Furbish, Kate (1834–1931)

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Furbish, Kate (1834–1931)

American botanist. Born Catharine Furbish on May 19, 1834, in Exeter, New Hampshire; died on December 6, 1931, in Brunswick, Maine; only daughter and eldest of six children of Benjamin Furbish (a businessman and manufacturer of tinware and stoves) and Mary A. (Lane) Furbish; educated in Brunswick, Maine; studied drawing in Portland, Maine; briefly studied French literature in Paris.

Born in New Hampshire in 1834, the daughter of Benjamin and Mary Lane Furbish , Kate Furbish grew up in Brunswick, Maine. There, she developed an early fascination with botany that was encouraged by her father. Around 1860, after attending a series of lectures in Boston given by the young George L. Goodale, later a professor of botany at Harvard, Kate decided to document all the flora of her native region. First, she took a drawing course. Then in 1870 she embarked on her life's work. After 1873, she was financed by a large inheritance from her father. Over the course of the next 35 years, Furbish traveled across the state and into the most inaccessible wilderness in search of specimens. Small in stature but determined in spirit, she paddled up rivers, sloshed through bogs, crawled through bushes, and trekked up mountain paths in search of yet another obscure flower to add to her remarkable collection. Her exquisite paintings, which she called "her children," were accurate in every detail and were widely praised by professional botanists who often relied on dedicated amateurs like Furbish to advance the science.

In 1895, Furbish founded the Josselyn Botanical Society of Maine and would later serve as its president (1911–12). Well into old age, she attended meetings and participated in excursions, often astounding her colleagues with her energy and enthusiasm. In 1908, she presented her 16-volume portfolio drawings, entitled "Illustrated Flora," to Bowdoin College. Her collection of dried plants (4,000 sheets) was given to the New England Botanical Club, which placed it in the Gray Herbarium at Harvard, and a collection of ferns (182 sheets) went to the Portland Society of Natural History. Furbish continued to classify specimens and work on painting right up until her death in 1931, at age 98. Two of her plant discoveries bear her name: Pedicularis Furbishiae and Aster cordifolius L., var. Furbishiae.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

suggested reading:

Graham, Frank and Ada. Kate Furbish and the Flora of Maine.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts