Britton, Nathaniel Lord

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Britton, Nathaniel Lord

(b. Staten Island, New York, 15 January 1859; d. New York, N. Y., 25 June 1934)


Britton was educated at the School of Mines of Columbia College, from which he graduated as Engineer of Mines in 1879. He then became assistant in geology at Columbia and later served as botanist and assistant geologist for the Geological Survey of New Jersey for five years. Although his early training was in geology and mining, botanical interests dominated his career. Thus, in 1887 he returned to Columbia as instructor in botany and geology, in 1890 became adjunct professor of botany, and in 1891 was made professor of botany.

He was married in 1885 to Elizabeth Gertrude Knight (1858–1934), herself a botanist of distinction. Best known in her own specialty of bryology, she also was a constant helper in her husband’s work.

Britton is best known for his role in the establishment and development of the New York Botanical Garden, a process set in motion in 1888, on a visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England, when his wife asked, “Why couldn’t we have something like this in New York?” This question led to the formation of a committee by the Torrey Botanical Club to consider the establishment of a botanical garden in New York City. It appealed for funds in 1889, and in 1891 the New York Legislature chartered the New York Botanical Garden Corporation, which by July 1895 had persuaded the city to set aside 250 acres in Bronx Park for the development of the garden. In 1896 Britton was formally appointed director in chief, and during the next thirty-three years, thanks to his enthusiasm, initiative, drive, and organizing ability, this undeveloped area without buildings or roads became a garden with greenhouses, laboratories, library, and herbarium that make it one of the world’s great botanical institutions.

Britton’s own interests were primarily taxonomic and concerned mainly with the plants of eastern North America and the West Indies. His adherence to the American Code of Nomenclature and his extremely narrow generic concept have made much of the nomenclature of his works obsolete, but their value as comprehensive descriptive surveys remains. Britton founded the Bulletin of the New York Botanical Garden in 1896, the garden’s Journal and Memoirs in 1900, and Addisonia in 1916, as well as the North American Flora in 1905. The periodical Brittonia (founded in 1931) is named for him, as are the plant genera Brittonamra, Brittonastrom, and Brittonella. Bryobrittonia commemorates Mrs. Britton.


I. Original Works. The most important of Britton’s publications are Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions, 3 vols. (New York, 1896–1898; 2nd ed., 1913), written with Addison Brown; Manual of the Flora of the Northern States and Canada (New York, 1901; 2nd ed., 1905); accounts of various families in North American Flora (1905–1930); North American Trees (New York, 1908), written with J. A. Shafer; Flora of Bermuda (New York, 1918); The Cactaceae, 4 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1919–1923), written with J. N. Rose; The Bahama Flora (New York, 1920), written with C. F. Millspaugh; and Botany of Porto Rico and the Virgin Islands, 2 vols. (New York, 1923–1930), written with P. Wilson.

II. Secondary Literature. Writings on Britton are H. A. Gleason, “The Scientific Work of Nathaniel Lord Britton,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 104 (1960), 205–226; M. A. Howe, “Nathaniel Lord Britton,” in Journal of the New York Botanical Garden, 35 (1934), 169–180; E. D. Merrill, “Biographical Memoir of Nathaniel Lord Britton,” in Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 295 (1934), 147–202; and T. A. Sprague, “Nathaniel Lord Britton,” in Kew Bulletin (1934), 275–279.

William T. Stearn

Britton, Nathaniel

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Britton, Nathaniel

American Botanist

Nathaniel Lord Britton was an American botanist who helped found the New York Botanical Garden and build it into a premier research institution. Britton was born in 1859 in Staten Island, New York, and received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in geology and mining engineering from Columbia University. His professional interest in botany began while he was working for the New Jersey Geologic Survey, during which time he prepared a list of plants found in the state. He became a professor at Columbia, first in geology and later in botany. In 1885 he married Elizabeth Knight, one of the foremost bryologists in the country.

Britton and his wife were inspired by a visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England, and returned in 1891 to the United States to begin planning for what would become the New York Botanical Garden. Britton was its first director, a post he held until his retirement in 1929. Through his administrative skill, scholarship, energy, and force of personality, Britton built the garden into a world-class center for research in plant taxonomy, and the finest botanical garden in the country.

Britton was a prolific author, writing hundreds of scientific papers and several important books. He was the principal author of the Illustrated Flora of the northeastern United States, a text that was at one time the major guide to the plants of this region. He published many papers on the flora of the West Indies, and was coauthor of The Cactaceae of the World. A large number of genera of flowering plants bear his name, as does Brittonia, a major journal of American plant taxonomy published by the New York Botanical Garden.

Britton undertook a major revision of the nomenclature of the plants of North America, creating the American Code of Botanical Nomenclature in 1892. Britton meant this system to replace the International Code used widely at that time. Although most major research institutions did not adopt his system, the U.S. Department of Agriculture did, assuring it a prolonged life, if not widespread use. The American Code, however, fell further and further out of favor after Britton's death in 1934, and is no longer used today.

see also Botanical Gardens and Arboreta; Curator of a Botanical Garden; Taxonomist; Taxonomy; Taxonomy, History of.

Richard Robinson


Isely, Duane. One Hundred and One Botanists. Ames, IA: Iowa State Univeristy Press,1994.