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Bessey family papers

Identifier: UA-10.3.416

Scope and Contents

The Bessey family papers have been arranged into the following series: Biographical Data, Manuscripts and Publications, General, Correspondence, Scrapbooks, Oversized materials and Photographs.

The biographical data series includes information on Charles and Ernst Bessey, and on relatives of Edith Carleton Higgins (Mrs. Ernst A. Bessey), including her mother, Ella M. (Noyes) Higgins (1851-1913); her sisters, Mabel Cornell Porter and Bertha Noyes and, her brothers, Leslie A. Higgins (1886-1951) and Harry A. Higgins.

The manuscripts and publications series contains letters from Ernst Bessey to his father while he was in Halle, Germany and Algeria; publications of Ernst Bessey; a manuscript by Charles Bessey on his experiences in the Caucuses; botanical manuscripts by Charles Bessey and colleagues, and the lecture notes of Charles Bessey. Of note are: the publication Vegetationsbilder aus Russisch Turkestan (1905), by Ernst Bessey; a partial manuscript of the Essentials of Botany, by Charles Bessey, a pioneer textbook of the "New Botany" movement; and the lecture notes by Charles E. Bessey for the seminary, "Plan and Purpose in Nature", (these notes are valuable since they are informative on early teachings of evolutionary theory in botany). Supplementary to this series regarding the Besseys' travels are two scrapbooks with photographs and notes depicting the agriculture, people, geography and culture of Russian Turkestan compiled by Ernst Bessey, and a scrapbook of Europe and the Caucuses supplemented by published articles on Russian agriculture by Charles Bessey.

Within the general series can be found receipts of contributions to the Royal Botanical Gardens Society of London by Charles Bessey; newspaper clipping from the Omaha World Herald; and botanical drawings and exams probably pertaining to a later era.

The Bessey family papers contain primarily correspondence between Charles E. Bessey and colleagues, circa 1880-1905. An important feature of Charles Bessey's correspondence is the continued contact he kept with his students, including Joseph C. Arthur, one of his first students at Iowa in 1870, who later became the foremost mycologist of this country. Correspondence with many noteworthy botanical leaders of the era is available in the collection, including Liberty Hyde Bailey and William J. Beal from the Michigan Agricultural College; Bernhard E. Fernow and Gifford Pinchot from the USDA Forestry Division; and with botanists from other USDA Departments and American universities.

The correspondence series covers educational and administrative, personal, and professional topics. Pertaining to his educational and administrative interests are exchanges concerning the acquisition of scientific equipment and the teaching of botany in the American school system. Subjects of interest include correspondence with Julius Sterling Morton, Secretary of the USDA, regarding the tariff bill and its effect on universities. Correspondence containing matters of a personal nature include "gossip" about colleagues; a collection of funds for a birthday gift for Asa Gray; on Gray's illness and death, and on the deaths of other colleagues. Professional exchange includes discussions on a wide variety of technical botanical matters including botanical evolution and structural physiology; exchange of criticisms and remarks on scientific manuscripts; job requests and recommendations; and discussions on forest conservation and management. Subjects of interest include correspondence with Bernhard E. Fernow on state tree designation and on reforestation of the Sand Hills of Nebraska and with Gifford Pinchot on forest management and the establishment of the reserves at Halsey, Nebraska.

Also available within the correspondence series are exchanges with Henry Holt, Bessey's publisher, regarding the progress of Charles E. Bessey's publications and sales, and an official statement from George A. Gates, president of Iowa College, regarding the conferring of an LL.D. upon Charles Bessey.


  • Creation: 1878 - 1968


Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Permission to publish material from this collection must be obtained from University Archives & Historical Collections, Michigan State University.

Biography of Charles Edwin Bessey

Born in 1845, Charles Bessey was to become a prominent leader in the development of modern botanical science, active in research, teaching, administration, and the professionalization movement of American botanists. Bessey entered Michigan Agricultural College (M.A.C., now Michigan State University) in 1866 and studied under Albert Nelson Prentiss and William James Beal, two botanists noted for their teaching skills.

Graduating from M.A.C. with a B.S. in 1869, Charles Bessey began his career in 1870 at Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) as an instructor in botany and horticulture. In later years he was awarded honorary degrees from M.A.C. (1872), the University of Iowa (1879), and Grinnell College (1898).

In August 1872, as a newly-elected member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (A.A.A.S.), Charles Bessey met Asa Gray, a major figure in early American botany. During the winter months of 1872-1873, he studied with Gray at Harvard. In 1884, Bessey resigned his position at the Iowa Agricultural College, moving to the University of Nebraska to serve as chair of Botany and dean of the Industrial College, a position he was to hold until his death in 1915. During his years at Nebraska, he also acted in interregnum periods as Chancellor of the University (1888-1891 and 1899-1900).

Charles Bessey played a prominent role within the professionalization movement of American botanists. He is considered the prime mover in the establishment of the Iowa Academy of Science, and was elected its president in 1875. He continued this trend of leadership in Nebraska, serving as botanist for the State Board of Agriculture, as a member of the State Horticultural Society, as first director of the Experiment Station, and in many other capacities. He supported the development of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and was active in international botanical societies.

In addition to these professional activities, Charles Bessey was also active in reforming university and secondary education to provide a scientific basis for agriculture. He introduced the laboratory method of teaching botany in 1870 at Iowa and began writing textbooks on the subject in 1880. He pioneered the undergraduate teaching method of physiological botany, and at Iowa State University founded the first experimental laboratory for this purpose. As a leader in the "New Botany Movement" (a shift from the traditional concentration on taxonomy toward evolution and physiology in botany), he wrote a pioneer textbook: The Essentials of Botany, published by Henry Holt, who in 1879 began publishing a series of scientific text books. The first edition appeared in 1880. In 1914, after eight editions, the last edition was published under joint authorship with Ernst A. Bessey. This book revolutionized the teaching of botany in America, being the first to advocate laboratory work.

Charles Bessey was also instrumental in the development of the National Forest at Halsey, Nebraska. In cooperation with Bernhard E. Fernow, chief of the Division of Forestry in the Department of Agriculture, and Gifford Pinchot, USDA Forester, he worked to establish a forest in the Sand Hills region of Nebraska.

He married Lucy Athearn, a music teacher at the Lansing Academy of Music, on December 25, 1873. They had three sons: Edward, Ernst, and Carl, all of whom graduated from the University of Nebraska. Ernst followed in his father's footsteps, becoming an internationally known botanist and mycologist. Charles E. Bessey passed away in his home on February 25, 1915.

Biography of Ernst Athearn Bessey

Born in Ames, Iowa, Ernst Athearn Bessey became an internationally known botanist specializing in mycology, a branch of botany dealing with fungi. He received his A.B., B.S., and M.A. from the University of Nebraska in 1896, 1897, and 1898 respectively.

Between 1899 and 1908, Ernst Bessey worked for the United States Department of Agriculture. From 1902 to 1904, he traveled extensively in Russia, the Caucuses, Upper Armenia, the Trans-Caspian provinces, Russian Turkestan, Algeria, and central Europe on an agricultural mission for the Office of Seed and Plant Introduction. In 1903, his father traveled with him to Russia and the Caucuses. Interspersed with his travels, Ernst studied at the University of Halle, Germany, receiving a PhD in 1904.

From 1908 to 1910, Ernst served as a professor of botany and bacteriology at Louisiana State University. He spent the remainder of his career, from 1910 until his retirement in 1946, at Michigan State College (now Michigan State University). He succeeded W. J. Beal as professor of botany from 1910 to 1920, was made head of the Botany Department in 1920, and later served as acting dean of the Applied Science Division from 1927 to 1930. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Graduate School at Michigan State, and became its first dean in 1930.

In 1946, he retired, and was named professor emeritus of the Graduate School. In 1956, he was named among the nations 50 outstanding botanists by the Botanical Society of America.

Ernst Bessey was active in the development of the U.S. date palm industry, authored standard mycology texts, and became the first president of the Michigan Academy of Science. He was fluent in many languages, including Latin, Greek, German, French, Swedish, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and Russian.

He married Edith Carleton Higgins of Omaha, Nebraska, and had two sons. He died on July 17, 1957, in East Lansing.


1 Cubic Feet

Language of Materials



Arranged in seven series: Biographical Data, Manuscripts and Publications, General, Correspondence, Scrapbooks, Oversized materials, and Photographs.

Custodial History

Gift of Ellen Kearns, Madison Kuhn, Laurence E. McKune.

Related Archival Materials

See also Charles E. Bessey papers, 1865-1915, at the University Archives & Special Collections at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, Nebraska. Microfiche available at the Michigan State University Library.

See also Charles E. Bessey papers, 1869-1932 (UA 10.3.157), at the University Archives & Historical Collections, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan.

See also Ernst A. Bessey papers, 1904-1952 (UA 17.5), at the University Archives & Historical Collections, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan.

Legal Status

Donor(s) have transferred any applicable copyright to Michigan State University but the collection may contain third-party materials for which copyright was not transferred. Copyright restrictions may apply. Property Rights: Michigan State University.

Processing Information

Record group changed from 00116 to UA 10.3.416 to reflect the Bessey family's connection to Michigan State University. M. Badgley-Malone, November 2020.

Bessey Family Papers
4 Published And Cataloged
L. Pierce
April 1991
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Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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Repository Details

Part of the University Archives and Historical Collections Repository

Conrad Hall
943 Conrad Road, Room 101
East Lansing MI 48824 US