(1858-1934) American Botanist
Considered in her day one of the leading experts in her field of bryology (the study of mosses) in the United States, Elizabeth Britton wrote more than 300 papers about ferns, mosses, flowering plants, and wildflower preservation. She became a specialist in bryology, taught botany in an unofficial capacity at Columbia College, and capped her career by playing a central role in the founding of the New York Botanical Garden and the Wild Flower Preservation Society of America.
Born on January 9, 1858, in New York City, Elizabeth Knight was the daughter of James Knight, a wealthy manufacturer and plantation owner, and Sophie Ann Comp-ton Knight, a homemaker. Because her father’s family had considerable business interests in Cuba, Knight lived on that Caribbean island until she was 11. Her first botanical interests were developed in Cuba where she studied the island’s animals and tropical plants. Knight was sent back to New York for her secondary education in 1869. She attended a private school in Manhattan. In 1885, at age 27, she married Nathaniel Lord Britton, a professor of geology at Columbia College. She had no children.
After her graduation from secondary school, Knight attended New York’s Normal College, an institution whose students were primarily women and that trained elementary and secondary school teachers. When she graduated from Normal College in 1875 at age 17, she was immediately given a position there as a teacher; she was the Normal School’s botany teacher from 1883 to 1885.
Even as she worked as a teacher at Normal College, the study of botany consumed all of Knight’s spare time in the late 1870s. In a summer field trip to Newfoundland in 1879, Knight found a rare grass fern, Schizaea pusilla pursh., growing on a lake shore. This discovery was important within the world of North American botany because it confirmed a finding of the same grass made 60 years previously. News of Knight’s work was published by none other than America’s leading botanist, Asa Gray. As a result of this and other fieldwork, Knight was elected to the Torrey Botanical Club of New York City in 1879, a group of professional and amateur botanists who maintained their own herbarium and met regularly to exchange information. It was through the Torrey Botanical Club that Knight met Nathaniel Britton, whom she married in 1885.
From the 1880s through the 1920s, Elizabeth Britton devoted a considerable part of her professional life to the collection and study of mosses. She worked hard to revise moss genera so that classification of these fit into new findings that came to her through others and through her own research. She also sorted through the collection of ferns and mosses gathered by Henry Hurd Rusby a botanist who had been employed by the Parke Davis drug company to gather herbal plants in South America. To complete this work, she and her husband traveled to London in 1888 to consult the holdings of the Linnaean Society. There, because she was a woman, she was banned from working on the main floor; instead she completed her studies upstairs.
In 1885, Britton became unofficial curator of the Columbia College herbarium. By the 1890s, she unofficially supervised doctoral students at Columbia who were working in her field of mosses and ferns. She never received pay or an official appointment for these efforts. In 1891, after a trip to the British Botanic Gardens at Kew, Britton spearheaded a committee that succeeded in establishing the New York Botanical Gardens (NYBG). She worked as director of the NYBG’s gardens for 33 years. In 1902, Britton organized the founding of the Wild Flower Preservation Society of America. She became secretary-treasurer of that organization.
In recognition of her intensive and varied work in the field of botany, Britton became one of 25 founding members of the Botanical Society of America in 1893. She was given the high honor of being appointed to an international committee to determine moss nomenclature by the Botanical Congress in 1905. In 1906, her name was included with a star in the first edition of American Men of Science. The “starred” scientists were those whom the editors considered the top 1,000 scientists in the United States. Elizabeth Britton died of a stroke at age 76 on February 25, 1934, in New York City.