History of Botany and the Department of Plant Biology at Cornell

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The Department of Plant Biology has a long and distinguished history characterized by faculty and graduates who have made major contributions to science, higher education, and public policy over the past 150 years. Notable faculty members and graduates include, among others:

150 Years of Botany at Cornell book cover
  • Liberty Hyde Bailey (1858-1954), who made seminal contributions to the environmental movement in biology, established a model interface between basic and applied sciences that would characterize Cornell for generations and lead to breakthroughs in genetics on a monumental scale during the twentieth century.  For more information: Landmarks and Milestones in American Plant Biology: The Cornell Connection.
  • William R. Dudley (1849-1911) who obtained a B.S. and M.S. from Cornell, was an assistant professor at Cornell from 1877 until 1891.  He taught classes in botany, horticulture and mycology.  Dudley published “The Cayuga Flora” in 1886, and became professor of Botany at Stanford in 1892.

  • Karl McKay Wiegand (1873-1943) received both his B.S. and Ph.D. from Cornell. He was known as a taxonomist and for his encyclopedic memory of the plants of the Cayuga Flora. Wiegand served as chair of botany for 28 years and as president of the Botanical Society of America in 1939.

  • Walter Conrad Muenscher (1891-1963) received a Ph.D. from Cornell in 1921. He collected and identified thousands of herbaceous, woody, and aquatic plants.  He is probably best known as a weed scientist, although he also wrote important books about aquatic plants, poisonous plants, and weeds.
  • Barbara McClintock (1902-1992) received three degrees from Cornell: a B.S. in 1923, a M.S. in 1925, and a Ph.D. in 1927, the second two degrees in Botany. She was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Nobel Laureate. McClintock is best known for her research with transposable elements in Zea mays.
  • George Wells Beadle earned his Ph.D. in 1930, was a Nobel Laureate, and became President of the University of Chicago.
  • Harlan Parker Banks (1913-1998) obtained his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1940. Banks was known for his teaching skills and his seminal studies of the Devonian flora.  Banks served as president of the Botanical Society of America (1979) and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Botany at Cornell


Cornell University is founded.


Cornell University opens.
Original Department of Botany is founded (1868-1922).
Albert N. Prentiss, becomes head of the Department of Botany (1868-1896).


Original Department of Botany Herbarium is established, based on collections of Horace Mann, Jr.
George F. Atkinson, is head of the Department of Botany (1896-1918).


Cornell University College of Arts & Sciences (CAS) is established, and the Department of Botany, including its herbarium, is housed in CAS.
New York State Legislature establishes the New York State College of Agriculture at Cornell (NYSCA).
Liberty Hyde Bailey becomes the first Dean of NYSCA (1903-1913).


L. H. Bailey establishes the Department of Plant Breeding at NYSCA.
L. H. Bailey establishes the Department of Plant Physiology at NYSCA (1907-1912).


L. H. Bailey establishes the new Department of Botany at NYSCA (1913-1964).
Karl M. Wiegand, becomes head of the new Department of Botany (1913-1941).
Department of Plant Physiology is fused with the recently founded Department of Botany.
Willard W. Rowlee, becomes head of the Department of Botany (1918-1922).


The original Department of Botany (in the College of Arts & Sciences) is closed.
The College of Arts & Sciences Herbarium is joined with NYSCA Department of Botany Herbarium to form CU Herbarium.


L.H. Bailey Hortorium Herbarium (BH) is established as an independent unit of NYSCA.


Department of Botany (CU) herbarium is renamed Wiegand Herbarium.


Division of Biological Sciences (DBS) is established within NYSCA (1964-1999).


Section of Genetics, Development, and Physiology (GDP) is established within DBS from parts of the Departments of Botany, Zoology and Plant Breeding (1965-1977).
The Wiegand Herbarium becomes and independent unit within NYSCA, with R.T. Clausen as Curator (1965-1977).
The Laboratory of Cell Physiology, Growth, & Development becomes an independent unit within NYSCA, with F.C. Steward as Head (1965-1973).


NYSCA renamed College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell (CALS).


GDP is renamed to Section of Botany, Genetics, & Development (BGD) (1977-1980).
The Bailey Hortorium Herbarium (BH) and Wiegand Herbarium (CU) merge, staying as an independent unit within CALS-DBS (1977-1999).


The Section of Botany, Genetics, & Development (BGD) is divided into a Section of Plant Biology and a Section of Genetics and Development (1980-1999).


Dr. McFerren '95 delivering centennial lecture,
June 28, 2013

The Division of Biological Sciences and all its sections dissolve and re-organize into several departments.
The current Department of Plant Biology is established by joining the former Section of Plant Biology with the L.H. Bailey Hortorium, with W.L. Crepet as Chair.


The Genomics Initiative hires new faculty, establishes proteomics, and builds Weill Hall (2008).


Plant Biology celebrates its centennial in June 2013 with a weekend of talks, tours, and social gatherings.


Plant Biology joins the newly created School of Integrative Plant Science along with Soil and Crop Sciences, Horticulture, Plant Breeding and Genetics, and Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology.

For more details, see the following references:

Cobb, E.D., 150 Years of Botany at Cornell: A history of botany and plant biology.  Department of Plant Biology, Ithaca, NY.  2013.

Kass, L. B. and Cobb, E. Landmarks and Milestones in American Plant Biology: The Cornell Connection. Plant Science Bulletin. 53(3): 90-101.