. Elizabeth Britton made major contributions to the literature of mosses, publishing 170 papers in that field.

Early life and family[edit]

Elizabeth Gertrude Knight was born on January 9, 1858 in New York City, one of five daughters, to James and Sophie Anne (née Compton) Knight.[1][2][3] Her family operated a furniture factory and sugar plantation in the vicinity of Matanzas, Cuba, and she spent much of her childhood there.[1] In later childhood, she attended a private school in New York; she then attended Normal College (later, Hunter College) and was graduated from there in 1875, at the early age of seventeen.[1] On August 27, 1885 she married Nathaniel Lord Britton, an Assistant in Geology at Columbia College who shared her growing interest in botany.[4][5] The couple had no children.[6]


After graduation in 1875, Elizabeth Knight joined the staff of Normal College as a critic teacher.[1] She joined the Torrey Botanical Club in 1879,[1] and in 1881 she published her first scientific paper in that organization's Bulletin, reporting observations of unexpected white flowers in two species of plants.[7][8] In 1883, she was named a Tutor in Natural Science.[1] Also in that year, her first paper concerning mosses appeared. Elizabeth collected fertile specimens of Eustichium norvegicum in Wisconsin and wrote the first description of its fruits; known since 1827, the plant had hitherto been known only in a sterile condition.[9]

After her marriage in 1885, Elizabeth Britton resigned her teaching position at Normal College, and took charge of the moss collections at Columbia in an unofficial, unpaid capacity.[4][10] She served as editor of the Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club from 1886 to 1888;[11] in 1889, she published the first of an eleven-part series of papers titled "Contributions to American Bryology" in that journal.[4] Her catalogue of the mosses of West Virginia appeared in 1892, and the first of eight articles titled "How to Study the Mosses" for a popular magazine was published in 1894.[4] These papers "sufficed to place Mrs. Britton in command of the bryological field in America."[4] Showing skills away from the lab as well, she worked with her husband to acquire for Columbia the moss herbarium of August Jaeger (1842–1877) of Switzerland; Elizabeth persuaded wealthy friends to contribute the necessary $6000.[4][12][13]

Elizabeth Britton, along with her husband, was one of the Torrey Botanical Club members who spurred the establishment of the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). As the story goes, the couple had traveled to England in 1888. Nathaniel was performing research at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in order to classify the Bolivian botanical collections of Henry Hurd Rusby, a gift to Columbia; meanwhile, Elizabeth worked on mosses at the Linnaean Society of London.[5][14] Inspired by the quality and quantity of Kew's herbarium, library, and gardens, the couple set about organizing an institution of comparable stature for New York.[15][16] A Club meeting was held in October, 1888; rich and prominent citizens were recruited as incorporators; and the Botanical Garden was established by act of the state legislature in 1891.[15][16] Elizabeth was a prime mover in the efforts to raise funds for the organization in the 1890s.[14] Nathaniel became the first Director-in-Chief of the Botanical Garden in 1896; Elizabeth joined him in a volunteer capacity.[15][16] It was largely through her interest that the collection of liverworts and mosses of William Mitten was acquired for the NYBG in 1906.[15] In recognition of her service, Britton was named Honorary Curator of the Mosses in 1912, a post which she held until her death.[15][17]

Elizabeth enumerated the ferns in the Rusby collection in 1888. After extensive research, comparison with the specimens at Kew and elsewhere, and consultations with other bryologists, she published her enumeration of the Rusby mosses in 1896.[18]

Britton traveled to various locations in the continental United States to collect botanical specimens, including the Great Dismal Swamp, the Adirondack Mountains, and the mountains of North Carolina.[19] She accompanied Nathaniel on 23 of the 25 trips he made to the islands of the Caribbean and West Indies.[20] Under her own name, she published her findings in the Bulletin in 1913–1915. Elizabeth wrote the chapters concerning mosses for Nathaniel's Flora of Bermuda and The Bahama Flora.[21][22]

Elizabeth worked with organizations to promote the study of mosses, especially by women scientists. She chaired the division of bryophyta for the (Women's) National Science Club (NWSC) in 1897.[23]

As part of her unofficial position at Columbia, Britton acted as advisor to doctoral students, including James Franklin Collins[24] and Abel Joel Grout.[11][19] Together, in 1898 Grout and Britton founded the Sullivant Moss Chapter of the Agassiz Association; by 1908, it was known as the Sullivant Moss Society (and after 1949, as the American Bryological and Lichenological Society).[11][25] Although relations between the two researchers later became chilly, Britton continued to participate in the Society, contributing articles to The Bryologist, its journal,[26] and serving as its president from 1916 to 1919.[11]

Elizabeth Britton continued to study plants other than mosses. She published "A Revision of the North American Species of Ophioglossum," the adder's-tongue ferns, in 1897. With Delia West Marble, she collected the type specimen of Dryopteris brittonae, a species of maiden fern, in 1906.[27] Britton collected the type specimen for the orchid named Britton's shadow witch (Ponthieva brittonae Ames).[28][29]

In the first decade of the century, Britton began to devote energy to the conservation of wildflowers. A gift of $3000 by Olivia Stokes and Caroline Phelps Stokes to the NYBG spurred the creation of the Wild Flower Preservation Society of America.[30] The first meeting was held on April 23, 1902; Frederick Vernon Coville was elected president, Charles Louis Pollard was elected secretary, and Britton was elected to the Board of Managers.[31][32] Other members of the board included Charles Edwin Bessey, Liberty Hyde Bailey, William Trelease, Charles Frederick Millspaugh, and Alice Eastwood.[31] Britton went on to serve as secretary and treasurer of the organization.[33] The Society established numerous local chapters.[32] It was incorporated in the state of New York in 1915, then reorganized as the Wild Flower Preservation Society in 1925, with Percy L. Ricker as its head.[32][34][35] Britton vigorously promoted the cause for nearly 35 years, by publishing, lecturing, and conducting correspondence; her efforts led to adoption of legislation in various states, as well as local conservation activities in garden clubs and public schools.[32] She published fourteen articles in the NYBG's Journal under the series title of Wild Plants Needing Protection.

In 1925, as chair of the conservation committee of the Federated Garden Clubs of New York State, Britton successfully led a boycott campaign against the common practice of harvesting wild American holly for use as a Christmas decoration; as a substitute, she promoted the propagation of the plant by cuttings for commercial use.[36]

All told, during the period 1881 to 1930, Elizabeth Britton published 346 papers, of which 170 dealt with mosses.[7] She wrote descriptions of six families of mosses for the New York Botanical Garden's Flora of America. Marshall Avery Howe described Britton as "a woman of extraordinary physical and mental energy—the possessor of a remarkably quick and brilliant intellect. She has left an enduring record in the literature of science, and her well-directed activities have had an outstanding influence in the conservation of the native flora of the United States."[37]

Recognition and legacy[edit]

In 1893, Britton was the only woman among the 25 scientists nominated for charter membership in the Botanical Society of America.[38][14] In 1905, she was one of three bryologists appointed to the nomenclature committee that would report to the 1910 meeting of the International Botanical Congress in Brussels.[26] In 1906, Britton was one of only nineteen women listed in the first edition of American Men of Science. Her entry was marked with an asterisk: this "starred" listing was limited to the top 1,000 scientists in the book, as determined by the editors. Britton was starred in the five editions of the book that appeared through 1933.[39]

The moss genus Bryobrittonia is named for Elizabeth Britton,[40] as well as fifteen species of plants and one of animals.[20]

Mount Britton, a double peak in El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico, honors Elizabeth and her husband Nathaniel.[20]

In 1940, a memorial plaque in honor of Elizabeth Britton was installed in the new Wild Flower Garden of the New York Botanical Garden. A gift of the New York Bird and Tree Club, it is mounted on a ten-ton boulder of Bronx schist, and its text reads, "Let those who find pleasure in this garden remember Elizabeth Gertrude Knight Britton, lover of wildflowers and ardent advocate of their protection".[41]

The character of Alma Whittaker in the 2013 novel The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert, is modeled in part on Elizabeth Britton.[42]

Later life and death[edit]

Elizabeth Britton died at her home at 2965 Decatur Avenue[43] in The Bronx on February 25, 1934, following an apoplectic stroke; her husband Nathaniel survived her by four months.[11][20] Although she was nominally a member of the Episcopalian faith, she was buried in the Moravian Cemetery on Staten Island, where Nathaniel's ancestors had been early settlers and he held property.[11][44]

Selected publications[edit]

Eustichium norvegicum: Calyptra and columella seen through a natural rupture in the wall of the capsule.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Howe (1934), p. 97.
  2. ^ Bonta (1991), p. 125.
  3. ^ The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Elizabeth Gertrude Knight Britton". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 30 September 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f Howe (1934), p. 98.
  5. ^ a b Bonta (1991), p. 126.
  6. ^ Bonta (1991), p. 131.
  7. ^ a b Barnhart, John Hendley (January 1935). "The Published Work of Elizabeth Gertrude Britton". Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 62 (1): 1–17. Retrieved 30 September 2014. 
  8. ^ Knight, Elizabeth G. (November 1881). "Albinism". Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 8 (11): 125. Retrieved 1 October 2014. 
  9. ^ Howe (1934), pp. 97–98.
  10. ^ Bonta (1991), pp. 126,131.
  11. ^ a b c d e f Steere (1971), p. 244.
  12. ^ Slack (1987), p. 99.
  13. ^ "Bryology at the New York Botanical Garden". The New York Botanical Garden. Retrieved 10 October 2014. 
  14. ^ a b c "ELIZABETH GERTRUDE KNIGHT BRITTON RECORDS (1882-1934)". New York Botanical Garden. 2003. Retrieved 25 September 2014. 
  15. ^ a b c d e Howe (1934), p. 102.
  16. ^ a b c Bonta (1991), p. 127.
  17. ^ Bonta (1991), pp. 129–130.
  18. ^ Britton, Elizabeth G. (28 December 1896). "An Enumeration of the Plants Collected by H. H. Rusby in Bolivia, 1885–1886.–II. Musci". Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 23 (12): 471–499. doi:10.2307/2477840. Retrieved 28 October 2014. 
  19. ^ a b Bonta (1991), p. 128.
  20. ^ a b c d Bonta (1991), p. 130.
  21. ^ Britton (1918), p. xi.
  22. ^ Britton & Millspaugh (1920), p. viii.
  23. ^ Kass (1997), p. 52.
  24. ^ Kass (1997), p. 57.
  25. ^ Anderson (2000), pp. 3–4,7,8.
  26. ^ a b Bonta (1991), p. 129.
  27. ^ "Dryopteris brittonae Sloss. ex Maxon in Britton & P. Wilson". Collections Search Center. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 10 October 2014. 
  28. ^ Ames, Oakes (April 1910). "A New Ponthieva from the Bahamas". Torreya 10 (4): 90–91. Retrieved 29 September 2014. 
  29. ^ "Plants Profile for Ponthieva brittoniae (Britton's shadow witch)". PLANTS Database. Natural Resources Conservation Service, United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved 29 September 2014. 
  30. ^ Gager (1940), p. 139.
  31. ^ a b Howe (1934), p. 100.
  32. ^ a b c d Gager (1940), p. 140.
  33. ^ Howe (1934), p. 101.
  34. ^ "Wild Flower Preservation Society of America Records (RA)". New York Botanical Garden. Retrieved 21 October 2014. 
  35. ^ "Wild Flower Preservation Society Records (RA)". New York Botanical Garden. Retrieved 21 October 2014. 
  36. ^ Steere (1971), p. 243.
  37. ^ Howe (1934), pp. 102–103.
  38. ^ Slack (1987), p. 95.
  39. ^ Kass (1997), p. 54.
  40. ^ Williams, R. S. (27 May 1901). "Contributions to the Botany of the Yukon Territory: 2. An Enumeration of the Mosses collected". Bulletin of the New York Botanical Garden II (6): 115. Retrieved 26 September 2014. This genus is dedicated to Mrs. Elizabeth G. Britton, by whose aid so many American students of our mosses have been encouraged. 
  41. ^ "Mrs. Britton Honored in Dedication of Plaque by New York Bird and Tree Club in Wild Flower Garden". Journal of the New York Botanical Garden 41 (486): 129–137. June 1940. Retrieved 22 October 2014. 
  42. ^ Dreifus, Claudia (4 November 2013). "Elizabeth Gilbert Finds Inspiration Behind the Garden Gate". New York Times. Retrieved 29 October 2014. 
  43. ^ "Mrs. N. L. Britton, Botanist, 76, Dies". New York Times. 26 February 1934. p. 17. Retrieved 30 September 2014. 
  44. ^ Landmarks Preservation Commission (9 November 1976). "CUBBERLY-BRITTON COTTAGE" (PDF). Neighborhood Preservation Center. Retrieved 28 October 2014. 
  45. ^ "Author Query for 'E.Britton'". International Plant Names Index. 


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