Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/July 1887/The Task of American Botanists

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IN discussing the question, What sort of botanical investigation is needed in this country? one might consider two things: First, what are the special problems which from their nature can be studied better in this country than elsewhere; and, secondly, what kind of investigation is best adapted to the present state of our botanical establishments and the capacities of the botanists of this country? In the former case, we are simply to endeavor to contribute something new to the stock of the world's knowledge. In the latter case we shall attempt also to raise the standard of work in this country to that of countries in which botany has reached its highest development. Of these two considerations, the second is, perhaps, the more urgent, because, granting that there are botanical problems which could be solved more easily by botanists living in this country than by Europeans, they will remain unsolved unless our botanists have the time, the means, and the preliminary training for the work. Let me mention a case in point. For many years, botanists wished to know the development of Azolla, a genus not found in Europe, but represented in this country by a species common in several districts comparatively near some of the centers of botanical instruction. Naturally, we should have looked to our own botanists for the study of this interesting subject; and it is not flattering to our national pride that the development of our own species of Azolla was first made out, not by an American, but by a Swede working at a disadvantage. Other instances might be given in which questions that ought to have been settled by Americans were solved by foreigners. If we are behind some other nations in the quantity and quality of our botanical investigations, what is the reason? Possibly it is not the fault of our botanists, but rather the peculiarity of the conditions under which they are placed; and it would be well, before going further, to consider some of the difficulties which are in the way of those who would like to pursue botanical investigations, for, if some of them are inevitable in the present stage of our scientific development, it may be that others are of our own creation and might be removed.

If, then, we are not doing as much in the way of investigation as other nations, it must be either through lack of inclination, lack of time, lack of means, or lack of the requisite training. I am not inclined to believe that a lack of inclination is responsible for much of the trouble. We have our full share of persons who prefer an inactive self-culture to active work in any special direction, but we also have a sufficiently large body of energetic botanists who would gladly I think, be regarded as the main obstacle in the way of research. It is true, to be sure, that it has been a serious obstacle in many cases, but it need not be hereafter. If we have not so many well-equipped laboratories of research, so many large libraries and collections as are to be found in European countries, we do have a number of botanical and biological establishments where a student can acquire the training necessary to prepare him for good, original work in botany. However desirable it may be, it certainly is no longer necessary that a young man should go to France or Germany in order to prepare himself for independent work. The great advantage to be obtained from a course of study abroad is the stimulus derived from association with those w? ho devote most of their time to research, as is common in Germany; but, so far as acquiring merely the technical details necessary to one who would carry on independent work or the general knowledge of vegetable morphology, physiology, and histology, which must precede special work in every case, there certainly are laboratories in this country which are quite sufficient for the purpose. Whether a student who can afford to study abroad had not better do so in preference to remaining at home is, of course, another question, and has nothing to do with the fact that one can get a good preparation for work here. If one wishes to pursue botanical investigation, it is his own fault if he does not fit himself for the work by thorough training, unless, indeed, he is too poor; and neither in this country nor any other is it ever going to be possible for one without some pecuniary resources to obtain a training in any branch of science unless he happens to be a person of extraordinary ability.

The two most serious obstacles in the way of research in this country are the want of time and means among those who are mentally well equipped for the work, and who would gladly pursue special investigations were it possible. The lack of time and lack of means are closely related, and, in this country, are unfortunately often found together. If a botanist were only wealthy, he could, of course, find time for research. But, when I speak of lack of means, I refer not to an absence of individual wealth—for we all know that our active botanists have been, and probably always will be, of a class in society only comfortably well off, at the best—but rather to the lack of laboratory equipment, suitable assistants, means of publication, etc. It is an unfortunate fact, too, that those who have the most time at their disposal are usually those away from laboratories and libraries, while those who, like the instructors in the richer colleges, have access to good laboratories and libraries, have to spend most of their time in teaching. Of the two, lack of time and lack of means, I am inclined to believe that the former is the more of an obstacle in the way of research, since it is possible for an energetic, well-trained botanist to do a good deal even with comparatively poor means; but a well-equipped laboratory, and extensive collections and libraries, are of no avail to him who has not the time to use them. The best work ought to be expected of professional botanists—that is, those attached to the schools and colleges as professors and instructors, rather than from private individuals giving some of their time to botany, because the professors are supposed to be selected for their special knowledge of and interest in botany, and to have better means for work than any, except wealthy private individuals. But if the professors do not accomplish as much as is expected in the way of investigation, their principal excuse—and it is a good one—is that they have no time. But the day is as long in America as it is in Germany, it will be said, and the American professor ought to find time for original work. Unfortunately, most if not all his time is spent in class-work; and his laboratory, his books, his collections, are largely used in elementary instruction of beginners in botany. For this abuse of time and material the public are in part to blame, but, to a considerable extent, the botanists themselves are responsible for the present state of things. In the good old days, the few botanical professors in this country were looked upon as an amiable, harmless set of men who were allowed to give a few lectures every year, and beyond that they were left severely alone. They had an amount of leisure for undisturbed work unknown to the modern professor, and there can be no doubt that their work in investigating our flora did far more for botany in this country than any amount of class-work which they might have done.

But now it is all changed. From being neglected, botany has become a popular study; and it is not enough that a professor should give a course of lectures, but he must have laboratory classes and be prepared to demonstrate the very latest European experiments. If the public now expect far more in the way of personal instruction from botanical professors than they used to, it is largely owing to the fact that botanists themselves have for years been urging the importance of botany as a help in education, and, until recently, have neglected to lay sufficient stress on the value of original work. The educational value of botany is pretty well recognized by the public, and, judging by the last few years, they are rather liberal in providing the means for class-instruction. When it comes to providing the means of research, the question is different; and the trouble is not so much that the public do not really appreciate a good piece of botanical work when their attention is called to it, as that they, as yet, have not the least idea of the amount of time and money required to prosecute research successfully. The unscientific public have an idea that research is a thing of inspiration, or perhaps a sort of recreation to be indulged in after class-work is over, and no conception of the months, and even years, of drudgery required before anything of value is really in print. Not infrequently they regard the ordinary student in a botanical course as a co-worker with the professor. It has often happened that enthusiastic persons have said to me, "How delightful it must be to have a class of students aiding you in your researches!" Alas! why could they not see that they were hindrances, not aids?

Furthermore, for some most unaccountable reason, the public have the impression that research pays for itself, and therefore does not require endowment. Probably a good many of my hearers have heard the remark, "I suppose you must make considerable out of your scientific papers." Unfortunately, with the exception of text-books of a lower grade, one is only too glad not to be money out of pocket. I fear that you can all bear witness that, with rare exceptions, your published papers have never paid for themselves. It is only after the results of research have reached a homœopathic dilution in some text-book or popular article that they begin to pay. Of such dilutions we already have an abundance, and the more important point is to get something new which will bear dilution. Unfortunately, the public do not clearly see the difference between the original work and the dilution. The former does not pay, and needs encouragement; the latter is a commercial article having a recognized money-value.

A part of the confusion with regard to the paying-value of research in natural history is probably due to the fact that the public see that certain discoveries in physics and chemistry are pecuniarily profitable. But in natural history there are no truths which can be patented. Biological discoveries become the property of the world if the discoverer is fortunate enough to have his work published.

A great gain will have been made if the public can be persuaded that professors in colleges ought to be allowed time for, and be expected to do, original work; and we should assure them that such work is of real value to the world. If the professors are to have time, it can only be by giving them a number of assistants who will relieve them of all the details of laboratory instruction, and possibly the elementary lectures. More advanced work could probably be secured by having one professor with a number of assistants than by two professors without any assistants, provided they both have to give laboratory instruction, as is probable. In a paper which I read to the society at its last meeting, I stated incidentally that one assistant was not enough for a class of thirty or forty men. I did not dwell on the subject at the time, as it was only indirectly related to the question then discussed; but since then a number of persons have expressed their regrets that I had not put the case more strongly, for they regarded an increase in the number of assistants as essential to good instruction and work. It is desirable that there should be an assistant for every twelve students in a laboratory, and it is necessary that there should be one for every twenty men if the work is to be well done. If there are forty students and one assistant, then the professor himself must act as an assistant to twenty of the men, and that means cutting short the time for other work. In Germany they manage the thing better. The ordinary laboratory work is in the hands of assistants, and the professor, besides his lectures, gives his time to advanced students and original work. The question is, Can our colleges pay for more assistants? They have hard enough work to pay the professors, as a rule, but if the public could be made to see the real need of assistants, and recognize the fact that a professor's salary is not large enough for him to pay for assistance out of his own pocket, perhaps, sooner or later, the money might be provided. As far as the professors and instructors in schools and colleges are concerned, they are not so well able to do original work as formerly, owing to the more laborious methods of modern instruction; but it may be that we are in a stage of transition, and that before long the possibility of overdoing instruction to the detriment of research may be felt by those in charge of institutions of learning.

It may be suggested as a possible solution of the difficulty that there should be some professors for teaching and others for research. That is all very well, if you are not going to give ail the money to the one who does the teaching. There is a tendency to regard any salary, no matter how small, as large enough for one who is engaged in research, and the reason usually assigned is absurd, viz., that investigators prefer investigation to any other work. It seems preposterous that the fact that a man's heart is in his work should be made a pretext for paying him less for his work! There are those who prefer teaching to research, and are they paid any the less because they like their teaching? Of the two, the instructor and the investigator, the latter has the more frequent professional calls on his purse even in well-equipped colleges, and statistics are wanting to show that investigators have smaller families to provide for than teachers.

Having considered some of the difficulties in the way of research, we can return to the original question. What sort of botanical investigation is needed in this country? Whatever may be the case in physics and chemistry, it is a fact that the study of natural history in any country passes through stages of development much the same everywhere. In a new country the first work must be almost entirely descriptive and classificatory; and, when this work has reached a sufficiently advanced stage, histology, physiology, and study of life-histories assume more and more importance. In most European countries the first stage has been long past, except as far as some of the lowest forms of plants are concerned, and the greater part of the best work of France and Germany at the present day relates to physiological and developmental subjects. Where do we stand? The question is important, because there is not infrequently a tendency to assume that work in this country is of value only in so far as it is on the same plane and of the same kind as work in Europe. We must be contented to wait a little while, and we do harm rather than good if we teach that there is no work worth doing except that done in the laboratories of Germany. It often seems as if we were producing a set of precious little prigs, when one sees young men turning up their noses at all those who do any work not involving the most complicated microscopical manipulations. It is well to have our standard high, but it should not be unattainable. We may well set before our young men such models as De Bary, Sachs, Strasburger, and others; but it is just possible that a young man who is determined to be a De Bary, a Sachs, a Strasburger, or nothing, may have to adopt the latter alternative. The trouble is, too many young men assume that the work which they are destined to do is of the highest grade, and they expect to be provided with all the refined apparatus and complete equipment which the leaders of botany abroad possess. They will not begin the simplest thing without an array of reagents which would be the envy of a good many chemists, and the number of staining-fluids which they must have around them would make the rainbow blush at its own poverty. One young man thinks he can't do any work because he has not a Jung microtome. Another has been unable to do anything during a vacation at the sea-shore because he had no osmic acid. To such persons one is inclined to say that he would be thankful if they would do anything.

As far as the kind of investigation needed in botany is concerned, we stand where Germany formerly stood, not where she now stands. It is of no use to say that descriptive systematic work is not highly rated in Germany. Our country is so large, and some parts of it are so little explored, that descriptive work has by no means reached its limit. The only question is, how to have it well done; and this brings us to a consideration of the comparative advantages of systematic work and histological and developmental work for different classes of workers. One weak point in our botanical work has been that too many persons have attempted to write on descriptive subjects. Strange as it may seem to some ears, it appears to me that histological and developmental work is what is best adapted for non-professional botanists, including those who do not devote their whole time to the subject, and who as a rule have not sufficiently complete libraries and herbaria to enable them to do descriptive work well. This does not apply, of course, to the older generation of botanists, few of whom have had the training necessary for histological work, but it does apply to the younger generation. Inasmuch as the larger libraries and collections are in the colleges and larger cities, descriptive work, if it is not to be shabbily done, must be done by persons connected with colleges, or by those who are so situated that they can easily visit herbaria and libraries. Furthermore, descriptive work should be in the hands of a comparatively few experts, for long experience is necessary to a good result; whereas the questions in histology, physiology, and development are very numerous, some of them of small range, and could be done well by careful, conscientious workers, without a long experience and without extensive libraries. As far as equipment is concerned, there are, of course, subjects in physiology which require the elaborate apparatus found only in large botanical establishments, but there are others which do not. The botanist who declares that he can not do physiological work because he has not a large amount of apparatus, would do well to recall the case of a Mr. Charles Darwin, who published something on the power of movement in plants.

If the formal publication of descriptions of new species had better be left to a few experts, the collection of material must be accomplished mainly by those who are not connected with colleges, and who are not in a position to profit by large libraries and herbaria, and we have to consider one very perplexing question, viz., How can collectors receive a suitable recognition of their work? The sneering remark, "He is only a collector," is in many cases grossly unjust. In a large part of our country, the work must for some time to come consist in the discovery of the plants not before known, or not well known, and in such regions the work of the collector is just what is wanted. The man who with a keen eye goes into the field and collects, making discriminating notes on the habits and relationships of plants, is doing a very valuable service for science, and is as truly a botanist, in the best sense of the word, as he who, differently situated, writes descriptive monographs or pursues histological or physiological work. The temptation is for a person who, from his surroundings, ought to be a collector, to suppose that he should go further and attempt to describe the species he has found—a task which, as I have already said, can not well be performed away from large libraries and collections. For one, I honor those active and intelligent men and women who, isolated from the botanical centers, bring together the material of which, in the future, books and monographs are to be made. It is not enough to call them merely collectors. They are botanists in full standing.

If I have said that descriptive botany can be studied best by persons attached to the colleges and the comparatively few experts who have access to large collections and libraries, I by no means think that botanical research in colleges should be limited to this field. The one department in which we are already entitled to hold up our heads and say, "We are as good as anybody," is systematic phænogamic botany. In every other department we are behind hand, and must hurry if we would catch up with our more advanced transatlantic brothers. If I have spent some time in defending the claims of systematic botany, it was because the rising generation have developed an unwarranted contempt for such work. The claims of vegetable physiology on our young men are very great; and when we consider that, as a nation, we are noted for our inventive powers and fondness for studies having a practical bearing, it seems a little strange that vegetable physiology has not had a larger number of followers with us. Possibly the attractions of physics and chemistry have drawn away some who might have done good work in physiology. I fear that in this department, as in some others, there is a tendency to delay beginning until a first-class equipment has been provided, unmindful of the fact that good work has been done by some who had few costly instruments. Evidently, in the future, physiology is to play a more and more important part in botany, and, as the subject is one which has attractions for the public, they could probably be induced to provide the necessary instruments. It is to be hoped, however, that, in asking for a proper outfit, liberally disposed persons will be given to understand that it is to be used for work and not for ordinary class instruction. Certainly, if the colleges are to keep pace with the times, they must pay more attention to physiology than they now do. It is too much to expect that many of them should be able to support laboratories for physiological research, but we ought to have at least half a dozen such laboratories in the country. We shall probably have to do as they do abroad, where some universities pay particular attention to physiology, while others devote their main strength to other departments of botany.

If we should look to college professors and a few experts for what we still have to be done in systematic botany, and to those connected with the more important laboratories for physiological work of the higher grade, histology and the study of life-histories are subjects of vast extent, and, in most of their phases, can be studied successfully by private individuals as well as by professionals. Especially in the matter of life-histories, persons living in the country, or on the sea-shore, are often more favorably situated than those obliged to reside at the large colleges for the greater part of the year. Since for some years to come the opportunities for research on the part of college instructors must be limited by the excessive and unreasonable amount of ordinary class instruction imposed on them, we must look to non-professionals, to a large extent, to accomplish the work of research necessary to raise us to the level of foreign investigators in the departments just named. The proper direction and utilization of the work of amateurs is of especial importance in this country. The amateur abounds more with us than in any other country with the exception of England. "We have an immense variety, from the gay and gallant young man who is going to do something for science, but who now can barely pay his club expenses in winter and run a steam-yacht in summer, down to the impecunious ignoramus who informs you that he is going to write a book, to include all the fungi of this continent, and coolly asks you to give or lend him all your books and specimens, and tell him how to begin. We have the male bore, who kills our time by forcing us to help him kill his; and a copious supply of mild-eyed, sweet-tongued women, whom we can not scold, because they are conscientious, and whom we can not get rid of, because they really have no other amusement. But the botanist has a slight twinge of conscience when he thinks that the kinds of amateurs of which I have spoken are tolerated mainly in the hope, sweet but prolonged, that they may contribute funds to some botanical endowment. But, alas! the gold-mills of the amateurs grind slowly, and they grind exceeding small. The large sums seldom come from amateurs, but generally from hard-headed business men who do not pretend to be botanists, but who, with a liberality which does infinite credit to us as a nation, give their money for the public good. It is superfluous for botanists to express their admiration of this class of liberal men. We more than admire them—we live on them!

But, fortunately for botany in this country, we have many amateurs of another class. We have many men and women, rich in intelligence, but usually not rich in money. They are scattered all over the country. They are to be found on the coast of New England, in the smaller towns of the West and South, and in the still more recently settled coast of the Pacific. The time which they can spare from their necessary and not unfrequently arduous occupations is given with enthusiasm to botanical pursuits. The spare money which they can command is spent on botanical books which they read, Their collections do not lie idle on the shelves. It is such amateurs as these of which we may justly be proud, and it is by their labors that a large, if not the largest, share of our botanical investigations must be made in the near future, and it is of the greatest importance that their energy and enthusiasm should not be misdirected. In the remoter districts, as I have said, the absorbing work, for some time to come, must be the collecting of specimens and the accumulation of field-notes. In the older parts of the country, including even the Mississippi Valley, it seems to me that the rising generation would make the best use of their opportunities by working out some of the many important questions of histology, and in studying the life-histories of different plants, more especially cryptogams. But the main point is, not to attempt to do too much. The thorough investigation of a small point has a definite value, and does credit to the investigator, but elaborate monographs and far-reaching physiological investigations are only of value when well done, and it is mild praise to say of a man that he has done his work "pretty well, considering," for the really wise man would have considered what he could do well as distinguished from what he could not do well.

But you will probably think that this paper is not like a ball of twine, which, however much it may be twisted and snarled, really has an end. There is much more which I should like to say on the subject; as it is, I have tried to avoid particular specifications as to the subjects of research, which would be interesting only to botanists, but to state broadly some of the difficulties in the way of botanical research, and to indicate the path which promises to be most favorable in the future. If my life proves to be as long as your patience, there will be plenty of opportunities hereafter to consider some points which I have been unable to touch upon to-day.


  1. Read before the American Society of Naturalists, Philadelphia, December 29, 1886.