Harper, Roland McMillan

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Harper, Roland McMillan

(b. Farmington, Maine, 11 August 1878; d. Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 30 April 1966)

botany, geography, demography.

Harper’s interests were multifarious for the twentieth century: plant ecology, taxonomy, geography, and demography, as well as railroading, cemeteries, race relations, and tobacco smoking. His Ph.D. dissertation, Phytogeographical Sketch of the Altamaha Grit Region of the Central Plain of Georgia (1906), is an ecological classic; and his hundreds of plant records, extensively based on acute observation in the field, enriched the comprehensive writings of J. K. Small and Merritt Fernald.

Harper’s paternal grandfather, William Harper, came from Kilkenny, Ireland, and settled in Ontario. His maternal grandfather, Wilhelm Tauber of Munich, was a portrait painter. Roland was the second of six children born to William Harper, who studied at the University of Munich, and Bertha Tauber. Although his Farminglon boyhood friend, Clarence Knowlton, tried to interest Harper in plants, Harper later wrote that he “could not see much in botany,” His boyhood interests were photography, railroading, and the physical sciences. He moved with his family to Dalton, Georgia, when he was ten, and later entered the University of Georgia as an engineering student. There he came under the influence of the zoologist John P. Campbell. Following graduate work in botany at Columbia University (Ph.D., 1905) he joined the Geological Survey of Alabama as botanist and geographer serving chiefly but intermittently there and in the Florida Geological Survey for the next sixty-one years.

From age twenty-one Harper published over 500 titles. His writings on the natural resources of Florida (1928), the economic botany of Alabama (1913, 1928), the forests (1943) and weeds (1944) of Alabama, and plants endemic to Florida (1949) were accompanied by historical notes and annotated bibliographies. The valve of these and his Phytogeographical Sketch were heightened by photographs of the vegetation which, with ensuing destruction of habitats, have become historical documents.

In his later years Harper contributed sociological articles, generally based on personal data gathering, to the local newspapers. “Cornbread, Appendicitis and the Birth-Rate”(1938) and “Women per Family as an Index of Culture” (1944) are typical topics. He affected a crisp editorial style. Withal, his most important contributions were in bioecology.


I. Original Works. “Autobiographical Notes [to 1900] With Special Reference to Botany, Written Mostly from Memory by Roland M. Harper, December, 1954,” prepared at the request of Jack McCormick, and a partial bibliography by Jack McCormick, are On file at the New York Botanical Gardern. A bibliography of Harper’s principal botanical publications is given by Ewan (see below). Papers selected from this are “Economic Botany of Alabama, Part 1. Geographical Report, Including Descriptions of the Natural Divisions of the State, Their Forests and Forest Industries, With Quantitative Analyses and Statistical Tables,” Monographs of the Geological Survey of Alabama, 8 (1913); “Part 2. Catalogue of the Trees, Shrubs, and Vines of Alabama, With Their Economic Properties and Local Distribution” ibid., 9 (1928); “Natural Resources of Southern Florida,” in Report of the Florida State Geological Survey, 18 (1927), 27–206; “Forests of Alabama,” Monographs of the Geological Survey of Alabama, 10 (1943); “Preliminary Report of the Weeds of Alabama,” Bulletin. Geological Survey of Alabama, 53 (1944); and “A Preliminary List of the Endemic Flowering Plants of Florida,” in Quarterly Journal. Florida Academy of Sciences, 11 , no. 1 (1949), 23–25; 11 , no. 2 (1949), 39–57; 12 , no. 1 (1950), 1–19. Harper’s exsiccatae of Georgia plants are in the principal herbaria in this country and abroad. His diary, scrap books of newspaper clippings (classified for the earlier years), photographs, letters, and other memorabilia are at the Univerasity of Alabama.

II. Secondary Literature. The unsigned “Scientist Making Survey of Northern Section of State,” in ArkansasDemocrat (29 April 1923), is a contemporary portrait of Harper. A biographical sketch by Joseph Ewan, with portrait, in Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, 95 (1968), 390–393, is based on materials furnished by Mary Susan Wigley (Mrs. Roland) Harper and Francis Harper. An “Addenda and Corrigenda” for the article, dated January 1960 and privately printed by Francis Harper, is at the New York Botanical Garden.

Joseph Ewan

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