Great Nebraska

Naturalists and Scientists

The state of Nebraska and the Great Plains region has a strong and diverse biological heritage that has been studied by equally diverse individuals, who had ties to the state and equally often, to the university. Their activities, research, inadvertent adventures, all of these highlights the value and document aspects of the region that no longer exist today, that have significantly altered since the turn of the century and early twentieth century.

The University of Nebraska, established in 1869, held its first classes in 1871, in a limestone building standing in almost complete isolation in the city of Lincoln, surrounded by salt flats. Those faculty who came to the University to teach in the sciences, often trained at eastern universities, came to a new academic institution seeking to enhance knowledge of the state environment and surroundings. In Nebraska, a prairie state, bordered on the east by the Missouri and segmented by the Platte, Niobrara, and in Lincoln, made distinct by Salt Creek. At this time, the state remained unexplored through an academic sciences and developing classroom experiences. The state of Nebraska is characterized by prairie grasslands, newly-created farmland, and the unique region of the Sandhills, all distinct landscapes that provided opportunities for new research and scholarship.

The beginning of botanical studies at the University began when Charles E. Bessey took the position of Professor of Botany and Dean of the Industrial College in 1884 when “except for a few hundred dried specimens, many of which indeed were poorly prepared and even incorrectly named, there was no botanical equipment in the university…. But it was not long until there were students, laboratories, library, microscopes, herbarium and other equipment in abundance.”(Pool, Some Features…. pg. 6)

Bessey represents the faculty at the University as it entered a period of significant growth and he also represents the influence of the institution. “There may be other botanists as famous as Dr. Bessey, but there is no botanist who has had the influence as a teacher that he has had. The enormous number of men scattered all over the United States, and indeed the world, that have come under his influence and been stimulated and benefited by his enthusiasm is almost past understanding, and it is not only botanists who have felt this influence, as all lines of science have looked to him as a leader and guide so far as the methods of teaching and education is concerned.” (Herbert J. Webber to Raymond Pool, Mar. 6, 1915, Pool Papers, B1, F1)

Within five years of Bessey’s arrival, the University expanded and developed: “The seventeen years from 1888 to 1905 saw five new buildings erected near the original give “on a barren prairie.” The enrollment increased from less than five hundred to approximately three thousand students. With this expansion, give new schools were organized and a number of new departments. This period was in truth a “golden age” of department and campus expansion and is noted as well for the number of now famous names which were then connected with the University – in the student body and on the faculty. Scholars of national and international fame taught, and in some cases are still teaching, at Nebraska. Students of equal fame as lawyers, writers, soldiers, and men of affairs were members of the classes of the years 1888-1905.” (Cornhusker 1925, page 18.)