Harper, Robert Almer

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Harper, Robert Almer

(b. Le Claire, Iowa, 21 January 1862; d. Phenix, Viginia, 12 May 1946)


Harper was the son of a Congregational minister, Almer Harper, and his wife Eunice Thompson. He grew up in a village in Illinois where he had little formal education but ample opportunity to study natural history. He worked his way through Oberlin College, received his B.A. in 1886, and then taught Latin and Greek at Gates College until 1888, when he returned to his main interest, botany. After studying at Johns Hopkins University, he took an appointment at Lake Forest College in 1889, becoming professor of botany and geology two years later. During his professorship he spent some time at Bonn under Strasburger and he also worked briefly with Brefeld; he received his Ph.D. in 1896. In 1898 he moved to the University of Wisconsin as professor of botany, and in 1911 he went to Columbia University, where he taught until his official retirement in 1930. He retained emeritus status, however, and continued research there until 1937. That year he moved to his farm at Phenix in Bedford County, Virginia,

From his arrival in New York, Harper was active in the New York Botanical Garden; he was a member of the Board of Managers (1911–1942) and chairman of the scientific directors (1918–1933). In 1899 he married Alice Jean McQueen. After her death he married Helen Sherman in 1918; they had one son.

Harper was highly regarded as a teacher, lecturer, and leader of fieldwork studies. His research ranged widely over theoretical and practical problems, but the most important was his study, almost complete by 1910, of the cytology of fungi. Influenced by Strasburger and Brefeld, his early papers were written in German. Harper investigated spore formation, illustrating his papers with excellent drawings of cells at all stages of devlopment and clearly differentiating the free cell formation, of daughter cells arising in the multinucleate mass of protoplasm of the Ascomycetes from the cleavage by constriction in the Basidiomycetes. The two processes were so different that he concluded that the Ascomycetes could not be descended from the lower fungi.

He traced the division and fusions of nuclei during the life cycle, showed that the ascocarp originates in a sexual apparatus, and found a second fusion of the included nuclei in the young ascus; but he did not clearly relate these changes to reduction division and fertilization. His views on the sexuality of fungi were at variance with Brefeld’s. In 1903, with R.J. Holden, he showed that for most of the life cycle of a rust fungus the cells are uninucleate from teleutospore to sporidium and binucleate from sporidium to teleutospore. From a review of work on smut fungi he concluded that cell fusion without nuclear fusion may give benefits of larger cells with more food and better resistance. He built up a large herbarium of fungi.

Harper’s later studies, published in 1920, on the inheritance of sugar and starch characteristics in corn, led him to believe that in hybrids inheritance is not through particulate pairs of characters, but that all pairs will exhibit intermediate characters. He stressed this view in his presidential address to the Botanical Society of America on the structure of protoplasm.

Harper’s work at the New York Botanical Garden, although not published, was a substantial contribution to plant pathology, and he was responsible for the installation of equipment to combat insect pests and fungus diseases. He left his collection of separates and other publications to the garden


I. Original Works. Harper’s works include “Kernteilung and freie Zellbildung in Ascus,” in Jahrbuch für wissenschaftliche Botanik, 30 (1897), 249; “Cell Division in Sporangia and Asci,” in Annals of Botany, 13 (1899), 467–525; “Nuclear Phenomena in Certain Stages in the Development of the Smuts,” in Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, 12 (1900), 475–498; “Nuclear Divisions and Nuclear Fusion in Coleosporium sonchi-arvensis, Lev.,” ibid., 14 (1903), 63–82, written with R. J. Holden; “Sexual Reproduction and the Organization of the Nucleus in Certain Mildews,” Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication no. 37 (Washington, D.C., 1905); “Nuclear Phenomena of Sexual Reproduction in Fungi,” in American Naturalist, 44 (1910), 533–546; “The Structure of Protoplasm,” in American Journal of Botany, 6 (1919), 273–300; and “The Inheritance of Sugar and Starch Characters in Corn,” in Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, 47 (1920), 137–181.

II. Secondary Literature. The most comprehensive biography of Harper is by Charles Thom in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 25 (1949), 227–240, with portrait and bibliography. The obituary by B. O. Dodge in Yearbook. American Philosophical Society, 1946 (1947), 304–313, contains a section on Harper’s ancestry and background, with quotations of personal reminiscences by his friends; that by A. B. Stout in Journal of the New York Botanical Garden, 47 (1946), 267–269, deals fully with Harper’s work at the garden. See also the short anonymous evaluation in Phytopathology, 38 (1948), 328.

Diana M. Simpkins

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