Margery C. Carlson

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Margery Claire Carlson
Margery Claire Carlson, 1982-1985 (botanist).jpg
Born(1892-11-21)November 21, 1892
DiedJuly 5, 1985(1985-07-05) (aged 92)
EducationB.S. from Northwestern University
M.S. from University of Wisconsin
Ph.D in botany from University of Wisconsin
Years active1930–1958
EmployerNorthwestern University, Field Museum of Natural History
Known forCollection of new species, discovering Tillandsia carlsoniae
TitleProfessor of Botany
Board member ofIllinois Youth Commission
Partner(s)Kate Staley

Margery Claire Carlson (November 21, 1892 – July 5, 1985)[1] was an American botanist and a professor at Northwestern University. After earning a Ph.D. in botany and becoming the first full-time female professor at Northwestern, she went on a number of international scientific expeditions to Central America in order to collect plant specimens and find new species. Her relationship as a research assistant at the Field Museum of Natural History meant that a majority of her plant collection was donated to the museum and a special botany collection was created for her there. Carlson had a long history of involvement in the conservation movement and was honored with multiple awards, along with a nature preserve being named after her.

Childhood and education[edit]

Carlson was born in Arthur, Illinois. Her parents, John E. Carlson and Nellie Marie Johnson, named her after the marguerite daisy.[1][2]

She graduated with a bachelor's degree from Northwestern University in 1916 before earning a Master's degree and then a Ph.D. in botany by 1925 from the University of Wisconsin. Carlson afterward became a teacher at Wellesley College before returning to Northwestern University in 1930 to become a professor, where she would stay for the next three decades before retiring in the 1960s.[2][3] She was the first woman to major in botany at Northwestern and the first woman to become a full professor at the university.[4]

She also acted as a research assistant at the Field Museum for the specimens that she collected and the full collection they were a part of.[4]


As a practicing botanist, Carlson made frequent trips to Mexico and Central America to search and catalog plant species in the regions. In a 1940 paper, Carlson described the first finding of a special type of seed coat found only in a few orchid species and surrounding the plant embryo. She described this as a "covering of the embryo" or an "inner seed coat".[5]

During a multi-country trip in 1948, she and her life partner, Kate Staley, collected more than 4,000 plants and were able to discover 15 new species of plants.[2] More than 100 living specimens were also returned from the trip, such as the White Nun orchid. For this trip, Carlson ended up being the first lead female expeditioner to ever travel to the mountains of El Salvador for a scientific project.[6]

The following year, the pair conducted another trip, but without travel by plane or train, but by car for the entire trek. This botanical survey was funded by both Northwestern University and the Field Museum. They named their car El Caracol ("The Snail") due to how the back of the car was carrying everything they would need for the next six to nine months, their home "on its back". One of the main purposes of the trip was to find, photograph, and take samples of a new species of flower they had found on their prior expedition, but the photos of which had been lost and no sample had been taken at the time.[6] During their trip, on April 6, 1949, they discovered a new species of Tillandsia in Chiapas that would later be described by L.B. Smith and named Tillandsia carlsoniae.[3]

Another trip was conducted from 1951–52 and resulted in a collection of over 1,000 plant specimens and a number of new species, which were all donated to the Field Museum's botany collection.[7]

Carlson would make five international trips in total, involving the countries of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. Of the plant family Bromeliaceae alone, she discovered 25 new species and 19 of them were found just within the region of Chiapas.[3] She retired in 1958 from being an active professor at Northwestern University, but remained working as a research assistant at the Field Museum and continued conducting collecting expeditions, primarily in Mexico.[3]

After retirement, governor Otto Kerner Jr. added her to the board of the Illinois Youth Commission in 1964.[2]

Legacy and accolades[edit]

Carlson was a founder of the Illinois Chapter of the Nature Conservancy.[4] In the 1960s, a wildflower garden in Evanston, Illinois's Lighthouse Park was named after her.[2] An official nature preserve was named after her in 1976, with the "Margery C. Carlson Nature Preserve" being in LaSalle County.[4][8]

She was awarded the Eloise Payne Luquer Medal in 1952[9] and the Sarah Gildersleeve Fife Memorial Award in 1954, both from the Garden Club of America.[1] The organization Graduate Women in Science made her an honorary member in 1978[10] and later named a fellowship award after Carlson titled the "Margery Carlson & Kate Staley Memorial Fellowship".[11]

Personal life[edit]

Carlson lived in Evanston, Illinois with her partner Kate Staley, a former physiologist who had retired and accompanied Carlson on many of her expeditions.[7]

She was an active conservationist and promoter of protecting wilderness in Illinois. Carlson was made an adviser for the Evanston Garden Club and herself joined a number of professional organizations related to botany and environmental organizations in the area. Her conservation efforts focused on areas such as Volo Bog, Illinois State Beach, and Matthiessen State Park.[3]

Selected works[edit]

The standard author abbreviation Carlson is used to indicate this person as the author when citing a botanical name.[12]


  1. ^ a b c "Evanston Women's History Database: Margery Carlson". Evanston Public Library. 2016. Retrieved September 15, 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d e "Margery Carlson, 92, Botanist, Nu Professor". Chicago Tribune. July 7, 1985. Retrieved September 14, 2016.
  3. ^ a b c d e Guess R, Guess V (September–October 1998). "Tillandsia carlsoniae: Profile of an Endemic Species and Its Collector" (PDF). Journal of The Bromeliad Society. Bromeliad Society International. 48 (5): 207–212. ISSN 0090-8738. Retrieved September 15, 2016.
  4. ^ a b c d "Field Museum Women – Past Pioneers". Field Museum of Natural History. 2016. Retrieved September 14, 2016.
  5. ^ Kull, Tiiu; Arditti, J. (March 14, 2013). Orchid Biology VIII: Reviews and Perspectives. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 375. ISBN 9789401725002.
  6. ^ a b Flavin, Genevieve (January 2, 1949). "Exotic Blooms Beckon Pair of Intrepid Women". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved September 14, 2016.
  7. ^ a b Fitzpatrick, Rita (April 13, 1952). "2 Women Brave Jungle to Find Rare Flowers". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved September 14, 2016.
  8. ^ "Illinois Nature Preserves Commission: Margery C. Carlson". Illinois Department of Natural Resources. 2016. Retrieved September 15, 2016.
  9. ^ "Margery Claire Carlson". The Bulletin. Garden Club of America. 40–41: 80–81. 1952. Retrieved September 15, 2016.
  10. ^ "All GWIS Honorary Membership Award Recipients". Graduate Women in Science. 2016. Retrieved September 14, 2016.
  11. ^ "Past Fellowship Awardees". Graduate Women in Science. 2016. Retrieved September 14, 2016.
  12. ^ IPNI.  Carlson.

Further reading[edit]