Bessey, Charles

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Bessey, Charles

American Botanist

Charles Edwin Bessey was a late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American botanist who developed a modern classification system for flowering plants. Born in Ohio in 1845 the son of a school teacher, Bessey was educated at home and in small rural schools. He was able to attend the Michigan Agricultural College, where he was introduced to botany. After graduation, he helped to initiate the botany program at the Iowa Agricultural College, and began teaching students. He made advances in botany education by adding a laboratory component to his classes. He used his one microscope initially to teach his students during laboratory. Later, as he helped to start botany programs at other state colleges in the American west, he introduced microscope techniques to botany classes there as well.

In 1872 Bessey worked at Harvard in American botanist Asa Gray's (1810-1888) laboratory and became more interested in the microscopic characteristics of plants. His examinations of cell structure and organization led to the publication of several papers on plant diseases. He further contributed to American botany education by writing an American version of German plant physiologist Julius von Sachs's Lehrbuch der Botanik that he called Botany for High Schools and Colleges.

Bessey's most important publication, however, was probably Phylogenetic Taxonomy of Flowering Plants, published in 1915, the year of his death. This last major work of Bessey's established the phylogenetic system of organizing flowering plants that taxonomists are still building on today with the use of genetic techniques. In this publication, Bessey proposed new evolutionary relationships between plants. Previously, it was thought that plants that had flowers without petals were the most primitive. Bessey instead suggested the opposite. He believed what is still thought to be true now, that the most primitive, original flowers had many separate petals and stamens and carpels. As flowering plants evolved, these whorls of flower parts fused together, or were reduced or became absent in some species. This indicated that flowers such as Ranunculus, or buttercup flowers, were the more primitive, while tiny flowers such as those hanging in catkin inflorescences in some trees were more advanced. This also implied that monocotyledonous plants, such as grasses, had evolved from dicotyledonous broad-leaved plants. These ideas led to a big change in principles for plant taxonomy, and they encouraged a new wave of research into plant phylogeny.

Bessey worked in many ways to promote science and the study of plants. In addition to his great contributions to taxonomy, Bessey was also part of many scientific societies. He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and served as its president in 1910. He participated in the Iowa Farmers' Institute, which was the first institute of its kind in the country. Bessey was also associate editor of prestigious journals, such as the American Naturalist and Science. Bessey will remain best known, however, for his contribution to a detailed and modern plant phylogenetic system. Botany students still study the branching tree diagrams of plant evolutionary relationships like those Bessey proposed in 1915.

see also Evolution of Plants; Gray, Asa; Phylogeny; Sachs, Julius von; Taxonomist; Taxonomy.

Jessica P. Penney


Ewan, Joseph. A Short History of Botany in the United States. New York: Hafner, 1969.

Humphrey, Harry B. The Makers of North American Botany. New York: Ronald Press, 1961.