Hitchcock, Albert Spear

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(b. Owosso, Michigan, 4 September 1865;d. at sea, crossing North Atlantic, 16 December 1935)


Hitchcock became the leading agrostologist in the United States and was acknowledged around the world. The son of Albert Hitchcock and Alice Martin Jennings, he was adopted by the J. Seabury Hitchcocks of St. Joseph, Missouri. At Iowa State Agricultural College, where he was profoundly influenced by C. E. Bessey, Hitchcock received his B.S.A. (1884) and M.S. (1886), and subsequently was instructor for three years. From 1889 to 1891 he assisted Trelease at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, popularly known as Shaw’s Gardens. As apprentice in the herbarium he gained experience in acting as a curator of historic collections, gathered information on the location of type specimens in European herbaria, and codified the concept of a “type specimen” as the base of a species. Its adoption was finally incorporated in the International Rules of Botanical Nomenclature at the Fifth International Botanical Congress in 1930, this leading to its universal acceptance.

Elected president of the newly founded Botanical Society of America in 1914, Hitchcock was named one of four editors for its journal. His writing was marked by clarity and precision, and his Methods of Descriptive Systematic Botany (1925) was widely followed. To encourage beginners he privately published Field Work for the Local Botanist (Washington, D.C., 1931). He botanized from Alaska to Argentina and from the Hawaiian Islands to the West Indies, in the Philippines, the Far East, Indochina, South Africa, and Europe, assembling at the National Herbarium, Washington, D.C., one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive grass collections. These specimens served as documentation for monographs and grass floras of Central America, British Guiana, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and the West Indies, and, most importantly, for his Manual of the Grasses of the United States (1935). This manual, prepared with the assistance of Agnes Chase, who joined his staff in 1907 and who prepared the second edition (1951), rested on the identity of valid species but also recorded all known synonyms. Although Hitchcock does not so state, his manual follows Bessey’s phylogeny, which depends on the relative complexity of flower structure. Hitchcock genially contributed to the orderly handling of grass nomenclature for agronomists, foresters, and the general public.

As chairman of the executive committee of the Institute for Research in Tropical America (1920-1926) Hitchcock encouraged the establishment of Barro Colorado Island, Panama Canal Zone, as a field station.

In 1890 Hitchcock married Rania Belle Dailey of Ames, Iowa. The youngest of their five children. Albert Edwin Hitchcock, became a plant physiologist at Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, Inc., Yonkers, New York.

Aimée Camus named Hitchcockella, a monotypic grass genus of Madagascar, in his honor. A. B. Rendle of the British Museum summed up: “Hitchcock was a grass enthusiast, and the results of his 34 years’ work on the family are an invaluable legacy. A kindly and cheery soul.”


I. Original Works. Hitchcock’s most important work is Manual of the Grasses of the United States, United States Department of Agriculture Miscellaneous Publication 200 (Washington, D.C., 1935; 2nd ed., revised by Agnes Chase. 1951). Methods of Descriptive Systematic Botany (New York, 1925) is still useful. He published about 85 experiment-station bulletins and popular articles during his years at Kansas State University. A few, such as “Camping in Florida,” in Industrialist (Nov. 1897), have historical value but have not been noticed in biographical accounts. Hitchcock’s field records and memorabilia are in the botany division of the United States National Museum. Some correspondence is preserved in the special collections of the Kansas State University Library. Manhattan, Kans. An incomplete bibliography of his writings is in L. R. Parodi’s sketch, in Revista argentina de agronomia,3 (1936), 116-119, with portrait.

II. Secondary Literature. No wholly satisfactory account of Hitchcock has been published. Frans Verdoorn’s summary distributed as a broadside (Leiden, 1937), prepared for his proposed “Index botanicorum,” is the fullest account. Also useful are the obituary notices by Agnes Chase, in Science, 83 (1936). 222-224. although, contrary to her statement, Hitchcock did not initiate the Barro Colorado Island plan—cf F. M. Chapman, My Tropical Air Castle (New York, 1929); and by A. B. Rendle, in Journal of Botany, British and Foreign, 74 (1936), 54. See also M. L. Fernald. “Hitchcock’s Manual of the Grasses,” in Rhodora, 37 (1935), 369-372; and H. B. Humphrey, Makers of North American Botany (New York, 1961), 109-111, to be read with caution—cf. J. Ewan’s review of this book in Rhodora, 64 (1962), 186-190.

Joseph Ewan