So dashing, so handsome, so…well, not exactly beaming with mirthful enthusiasm, was he? His partner, meanwhile, was simply too busy for this camera nonsense.
Nathaniel Lord Britton may not have been the smiliest gentleman to sit for a photo op (I’m pretty sure the thousand-yard stare was a requisite back then), but his stern looks belied a boundless joy for botany—an enthusiasm matched only by that of his bryologist wife, Elizabeth Britton (studious to the nth degree), which would ultimately lay the groundwork for The New York Botanical Garden.
The erudite duo met as members of the famed Torrey Botanical Club (now Society) in the 1880s, but it wasn’t until after visiting Britain’s Kew Gardens on their honeymoon that Elizabeth made her pitch to the Club here in the U.S.: New York deserved its own botanical garden, and the Brittons were more than willing to take the reins. By 1895, only seven years after Elizabeth’s proposal, Nathaniel had left his position with Columbia University to take on the newly-established NYBG in the Bronx as its full-time Director—a title he would hold until 1929.
Over the course of almost 50 years, the pair’s lasting relationship produced some of the finest botanical work this country has ever seen, covering the publication of numerous landmark texts, the promotion of new botanical nomenclatures, and—of course—the establishment of North America’s foremost botanical garden.
It’s said that Elizabeth’s death in 1934, being such a blow to Nathaniel, contributed to his own death only four months later. I suppose “the couple that gardens together, stays together” is almost an apt aphorism in this case.
Special thanks goes out to the tack-sharp Mia D’Avanza, our Reference Librarian, for coming up with these images via the Mertz Archives. The top left image is, in fact, Nathaniel as a toddler, wearing a unisex dress of the period. —MN
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