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BotanyPhoto front 1904 BriscoeArchives
Front and back of 1904 photo by HB Buck. (From Dolph Briscoe Center for American History).
BotanyPhoto 1904 backside BriscoeArchives
"Department of Botany U of T, Cooperia drummondii, Rain 'lilly', Campus U of T, April 20, '04. From HB Buck, 400 W. 38th St. Austin, TX."


UT opened its doors in 1883, and not too long after, the School of Biology came into existence in 1891. Actually, the first biology course ever given at UT was systematic botany. The five students enrolled in this class made occasional field trips outside of Austin to collect 50 plants for analyzing. One can imagine that anything “outside” of Austin in the late 19th century was not a very challenging stroll.

Eight years later, the school split into the School of Botany and School of Animal Biology. There was an emphasis on the greater development of botany around this time. In 1920, both of these schools became departments, with the School of Botany’s name being changed to the Department of Botany and Bacteriology. In 1949, these two focuses separated into different units which created the Department of Botany.

It would be well after the College of Natural Sciences was established in the 1970s that the distinction between Zoology and Botany seemed irrelevant to the powers that were. So, the School of Biological Sciences came into being in 1998. This had four sections: Integrative Biology (IB); Molecular Genetics and Microbiology (MGM); Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology (MCB); and Neurobiology (NB).

In 2013, the goal became to create a more traditional department, and the School of Biological Sciences became what is currently the Department of Integrative Biology, which is the most direct descendant of the original department of Botany.

All of these shifts were not without conflict as well as benefits, as we will explore in this history series.


A crucial part of the UT botany history is the plant collection, now known as the Billie L. Turner Plant Resources Center. This collection contains over 1,000,000 total specimens and is among the largest herbaria in the southwestern United States. The facility ranks 13th in size across the nation. About a quarter of the specimens were collected in Texas, the largest holdings of Texas plants in the world.

But all collections must start from nothing. In 1890, the UT plant collection went from zero to 500 plants collected by a geology professor, Frederick W. Simonds. George Yatskievych, Curator in in the Billie L. Turner Plant Resources Center, offers this: “UT hired Simonds to establish the chemistry, biology, and geology programs. He collected plants for his research, which involved looking for plants as indicators of the presence of particular minerals in the soil. That was the genesis of the herbarium.”

Adjunct Professor William L. Bray would shortly thereafter add another 500 specimens, but this wasn’t a time of significant growth.

Real expansion would not happen until Mary Sophie Young became the official curator in 1912. Many details about her fascinating life and contributions can be found in this article here.

Others would follow Young’s role of increasing the collection's holdings and importance. Future postings will delve into these curators and directors, but a good start for the overall history of the plant collection can be found here.


The 1949 establishment of the “Department of Botany” ignited a significant period of growth. W. Gordon Whaley served as the first Chairman and held this position until 1962. Billie Turner, who also held the title of Chairman and later became Director of the herbaria, had this to say about Whaley: “He was charged with the responsibility of developing a Botany Department of the first class. This he did.”

1965 photo of Department of Botany faculty.

When Whaley retired in 1962, he had added nine new tenured faculty members, many of whom had international reputations in their field. “Most of these [faculty] were lured to the Department by the ‘critical mass’ of acclaimed botanists being assembled there,” wrote Turner in a 1999 newsletter.

Many in the department at the time considered this a “Golden Age” that would last until the early 1990s. Not only was the department attracting top notch faculty, but the number of plant botany graduate students was over thirty. In a 2016 interview, Beryl Simpson, Director Emeritus of the of the Billie L. Turner Plant Resources Center, explained that a sense of congeniality existed at this time. Grad students put on Christmas shows that would later become Christmas parties. There was a “botany tea” held before seminars where wives of what was a largely male faculty brought baked goods. These talks were almost always fully attended. In fact, the Department of Botany was ranked number one until, as fate would have it, it would undergo yet another structural shift.