KU Paleobotany History

The first collection of fossil plants at the University of Kansas appears to have been initiated in 1888 when Francis Huntington Snow, Professor of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, led the first expedition to collect fossils from the western part of Kansas. Numerous plant fossils were collected on this trip from the Cretaceous Dakota Sandstone Formation by E. Putnam West, R.D. Lacoe, and A. Wellington, and many of these are still an important part of the KU collections. In 1892 Leo Lesquereux published "The Flora of the Dakota Group" describing and illustrating not only the fossils collected by the staff but also those collected by Charles H. Sternberg, a well-known dinosaur collector. This was one of the first comprehensive and important publications on Kansas plant fossils.

In the early part of the 20th century, Elias Howard Sellards, who received his B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Kansas, discovered one of the richest and most significant localities in Kansas near the town of Elmo. Although he published numerous papers on the beautiful insect fossils from this site he also published several papers on the associated Permian plants. There are over 300 specimens of plants from the Permian and Pennsylvanian of Kansas in the KU collection that were collected and identified by Elias H. Sellards.

In 1916 Raymond Cecil Moore became an Assistant Professor of Geology and Paleontology at the University and the State Geologist of Kansas. In 1936 he published a paper on Pennsylvanian plants from Garnett, Kansas. This flora had a distinct "Permian" aspect to it, despite the fact that the stratigraphic position indicated it was Pennsylvanian in age. Over 300 specimens from this unique locality are in the KU collections including some important conifers.

In the early 1930s Maxim Konrad Elias investigated Cenozoic deposits of western Kansas. He made an extensive collection of vegetative and reproductive remains of numerous grasses and seeds from various angiosperm families. The fossils attributed to the grass family were one of the best collections in the world at that time. 

Paleobotany was officially offered as an academic course at the University of Kansas in 1947 and was first taught by R.H. Thompson. A few years later Robert Wilson Baxter joined the faculty and started teaching paleobotany on a regular basis. In the 1954-1955 academic year he offered an additional course called "Paleobotany of the Coal Age." In 1973 paleobotany was offered in both the Botany and Geology departments. During his 34 years at the University of Kansas, Robert Baxter published numerous papers on Carboniferous plant fossils from Illinois, Iowa, Indiana and Kansas, and trained a number of graduate students including Arthur A. Cridland, Robert Baxendale and John Morris. Robert Baxter worked mainly with coal balls, calcium carbonate permineralizations, and described numerous structurally preserved vascular plants.

With the retirement of Robert Baxter in 1983 paleobotany at the University of Kansas virtually came to a standstill. In the early 1990s Meredith A. Lane, who was then the director of the R.L. McGregor Herbarium, secured funding to catalogue the Baxter Fossil Plant Collection. In addition, Dr. Lane acquired funding to move the collection from Snow Hall on main campus to the R.L. McGregor Herbarium building on west campus. After the Robert Baxter Collection arrived at the R.L. McGregor Herbarium, Alicia Lesnikowska was hired to assist with the cataloging of the collection.

In 1995 Edith L. Taylor and Thomas N. Taylor joined the faculty of the Department of Botany and were also appointed curators in the Natural History Museum. They brought with them thousands of permineralized specimens from the Permian and Triassic of Antarctica together with over 40 years worth of collected material from around the world. The fossils were initially stored in wooden cabinets, but a National Science Foundation Research Collections in Systematics and Ecology grant provided funds to install a state-of-the-art, compactor system with metal drawers. After the installation of the compactor system Robert Baxter's collection was moved from the R.L. McGregor Herbarium to Haworth Hall. In 1997 Rudolph Serbet joined the Division of Paleobotany as the first collections manager.

Following the retirement of Edith and Thomas Taylor, in 2019 Dr. Brian Atkinson joined the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Biodiversity Institute Division of Paleobotany as a faculty curator.  In 2020, Dr. Kelly Matsunaga joined the faculty, filling an endowed chair established in honor of the late Thomas N. Taylor. Today, the Division of Paleobotany continues its mission to promote the study of fossil plants, train the next generation of paleobotanists, and conduct world-class research in paleobotany and plant evolution.