Thaxter, Roland

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(b. Newtonville [part of Newton], Massachusetts, 28 August 1858; d. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 22 April 1932)

cryptogamic botany.

Thaxter was the son of Levi Lincoln Thaxter and Celia Laighton. On his father’s side he was descended from Thomas Thaxter, an Englishman who settled at Hingham, Massachusetts, in 1638. His mother established a considerable reputation in the field of literature by her poems; and his father also was active in literary studies, being an authority on the life and works of Browning. Thaxter attended Boston Latin School and entered Harvard in 1878, graduating with the A.B. in 1882 and the A.M. and Ph.D. in 1888. His chosen field of study was natural history. At the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences he was able to concentrate on cryptogamic botany under the direction of W. G. Farlow, and from 1886 to 1888 he served as the latter’s assistant.

From 1888 to 1891 Thaxter was mycologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station; but since his inclination was strongly toward pure, as opposed to applied, research, he was happy to return to Harvard in 1891, at Farlow’s invitation, as assistant professor of cryptogamic botany. He became full professor in 1901 and assumed complete responsibility for teaching and research in that field. In 1919, on the death of Farlow, he was nominated professor emeritus and honorary curator of the cryptogamic herbarium, positions which he held until his death.

A Unitarian, Thaxter was married in 1887 to Mabel Gray Freeman of Springfield, Massachusetts, by whom he had four children. Despite poor health, he made several extended study journeys to the West Indies and southernmost South America. He was a member or fellow of numerous learned societies, both American and foreign, and was president of the Botanical Society of America in 1909.

Thaxter’s published contributions in mycology were characterized by meticulous accuracy and are classics in their field. His name is associated chiefly with research on the little–known group of entomogenous fungi, which culminated in the publication of a five–volume monograph on the Laboulbeniaceae, a unique and isolated family of fungi that occur as minute parasites on the integuments of various insects; the numerous plates illustrating this treatise, exquisite in their execution, were all by Thaxter. He also published extensively on other groups of fungi, notably the Phycomycetes, and on the hitherto unrecognized assemblage of bacterialike organisms known as the Myxobacteriaceae.

Thaxter’s work has had a profound and lasting influence on the development of mycology and of cryptogamic botany generally.


Thaxter’s principal work, Contribution Towards a Monograph of the Laboulbeniaceae, was published in 5 pts. by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1896–1931).

On his life and work, see the notice by G. P. Clinton, in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 17 (1937), 55–64, with comprehensive bibliography of Thaxter’s publications between 1875 and 1931.

I. M. Lamb