Charles Edwin Bessey

Bessey, Charles Edwin (1845-1915), an American botanist and administrator, developed world-class botanical programs in the United States. In addition to his own research, he focused on training the next generation of scientists. An impressive number of his nearly 4,000 students went on to become prominent botanists themselves.

Bessey's scientific and administrative contributions were diverse and exceptional. He was founder and director of two leading university botany programs. He also wrote two botany textbooks. He devised a classification system for flowering plants that has become, with minor revisions, a standard. He directed a tree-planting experiment that eventually led to the formation of the Nebraska National Forest, the first artificial national forest in the world. He helped establish the federal program to fund state agricultural experiment stations. He also used his influence to promote a number of far-sighted causes, including the preservation of wildflowers and legal protection of California's sequoia trees.


In 1841, Bessey's father, Adnah Bessey, a schoolteacher and farmer, married one of his pupils, Margaret Ellenberger. Four years later, Bessey was born in Wayne County, Ohio. In addition to home schooling, Bessey attended rural schools and an academy in Seville, Ohio. In 1866, he enrolled at Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) in East Lansing. Three years later, he received a B.S. in botany. In 1870, he left Michigan to become the first instructor of botany and horticulture at Iowa State College of Agriculture in Ames. For three years, Bessey's one-room apartment served as both his living area and a makeshift office. In 1871, Bessey began to incorporate laboratory work to his undergraduate botany course. The following year, he was promoted to professor.

Starting in 1871, Bessey took part in meetings between Iowa farmers and faculty members as part of the Farmers' Institutes. For three months in 1872 and 1873, he studied at Harvard College Botanical Garden with Asa Gray, a leading botanist of the day. While there, he learned the role that morphology and cell structure play in the classification of plants. In 1875. Bessey was one of the founders of the Iowa Academy of Sciences and gave a series of lectures on botany at the University of California at Berkeley. He also returned to Harvard in 1875 to study mycology, the study of fungi, and plant physiology.

In addition to his teaching, Bessey published more than 150 papers and reviews. He wrote extensively on subjects such as plant diseases and fungi. He had an interest in native grasses and primitive plants. Two of his papers, “Evolution and Classification” (1893) and “Phylogenetic Taxonomy of Flowering Plants” (1915), were seminal works. At the request of a publisher and the urging of Gray, Bessey wrote the textbook Botany for High Schools and Colleges (1880), which introduced new areas of study. His second book, The Essentials of Botany (1884), was less technical and became the most widely used botany text in the United States. Bessey was also the botanical editor for two leading journals, American Naturalist (1880-1897) and Science (1897-1915).

In June 1884, Bessey left Iowa to accept a position as professor of botany and dean of the industrial college (which included the school of agriculture) at the University of Nebraska. When Bessey arrived, there was no program in botany, but he built a solid program that included laboratories with microscopes and field trips. While at Nebraska, he built a herbarium and a library housing botanical literature. Bessey served as dean of the industrial college from 1884 to 1888 and from 1895 to 1909. From 1888 to 1891, he held the dual post of acting chancellor and dean of the college of literature, science, and the artn. In 1899 and 1907, he again served as acting chancellor.