Bessey, Charles Edwin

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Bessey, Charles Edwin

(b. Milton Township, Ohio, 21 May 1845; d. Lincoln, Nebraska, 25 February 1915)

botany, education.

Protagonist of a leading hypothesis of angiosperm phylogeny that, when revised to admit recent research, will probably stand as the accepted system of classification for flowering plants; advocate of the values of scientific meetings for the communication of ideas; author of the most successful textbook of botany published in the United States between 1880 and 1910; exceptional teacher who carried modern botany and its symbol, the microscope, across the Mississippi and planted them firmly in Iowa and then Nebraska and who had among his 4,000 students an impressive number of prominent biologists of the early twentieth century: Charles Bessey was all of these.

Bessey’s father, Adnah Bessey, a schoolteacher of Huguenot ancestry, married Margaret Ellenberger, who had been his pupil, in 1841. Educated in rural schools and at home, Charles Bessey was certified to teach at seventeen. In July 1866 he entered Michigan Agricultural College, where he came under the influence of Albert Nelson Prentiss and William James Beal, two botanists noted far their teaching skills. He graduated from the scientific course in 1869 and remained as an assistant in horticulture, but soon left to inaugurate botany and horticulture at Iowa Agricultural College, Ames. His single room, which held two chairs, a table, bureau, washstand, and bedstead, was to serve as office, library, study, and bedroom for three years. Nevertheless, Bessey opened his first botany class for forty-three sophomores the month after his arrival, using Gray’s Lessons in Botany. In 1871 he added laboratory work to his undergraduate botany course, using his one Tolles compound microscope.

Bessey took part in the Iowa Farmers’ Institute, the first of its kind in the country, and encouraged the launching of the Iowa Academy of Sciences. Asa Gray, attracted by Bessey at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting at Dubuque, Iowa, in 1872, persuaded him to go to Harvard that year. In Gray’s laboratory he was impressed by the importance of morphology and cell structure in plant systematics, whereas previously he had approached the subject from gross macroscopical characteristics alone. Bessey lectured in botany at the University of California in 1875 at the invitation of President Gilman, and returned to Harvard that same year to study under the mycologist William Farlow. From this inoculation Bessey produced four papers on plant diseases that were among the first published in the United States.

Gray’s recommendation that Bessey prepare an American adaptation of Julius von Sachs’s Lehrbuch der Botanik, under the title Botany for High Schools and Colleges (1880), reoriented botanical instruction in this country. Bessey’s text introduced cryptogamic botany and physiological plant anatomy into American colleges.

Bessey gave direction to botanical literature through his associate editorship of the American Naturalist (1880–1897) and Science (1897–1915), two of the most influential journals of the time. He offered the first laboratory course in botany at the University of Minnesota in the summer of 1881, using compound microscopes borrowed from Iowa Agricultural College. After teaching at Ames for fifteen years and after repeated solicitations, he moved to the University of Nebraska as professor of botany in September 1884. Bessey’s teaching philosophy was later identified with John Dewey’s “science with practice. “He wrote of the “relatedness of knowledge” and that “the teacher represents the life of the subject.” He believed introductory classes should be taught by the best-informed, usually senior, professors. His comradeship with students was demonstrated by “Sem. Bot.,” where ten advanced botany students conducted investigations, reported in technical detail—and interspersed their seminars with limericks and refreshment. Bessey’s second highly successful text, Essentials of Botany (1884), had seven editions by 1896. He wrote more than 150 papers and reviews, but his writings on plant phylogeny, “Evolution and Classification” (1893) and “Phylogenetic Taxonomy of Flowering Plants” (1915), established his permanent place in botany.

Bessey took the two well-known systems of angiosperm classification, those of Engler and Prantl, and of Bentham and Hooker, and rearranged the families on the basis of twenty-eight “dicta,” producing a scheme that by its logic and attractive phyletic patterns has proved effective in teaching systematic botany—a success fostered by the textbook of his student Raymond J. Pool. Thousands of students have come to know “Bessey’s cactus,” a cartoon-like table suggestive of a many-jointed Opuntia. Bessey’s dicta were a refinement of Candolle’s concept that three principal factors have been effective in the differentiation of the angiosperms: loss, or fusion, or specialization of floral parts from a multimerous, free-membered prototype. The fused and few-membered condition was construed as advanced. Whereas apehtlous catkin-bearing genera had been considered primitive by the Engler and Prantl school, Bessey viewed them as derived from petaliferous flowers often borne in conelike clusters. Another concept was that monocotyledonous families have been derived from dicotyledonous forms.

Bessey’s deep, modulated voice and his genial, persuasive, generous, perennially enthusiastic manner made him popular as a lecturer and officer in many of the some twenty organizations to which he belonged. His memberships ranged from the State Teachers’ Association of Nebraska (president in 1888) and the American Microscopical Society (president in 1903 and 1908) to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, of which he was national president in 1910.

Bessey married Lucy Athearn of West Tisbury, Massachusetts, on Christmas Day 1873. All three sons, Edward, Carl, and Ernst, graduated from the University of Nebraska; Ernst Athearn Bessey became internationally known as a mycologist.


I. Original Works. Note references in text. “Evolution and Classification” appeared in Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 42 (1894), 237–251; “Phylogenetic Taxonomy of Flowering Plants,” in Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 2 (1915), 109–164. Bessey’s MSS in the University of Nebraska botany department and the Nebraska Historical Society Archives include “Discussion of a Plan of a Scientific Course,” read before the Nebraska State Teachers’ Association 28 December 1876.

II. Secondary Literature. There is no biography of Bessey. Works on him are Ernst Athearn Bessey, “The Teaching of Botany Sixty-five Years Ago,” in Iowa State College Journal of Science, 9 (1935), 227–233; L. H. Pammel, “Prominent Men I Have Met. Dr. Charles Edwin Bessey;” in Ames [Iowa] Daily Tribune and Evening Times, 26 Nov. 1927, p. 19, and 11 Dec. 1921, p. 20, a eulogy; Raymond J. Pool, “A Brief Sketch of the Life and Work of Charles Edwin Bessey,” in American Journal of Botany, 2 (1915), 505–518, with portrait and bibliography; Andrew Denny Rodgers, III, John Merle Coulter (Princeton, N.J., 1944), passim, with short quotations from Bessey’s correspondence; and the anonymous “Some Men Under Dr. Bessey,” in [Nebraska] State Journal (newspaper).

Joseph Ewan