KU Botany History

Botany History

The study of botany at the University of Kansas is as old as the university itself. With the passage of the act that established the university in March, 1864, the state legislature authorized the regents “to expend such portions of the income of the University funds for the purchase of a cabinet of natural history.” The natural history collection itself was founded in 1866, when the university opened its doors. KU’s first professor of natural history and one of the first three faculty members was Francis Huntington Snow (1840–1908), who brought with him to Kansas a small collection of botanical specimens he made while a student at Williams College.


Francis Snow

Snow and his own students prepared specimens from Kansas and the cabinet of natural history grew. Snow remained the curator of all the natural history collections until 1891, when he hired his former student, Lewis Lindsay Dyche (1857–1915), to curate the zoological collections. Snow and Dyche split the collection into two parts, with the zoological specimens curated by Dyche and the entomological and botanical specimens curated by Snow.

Although Snow demonstrated an early affinity for botany, while at KU his research was primarily in entomology. Snow made comparatively few plant collections throughout his career and today the herbarium houses about 800 specimens taken by him , 549 in Kansas. This is because shortly after Snow came to Kansas, the legislature appointed James A. Carruth (1807–1896) as state botanist, a position in which he served from 1872 to 1892. Snow decided not to duplicate Carruth’s work and publications, but many early botanical specimens taken by Snow and other Kansas collectors were sent to Carruth’s herbarium.  Unfortunately, most of these specimens were lost after Carruth’s retirement, and today only a few of them remain in Kansas herbaria. Only one of these is at at KU.


William Stevens

William Chase Stevens (1861–1955) took over as director of the herbarium in 1892, after Snow had assumed the chancellorship of the university.  Stevens held the position until 1929, when he appointed Worthie H. Horr (1891–1977) as his successor.  Neither Stevens nor Horr was primarily interested in taxonomy, however; Stevens was an anatomist by training and Horr a physiologist.  Today the herbarium houses only 65 specimens collected by Stevens and about 5,400 specimens collected by Horr.


Worthie Horr

When Horr assumed the directorship in 1929, the herbarium housed some 11,000 specimens.  Most of the growth that had occurred during the first 75 years of the hebarium’s existence had come from student collections or collections made by other faculty members, particularly those of Marshall Albert Barber (1868–1953), or from specimen subscriptions to professional collectors.  Horr himself is credited with relatively few collection numbers, but under his direction the herbarium grew considerably, both through his students’ work and through an immense specimen-for-specimen exchange program with other herbaria.  Starting in 1934, Horr planned to collect 200 duplicate specimens for each of 500 different species.  Horr and his students worked diligently on this program until 1948, in the end gathering more than 70,000 specimens for exchange.  When the exchanges were sent out to other institutions in 1949, the herbarium was reported to house some 29,000 specimens.  Receipt of exchange materials from other institutions continued well into the 1960s, by which time Horr’s efforts had netted the herbarium more than 44,000 additional specimens.

Shortly after sending out his exchanges in 1949, Horr lost interest in building the herbarium and turned its care over to Ronald Leighton McGregor (1919-2012), who was at the time completing his graduate studies in the botany department.


Ronald McGregor

Upon receiving his doctorate in 1954, McGregor was formally appointed director. He was to oversee the most active period of the herbarium’s growth.  McGregor and his students immediately began work on documenting the regional flora, collecting large numbers of specimens (as well as duplicates for exchange) in Kansas and the southern Great Plains.

In 1966, McGregor hired Homer A. (“Steve”) Stephens (1906–1986) as the herbarium’s full-time professional collector. Stephens worked throughout the Great Plains, from the Canadian border south to Texas, and from the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, east to western Minnesota and Arkansas. Stephens gathered nearly 84,000 collection numbers, plus many duplicates, before retiring in 1976, and more than 91,000 specimens total during his lifetime. McGregor himself is credited with 41,000 numbers and many duplicates. His students gathered many as well. In particular, Ralph Edward Brooks (b. 1950), first a graduate student at KU and later an employee of the Kansas Biological Survey and director of the herbarium, contributed over 21,000 specimens to the collection.

Under McGregor’s supervision, the herbarium expanded from about 70,000 to more than 300,000 specimens. The collection quickly outgrew the space it had occupied since Snow founded it nearly a hundred years earlier.  To accommodate this increase in volume, in 1966 the herbarium moved from Snow Hall to a much larger facility in its present location on KU’s West Campus. In 1986, the space was again expanded with an addition approximately doubling the facility in size. During his tenure as director, McGregor contributed significantly to knowledge of the regional flora. Throughout his career, McGregor pursued many projects devoted to the study of the Kansas and Great Plains flora. Perhaps the best known of these, he served as coordinator for both the Atlas of the Flora of the Great Plains (1977) and The Flora of the Great Plains (1991). Upon his retirement in 1988, the herbarium was named the Ronald L. McGregor Herbarium in his honor.


Recent Administration

The McGregor Herbarium has benefitted from the directorship of Ralph Brooks, Meredith Ann Lane (b. 1951), and its current curator-in-charge, Craig Carl Freeman (b. 1955).  The collection has continued to grow, although at a more moderate rate. Recently, the herbarium has grown by about 5,000 specimens per year, of which half were obtained through research activities of the curators and collection manager and half were obtained through exchange programs with some 35 other institutions. By the end of 2021, the collection contained nearly 454,000 specimens. 

A separate division since Stevens assumed the directorship in 1892, the herbarium came under the aegis of the KU Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center, now known as the KU Biodiversity Institute, in 1995. The institute includes numerous research divisions, including botany. Today the original "cabinet of curiosities" of the university contains some 10 million specimens and 2 million artifacts and is housed across seven different buildings on the KU campus. 

Information about the early history of the botanical collections at KU was adapted from a longer manuscript by R.L. McGregor, “History of the University of Kansas Herbarium, 1866–1990.”