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44 


Rhodora 


[February 


FERNALD AS A REVISER OF GRAY’S MANUAL 

i Iahley Harris Bartlett 

Before entering college I wrote to Professor Fernald from 
Indianapolis asking if a Freshman who was already keenly 
interested in botany would be allowed to take his course “Botany 
7: The Flora of New England and the Maritime Provinces of 
Canada.” The answer was “Yes,” for those were the good old 
days of President Eliot and free election, when any student 
could enroll in any course if he could persuade the professor to 
admit him. There never was an educational policy better 
adapted to professors and students who liked to do as they 
pleased! After poring over all the college catalogues available, 
I had decided that nowhere else was there a course like Harvard’s 


“Botany 7.” How amazingly true this proved to be I soon 
discovered, for Fernald was as extreme an individualist in teach¬ 
ing as he was in his scientific work. He worked in such flares of 
enthusiasm that whatever engaged him at a particular moment 
was for the time being the most important thing in the world to 
him, and so it had to be to his students. There were only two of 
us that year (1904-1905) and we were guinea pigs on whom his 
ideas were tested out. As for background, he seemed to assume 
that if we didn’t already know the minute distinctions among 
all the species he talked about with such glowing enthusiasm we 
soon would, and since he referred to C'arex so frequently, his 
monograph “The Carices of the Section Hyparrhenae” was soon 
fixed upon as an exemplar for method and systematic concepts. 
These particular sedges, it would seem, must illustrate all truly 
important botanical phenomena and types of geographical dis¬ 
tribution in North Eastern America, and it would be a long time 
before any other region need concern us! Fernald took me to 
an old wooden case where the reserve numbers of the “Contribu¬ 
tions from the Gray Herbarium” were kept, got out a copy of 
the most important one, that on the Hyparrhenae, inscribed it to 
me, told me that he had also written a big one on the genus 
Salvia in Mexico, but that it was really far inferior, because he 
had never seen the plants in the field, and, anyway I shouldn’t be 
concerned with Mexico. A firm teacher-student friendship was 
at once established between Fernald and myself, for he became 


1951 ] 


Bartlett,—Fernald, Reviser of Gray’s Manual 


45 


and remained my favorite professor. He was inclined to think 
well of people from Maine, other things being equal, and since 
both his mother and my father had been born in Bethel, Maine, 
I was only a generation removed, which made a certain bond 
that nobody but a down-East Yankee might recognize! 

Many who did not know Fernald well too hastily concluded 
that his predominant traits were vanity and acrimoniousness. 
This was very far from the truth. He was easily moved to 
intemperate expression of emotions which others with more 
control might conceal, but he was essentially friendly and helpful. 
His vast excitement over what sometimes seemed of small 
significance was what kept him so amazingly active and produc¬ 
tive. In the days when I knew him best he was never assailed 
by doubts about the value of what he was then doing, but he was 
very critical of those who were doing something that he would 
not spend his own time doing. I remember that one time he 
remarked on what a disappointment Thiselton-Dyers career had 
been, as Director of Kew. He said that Thiselton-Dyer had had 
as great a chance for a productive career as Joseph Dalton Hooker, 
but had frittered away his time, although his obvious duty to 
botany was not to waste a moment of an opportunity denied to 
most botanists, when he was the one, chosen from among hun¬ 
dreds, who had a chance to do great things. At this outburst Dr. 
Robinson, who was the essence of kindliness and moderation, 
and seldom allowed himself to pass a snap judgement, was 
genuinely shocked, and made what was, for him, a vigorous 
rebuttal. The clash of personality between the two men was so 
great that they never seemed sufficiently compatible to work 
together harmoniously, and actually their co-operation in the 
revision of Gray’s Manual for the seventh edition was negligible, 
consisting merely in each doing part of the work. There was no 
community of concepts. 


Their social life was utterly different. Robinson would 
typically invite his friends to meet some distinguished musician 
at his home and meticulously observed all the social amenities. 
Fernald would propose an all-day Sunday tramp in midwinter, 
starting from some point reached by rail. Then, as he said, the 
swamps and bogs were all frozen over and you could see just 
what they were like. After tramping all day in the cold with 



46 


Rhodoru 


[February 



nothing to eat except maybe frozen cranberries from a bog, 
boiled in melted snow in an old tomato can salvaged from a 
roadside dump, he would take his guest home to a midnight 
repast of lamb chops only, broiled on forks over the coals in the 
furnace down cellar, and eaten out of hand, squatting on the 
floor in front of the open furnace door. On such an occasion 
Fernald was at his best, jolly, full of zest and good-fellowship, 
and infectiously enthusiastic about life in general and the New 
England flora in particular. 

After I got acquainted at the Herbarium, it was not long before 
great piles of pasted-up manuscript made their appearance for 
the forthcoming (7th) edition of Gray’s Manual, which was not 
actually published until 1908 but had already been long in prep¬ 
aration. The basic copy had been prepared by pasting clippings 
from the older edition, family by family, onto sheets and arrang¬ 
ing them in the Engler and Prantl sequence. Changes had been 
made in almost every line at various times, so that the revised 
copy resembled especially foul corrected proof. Some 
were Robinson’s especial responsibility and were mostly revised 
by him, and others were Fernald’s, but either of them fixed 
whatever errors or omissions came to his attention. 

Robinson was the more systematic worker, for he was inclined 
to work straight along, in the quiet of the old Gray study, dealing 
with the pages as they came. Not so, Fernald. He would get 
started on some particular species or group by finding something 
of interest in the course of current routine determinative work. 
It would lead him into a hectic investigation that sometimes tell 
flat but generally resulted in a big or little article for Rhodoua, 
and the random articles provided the basis for revision of the 
Manual copy. So practically everything he did after about 1901 
was directly contributory to the Manual, but some groups 
received minimal attention. He needed the stimulus of some 
discovery to set him off. It did not have to be a large one. 
Sometimes, in fact, the supposed discovery petered out, but it 
would have resulted in some critical determinations that helped 
the good cause along. So there was continual progress with the 
Manual but it never seemed to get done. 

Even “Botany 7” had to do some small part. Our laboratory 
work consisted largely in trying to prepare tentative keys to 


1951 ] 


Bartlett,—Fernald, Reviser of Gray’s Manual 


47 


genera that had been skipped, or in testing out revised keys with 
current herbarium accessions, or in testing the applicability of 
work published after the “Manual” copy had been prepared, 
which might necessitate still further changes. To what extent 
in later years “Botany 7” continued to be a device for preliminary 
testing of the “Manual” revision I do not know, but Fernald was 
not one who readily changed his ways and it is to be presumed 
that the preparation of the eighth edition followed much the 
same course as that of the seventh. 

In Femald’s early years as a staff member there were four 
chief continuing institutional projects at the Gray Herbarium. 
In addition to (1) the revision of Gray’s Manual, these were (2) 
the continuation of the Synoptical Flora of North America, (3) 
the study, in accordance with an agreement of co-operation with 
the National Herbarium, of the numerous new collections that 
came to hand yearly from Mexico and Central America, and (4) 
the indexing of newly described systematic entities of the Western 

Hemisphere. 

As already indicated the first of these was originally shared by 
Robinson and Fernald, but fell eventually to the latter; the 
second was Dr. Robinson’s; the third was divided among Robin¬ 
son, Greenman and Fernald; and the fourth had come to be 
exclusively Miss i )ay’s. 

Fernald’s inheritance of the Manual revision came about 
gradually. Participation in the study of the Mexican and other 
tropical collections became increasingly distasteful to him, for he 
could not keep up an interest in floras unless he personally knew 
many of the species in the field, when he had not actually worked 
in the regions. Any species that grew in northeastern America 
interested him wherever it occurred, or was supposed to occur, 
and he would therefore spend much time studying Scandinavian 
specimens and publications. A region whose flora was largely 
dissimilar to that of the Northeast had no attraction for him. 

To accord with his interest in the plants of eastern Canada the 
limits of the Manual region were extended northward, and for a 
good many seasons he worked with a succession of botanical 
comrades in Quebec and Newfoundland. At length, having 
stimulated the interest of Canadians in taking over the study of 
the northern border, and wishing to do his own field work where 



48 


Rhodora 


[February 


there were tlie best chances for significant discoveries, he turned 
to the coastal plain of Virginia, where he made a multitude of 
interesting additions to the flora of the “Manual region.” At 
the close of each field season he returned to the Herbarium with 
keenly whetted enthusiasm for studying the new collections, and 
the idea of doing anything unrelated to that seemed almost 
intolerable to him. 

It was part of the routine of the Herbarium to identify the 


tropical collections as such. Then, at length, after isolated 
species had been described in a genus, and sufficient material 
seemed to have been accumulated, an effort would be made by a 
stall member or student to prepare a comprehensive revision. 
The annual collections of Pringle and Palmer were the chief 
dependence for progress in the somewhat vaguely defined tropical 
American project, but there came to be more and more field 
workers, such as Millspaugh and Gaumer, in Yucatan, C. C. 
Deam, in Mexico and Guatemala, Peck in British Honduras, 
John Donnell-Smith and his associates in Central America, Rose 
and associates, mostly in Mexico, Lumholtz in Mexico, and not i 


i 


few others. The effort to make some current systematic dis¬ 
posal of all this material often required that species be described 
not by systematic revision of a mass of material but from single 
specimens, the distinctions of which might or might not hold up 
in the light of subsequent collecting. 

This work on miscellaneous tropical plants engaged much of 
Fernald’s attention until about 1901 when he practically declared 
his independence of it. This restriction and unification of his 
interests were clearly in the best interests of the Gray Herbarium. 
The New England Botanical Club contained many of the best 
friends of the Herbarium, who did whatever they could, financial¬ 
ly and otherwise, to support it. Financial support was never 
sufficient and although the Gray Herbarium was one of the most 
eminent and deserving of I larvard departments, it led a some¬ 
what hand-to-mouth existence and had to beg of its friends in 
order to carry on any kind of a worthy program. So it was 
essential not to fail to serve the local constituency of those who 
were primarily concerned with the local flora. In botany 
Harvard’s policy was then, as it still remains, to belittle its own 
best achievements and to disregard its most valuable resources 



1951 ] 


Bartlett,—Fernald, Reviser of Gray s Manual 


49 


and traditions in building for a glorious new future. So the 
Herbarium, then and subsequently, had the problem of finding in 
large part its own sustenance, with little aid or encouragement 
from the top echelon. 

In providing for successive editions of Gray’s Manual, Harvard, 
however grudgingly, has performed an important national edu¬ 
cational and scientific service. Fernald was an inspiring leader 
of local flora investigators and during four decades botanists 
looked forward to the appearance of the new “Gray” as an event 
of genuine importance, as it was. One of Fernald’s botanical 
colleagues of many years standing, Professor Bradley Moore 
Davis, has well expressed what many of us feel about Fernald’s 
constant devotion for over forty-five years to revision of the 
Manual. He wrote in a recent letter: “Fernald’s death brought 
to close a well ordered life that followed a consistent pattern, to 
the end that he accomplished much.” 

In its early years the New England Botanical Club was an 
enthusiastic organization, largely of amateur systematists and of 
professional botanists whose interest was not chiefly systematic, 
but whose attention to various local floras or incidental collecting 
turned up many problems that could best be referred to the staff 
of the Herbarium. 

Fernald was ready and willing to act as a central consultant 
for this large group of botanists, which soon extended far beyond 
the membership of the club. By the time the eighth edition of 
the Manual was completed, he had had cooperation to some 
degree from about 400 collaborators, whose problems and ques¬ 
tions all had to be reasonably answered by his investigations. 
Probably no botanical systematist had ever before gone so far in 
satisfying so many active finders of deficiencies and faults in a 


standard flora! 

Fernald’s concentration on plants of the “Manual” region 
began with his early work on the local flora about Orono, Maine. 
His first botanical correspondents, John Parlin and Kate Furbish, 
established the type of relationship that later extended to corre¬ 
spondents far and wide. His enthusiasm for regionally restricted 
floristic study was so boundless that it sometimes impressed 
others as ludicrous or boring. Published expression of it prob¬ 
ably reached its height in an advertisement which he wrote for 




50 


Rhodora 


[February 


the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad, published (anonymously!) 
in Rhodora for April 1903. Never before or since has there been 
such an advertisement, which should by all means be included in 
a bibliography of Fernald’s writings. There have been many 
railroad and steamship blurbs directing the attention of tourists 
to such natural wonders as the big trees of California or the hot 
springs of New Zealand, but surely even the botanical traveller 
had never before been invited by a railroad in an advertisement of 
lour pages of line print to patronize its facilities in order to see 

('arices, f. 


Maine as the “rare 


such astounding treasures of 
tenuiflora, gynocrates, and vaginata, or the little sundew Drosera 
linearis." On the upper Mattawamkeag the botanist was 
promised no less than “the white foam-like masses of the spicy 
Labrador Tea, Ledum groenlandicum, rich rosy banks of the 
Pale Laurel, Kalmia glauxa, indefinite white waves of the Alpine 
Cotton-grass, Eriophorum alpinum, brightened here and there 
with the deep yellows of Cypripediums.” Nor must lie fail to 
look below the surface, for, in the Piscataquis and the Matta¬ 
wamkeag, would be found Myriophyllum Farwellii and Potamo- 


geton 


ifolius! Elsewhere the visitor would thrill at the 


sight of “the largest of the 



Plantains, (loodyera 


Menziezii, the rare Arctic Fleabane, Erigeron acris, the remark¬ 
able local Wood Betony, Pedicularis Eurbishiae, unknown out¬ 
side the St. John Valley.” Finally, if these and other delights 
should pall, the prospect of even greater adventure was held out, 
for “the botanist whose good fortune takes him to the upper St. 
Frances may watch with hope for Pleurogyne carinthiaca, Erio¬ 
phorum russeolum, Astragalus elegans, Parnassia palustris, Saxi- 


fr 


iflor 


palustris, and many other arctic plants known closely to approach 

northern Maine”! I know nothing in botanical literature with 

quite the flavor of this advertisement exceptBartram’s“Travels.” 

It would warm the cockles of any botanical heart. 

%/ 

Fernald’s enthusiasm was literally unbounded when he had 

%/ 

made or thought he had made some discovery, whether in the 


field, or among his own collections, or those of his corr 


The moment anything came to light that seemed to require the 
segregation of a new species or a revision of the accepted delimita¬ 
tion of some group, he would immediately start sorting the 



1951 ] 


Bartlett,—Fernald, Reviser of Gray’s Manual 


51 


material of the Gray Herbarium into piles. In his earlier days, 
at least, he seemed to have a sublime trust that all essential 
material would either be ready at hand in the Gray Herbarium 
or that a problem insoluble with its then available resources 
could well wait until he had personally seen to the collection of 
new specimens. He rarely borrowed from other herbaria except 



Fernald at work in the Gray Herbarium. 

for the utilization of what might be at hand in the collections ot 
the New England Botanical Club. As for the Herbarium of the 
Arnold Arboretum, it might as well have been in Timbuctoo as 
in Jamaica Plain, so far as any utilization ol it during my five 
years in Cambridge was concerned. During that period, 1 
believe I am correct in stating that Fernald did not once visit the 
Arnold Arboretum, nor did his colleague Robinson more than 
once, and then not with a botanical objective. 

Like many older herbaria, the Gray Herbarium in the pre- 
Fernaldian era had been developed to conserve space and costly 
paper by gluing specimens supposedly of the same species to the 
same sheet, quite regardless of geographic origin. This exas¬ 
perated Fernald beyond measure, for it made it impossible to 
sort specimens into piles, first by one characteristic and then by 
another, or geographically, with the ceaseless industry that was 
Fernald’s when he was intent upon a problem. So many a time 









52 


Rhodora 


[February 


he started work on a genus by snipping all the mixed sheets to 
pieces, which he strewed in apparent unconcern all over the big 
central table in the main herbarium room, where he always 
worked. Dr. Robinson would come in, look with consternation 
and anguish at the wreckage, allow himself to remark gently that 
he wondered “how anyone could ever again interpret the con¬ 
cepts of the Synoptical Flora,” and retreat from the painful 
sight into the old Gray study. (Among the Harvard botanists 
of the time Robinson was the chief exponent of the soft answer 
that turneth away wrath.) Then Miss Anderson would gather 
up and patiently glue all the severed fragments onto new whole 
sheets, but with each specimen by itself. 

Fernald’s technique, in those days, at least, was not to make 
notes and study those until he arrived at a classification of speci¬ 
mens that satisfied him. There was no tabulating of data. 
Nothing would do but interminable rearrangements of the 
specimens themselves. Once when Dr. Robinson mildly sug¬ 
gested that much deterioration could be prevented by sorting 
notes instead of specimens he retorted indignantly that one who 
had a feeling for the importance of habit would never be satisfied 
to handle notes instead of specimens. “Could you,” he said, 
“see something you had quite overlooked before if you were just 
sorting cards?”—and the argument was unassailable. Even 
when sorting specimens by measurements of some organ he 
seldom, if ever, recorded each measurement and subjected the 
data to even the most rudimentary statistical analysis. Rather, 
he decided upon some measurement that might set the best 
limit between two groups, and sorted his material as “greater” 
or “less” than that. If the separation by a single critical 
measurement of a mass of material into two piles failed to corre¬ 
late with other criteria of distinction he simply tried again with 


a new measurement. 


Even though Fernald was prone to be satisfied to come to 
conclusions by examination of only the material that was at hand, 
he was indefatigable in making some disposition of every speci¬ 
men that he had, down to the poorest. He was not one to pick 
out a single apparently distinctive specimen and describe it as a 
type, hoping that time would confirm his judgement. He was 
unsparing in caustic criticism of persons who would propose a 



19511 


Bartlett,—Fernald, Reviser of Gray’s Manual 


53 


new species, or even a variety, without making a decision about 
the identity of every other related specimen at hand. Whatever 
may be thought of Fernald’s segregations, they were proposed 
after making a conscientious identification of every related 
specimen that he had, according to his own criteria. He was 
especially suspicious of proposed systematic entities that did not 
seem to have a consistent or logical geographic distribution, and 
having to interpret or recognize one of Greene’s numerous 
species, based upon a single specimen, caused him extreme 
indignation. 

He was therefore sometimes vigorous in his denunciation of 
his own earlier work on the Mexican species of Salvia. He never 


referred disparagingly to 


(( * ? 7 

species 


of Salvia however, except 


when hearers had a shrewd suspicion that they would get his 
meaning more correctly if they mentally substituted “Fupa- 
torium” or “Crataegus” for “Salvia.” 

In his talks to students Fernald was often quite intemperate 
in his criticism of other botanists. On one occasion when he saw 
written down in our notes some of the disparaging remarks he 
had made about botanical colleagues at various institutions he 
was deeply chagrined and apologized for having gone so far. 
As he warmed to his subject, however, he was soon very nearly 
back to the point of departure. Still, he had a very generous 
appreciation of many other botanists. He generally referred to 
Bicknell’s work on Sisyrinchium, for instance, with commenda¬ 
tion, but had a very low opinion of Burgess’s work on Aster. 
It caused him a pang when he had to admit the validity of certain 
of Green’s propositions in Antennaria, or Nash’s and Ashe’s in 
Panicum. Fernald’s denunciations of other botanists and their 
work were not often intended to hurt, however, and after he 
himself had forgotten making them, were quite as likely as not 
to be followed by friendly and appreciative expressions. 

A good example was given by his reaction to Kukenthal’s work 
on Carex. At first sight he thought it magnificent. On second 
sight he found it full of exasperating errors, which he condemned 
roundly. Then he thought that what the worthy pastor needed 
was to spend a year in Cambridge as his guest, learning American 
geography and examining plenty of American material. But 
Kukenthal couldn’t come. “Then he isn’t much of a botanist 



54 


Rhodora 


[Februaky 


) 


Thu 


s 


anyway, if he doesn’t accept a chance to correct his errors, and 
would rather just let them go,” raged Fernald, and condemned 
the whole breed of Germans in general for gross carelessness, 
and Kukenthal in particular. Then finally he arrived at the 
conclusion that Kukenthal had done a fine job after all but had 
made sundry little errors, that he, Fernald, might quite calmly 
rectify himself! One German of whom he always (that is 
nearly always!) approved was Buchenau. 

Nearly every investigation, large or small, that Fernald under¬ 
took in the interval between the two last editions of the “Manual” 
may be considered a preliminary study for the eighth edition of 
that work, but was promptly published in Rhodora. 
journal afforded him an outlet for one or more articles, critical 
reviews and notes each month, from the very beginning, the 
whole representing a prodigious amount of writing. As time 
went on, this journal became more and more an expression of his 
personality and views. Sponsored by the New England Botani¬ 
cal Club, in which Fernald’s strong personality was dominant, it 
early came to be one of the most highly personalized of scientific 
journals, in an era in which most editors have deemed it scandal- 
ms to reveal any personality at all. 

In the early days of Rhodora there was an annual meeting of 
the (dub at which the editorial board of an imaginary “Rhodor- 
ella” made a report that tingled with satire and fun. It was 
much in accord with Fernald’s impulses to express himself with 
an informality and freedom that seldom appear in these stodgy 
and formal days. So the reviews in Rhodora were sometimes 
almost as spicy as they might have been in Rhodorella! 

Since Fernald’s prejudices were so strong and so unsuccessfully 
inhibited it is quite understandable that he did not keep every 
trace of his personality out of the “Manual.” For example, he 
had no use for spurious common names, made bv translating 
scientific names into English, and had the courage of his convic¬ 
tions in refusing to adopt them in the Manual. The sheer 
pedantry of “standardized common names” got no encourage¬ 
ment from him. He required that common names, to be ad¬ 
mitted, must belong to common language, not merely to an 
artificial jargon. It is greatly to his credit that he was content 
to be considered reactionary in this respect. He was likewise 


< 


1951 ] 


Bartlett,—Fernald, Reviser of Gray’s Manual 


55 


reactionary to a certain extent in disregarding some of the 
technical jargon that distinguishes newer developments in 
systematics. It is just as well. There is much pomposity and 
verbosity in science nowadays that has little it any utility. 
Fernald worked from the end of the period in which systematics 
dominated botany, through a period in which systematics seemed 
old-fashioned and on the wane, and into a new period in which 
systematics is being revitalized by the experimental investiga¬ 
tions of geneticists, cytologists and biochemists. Methods of 
investigating relationships are becoming more and more critical 
and time-consuming. The days of dependence in distinguishing 
species upon intuitive perception of the integrity of an assemblage 
of characteristics may be thought to have passed. If, however, 
we consider the need for comprehensive works on large floras, the 
small number of botanists to do the world’s vast botanical work, 
and the inadaptability of many plants to experimental investiga¬ 


tion, then Fernald’s life work in the honorable “Old Systematics 


y) 


will be seen to have a value that the passage of time will not soon 
efface. In view of the application of experimental methods in an 
increasing number of groups, it becomes more and more apparent 
that the time during which one man can come to have a critical 
knowledge of most of the flora of a region as large as that of 
Gray’s Manual has passed. So his book will be a lasting land¬ 
mark in the botanical history of our region. It is a source of 
deep satisfaction to his devoted botanical following that he lived 

to see it in print. 

As I have said elsewhere, “the new Manual is a highly satis¬ 
factory and noble achievement, the culmination of a lifetime 
devoted to the reinterpretation of our flora, as largely on the 
basis of zealous personal field work as half a century would 

permit.” 


University of Michigan 
Ann Arbor