Elizabeth Britton was an eminent bryologist known as the “Mother of American Bryology” and was the founder of The Wild Flower Preservation Society.
Elizabeth Gertrude Knight Britton was a bryologist and educator, and one of the founding leaders of The New York Botanical Garden. Born Elizabeth Gertrude Knight in New York City on January 9, 1857, she was the first of five daughters of James and Sophie Anne (Compton) Knight. She spent part of her early childhood on her grandfather's sugar plantation in Matanzas, Cuba. Elizabeth Knight graduated from the Normal School (now Hunter College) in 1875 and taught there as a critic teacher (1875-82) and Tutor in Natural Science (1882-85). She married Nathaniel Lord Britton on August 27, 1885. Their parallel botanical careers lasted until their deaths within months of each other in 1934. Both are intrinsically associated with the creation of The New York Botanical Garden, and Elizabeth Britton became one of the foremost authorities in bryology of her time.
Elizabeth Knight joined the Torrey Botanical Club (1879), published her first paper in the club's bulletin (1883), and served as Curator of Mosses (1884-85) and editor (1886-88). She and her Torrey Club associates, such as John Strong Newberry and Nathaniel Lord Britton, were leaders in botanical science during the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. In 1893 she was the only woman nominated to be one of 25 charter members of the Botanical Society of America. She joined Columbia College as an unofficial curator of its moss herbarium, where she was instrumental in acquiring the collection of the Swiss bryologist August Jaeger. Though she lacked an advanced degree, she oversaw the work of doctoral students at Columbia, including Abel Joel Grout, who became a leading North American bryologist in the 20th century.
Mrs. Britton began her botanical career with the discovery of the fruit of the moss Eustichium norvegicum
and the presence of a rare curly grass fern, Schizaea pusilla, in Nova Scotia in 1879. She was a
fervent fieldworker and made extensive collections in the Adirondack and
Appalachian Mountains, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Jamaica. In 1888 the Brittons
sailed to England to examine the Bolivian collection of Henry Hurd Rusby at the
Kew Botanic Garden. This visit has become legendary as Mrs. Britton's
inspiration to create a similar institution in New York. On their return to New
York they became involved with the Torrey Botanical Club to establish a botanic
garden in New York City, and Mrs. Britton became a prime mover in the
fundraising efforts in the 1890's that led to its creation. In 1912 she became
Honorary Curator of Mosses for The New York Botanical Garden, an unpaid
position, providing annual reports from 1914 to 1929. In 1906 the Garden
purchased the William Mitten moss herbarium and she spent years on its
reorganization and integration into the Garden's collection.
Mrs. Britton wrote 346 papers, 170 of which were on mosses, with many more on ferns and wildflower preservation. In 1889 she began a series of 11 papers titled "Contributions to American Bryology" that described the genera Orthotricum, Ulota, Physomitrium, Bruchia, and Scouleria. Soon afterwards she wrote a series of eight articles, "How to Study the Mosses," for a popular botanic periodical, The Observer. In 1892 she published a list of the mosses of West Virginia and from 1903 to 1914 a series of 12 papers on moss taxonomy in The Bryologist. While her research of the 1890's led toward a systematic study of the mosses of the eastern United States, a proposed Handbook of Mosses of Eastern America, she abandoned this project in favor of shorter papers. She also contributed papers on moss systematics to the project known as the North American Flora.
Early in the history of the Garden she launched a public effort to raise people's consciousness about wildflower preservation. In 1902 she helped organize The Wild Flower Preservation Society of America and published a series of articles on the subject in the Journal of The New York Botanical Garden (1912-29). In recent years Elizabeth Britton has become the focus of several studies on women in the sciences in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Among her many distinctions, Mrs. Britton served as president of the Sullivant Moss Society (1916-19) and chaired the Conservation Committee of the Federated Garden Clubs of New York (1925), but her stature as a brilliant, and female, scientist makes her unique. At a time when professional opportunities for women were rigidly delimited, Elizabeth Britton seems all the more outstanding through her leadership, influence, strong personality, and indomitable will. Her enthusiasm and dedication to botany have left a lasting mark on the Garden and its moss collections.