Penn State History Lessons: The Pennsylvania Agricultural College Herbarium
At a school as large as Penn State, research opportunities are endless — the Pennsylvania Agricultural College’s Herbarium goes the extra mile to promote botanical knowledge and growth both on campus and off. But what most people don’t know is the Herbarium’s history stretches back almost as far as the university itself.
The herbarium is a hub for general ecological research and plant identification studies — those who wish to identify a spreading plant in their yard, for example, can take a trip to herbarium to have the sample examined. The herbarium also currently serves as an exhibit of over 100,000 botanical specimens — however, it took years of work to collect materials and build the museum.
Penn State’s first president Evan Pugh initially began the movement for the herbarium in 1859 when he chose to donate over 3,000 specimens to the exhibit. According the herbarium’s official page, Penn State’s Department of Botany hired William Buckhout to take over after Pugh passed away suddenly in 1864. Though Buckhout had only been a student relatively recently, he succeeded in further developing the herbarium, directing research, even teaching at Penn State himself until he passed away in 1911.
PAC appointed various curators over the years to aid in the development and outreach efforts of the exhibit. The curators served as experts in the field of botany and focused primarily on adding to the collection, studying plant data, and conducting research both on campus and in remote locations.
Throughout the years, however, the future of the Herbarium grew to become uncertain. After Curator Carl Keener’s official position ended in 1997, Penn State’s botany program and plant research slowly began to decline. An effort rose to move the collection off campus, but this was met with another movement aimed at keeping the exhibit on campus so it could remain easily accessible to anyone in the Penn State community. Director Claude dePamphilis led the effort in 2005, and many faculty members and students joined in — the movement was successful, and the herbarium was able to remain a part of student life right on campus.
Once the university decided to keep the herbarium in a central location, university officials decided to increase storage capacity and improve the structure of the space. In 2007, emeritus professor Alfred Traverse volunteered to take the curator position — he ended up donating over 6,000 specimens to the collection. Various herbaria from other locations around the country also contributed to the collection over time. The collection eventually grew to over 107,000 — the third largest collection of its kind in Pennsylvania. Though the herbarium relies almost solely on volunteer efforts, the lack of funding doesn’t hinder the exhibit’s potential for even further growth.
With a variety of passionate faculty on board, the herbarium will continue its historic legacy and the members of the team hope to further expand research and accessibility of the exhibit.