Great Nebraska

Naturalists and Scientists

Introduction to Charles Bessey

Brian Hobbs

Charles Edwin Bessey, 1845-1915, was a man of great distinction and accomplishment spanning the seventy years of his life. Born on May 21 in Milton Township, Wayne County, Ohio, he entered Michigan Agricultural College (Lansing) at twenty years of age, in July, 1866. Following graduation he became an instructor in Botany and Horticulture at Iowa State Agricultural College (Ames) in 1869. He received a Master of Science from Michigan Agricultural College in 1872, and in 1879, Iowa State conferred a Ph.D. upon him. He arrived at the University of Nebraska to teach Botany in 1884. Popular with students, staff, faculty, and respected world-wide for his scholarship, Bessey proved over time that his research was on the cutting edge of scientific discovery. Through his many academic publications, especially “The Phylogenetic Taxonomy of Flowering Plants,” (1914), from which evolved “The Bessey System,” he contributed greatly to agricultural practice, and scientific experimentation.

Education however, was Bessey’s passion. He was “…one of the greatest teachers this country has ever had. 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.” [1] In 1915 Dean of the University of Nebraska’s Agricultural College, and future Chancellor Edgar Albert Burnett remarked upon Bessey’s passing: “The Doctor’s influence for these thirty odd years has been so great that no man can fill his place.” [2] University of Nebraska Paleontologist Erwin Hinckley Barbour remarked: “He has been working himself to death giving nine lectures a week to the three divisions of one class where three would have done.” [3]

Bessey’s first student, and eminent lawyer Roscoe Pound, also thought quite highly of his former mentor, reflecting.

When I think how he has maintained his office in
holes and corners, systematically giving up the best quarters to
what he has always thought of as the paramount interest, namely,
his students; how he has given up opportunity to do the work of
research and write books in order that his pupils might get the credit
of what was really his work…[he was a] noble and faithful public servant.


Following Bessey’s death, Pound recorded: “The loss to Nebraska is indeed irreparable and it is hard for me to think of putting my head inside the door of Nebraska Hall again with Dr. Bessey gone.” [5] Another student, Patrick Joseph O’Gara, spoke similarly of Charles Bessey: “No one can feel more deeply the loss of Dr. Bessey from the scientific world than I.” [6]

From an obscure birth in a small Ohio farm community to world renown and acclaim for scientific achievement, Charles Edwin Bessey, over the span of his life, has become one of Nebraska’s great scientists.


Dean, Herbert J. Webber, letter to Raymond John Pool, Mar. 16, 1915, RJPP, B1F1, ASCUNL. [back]

Edgar Albert Burnett, letter to S.C. Bassett, Mar. 1, 1915, EABP, Letterpress Book, B14F1, ASCUNL. [back]

Erwin Hinckley Barbour, letter to Nathan Roscoe Pound, Frederic Edward and Edith Gertrude Schwartz Clements, ca., Feb. 1915, EHBP, Archives UNSM, F: O’Gara, Patrick Joseph. [back]

Nathan Roscoe Pound, letter to Erwin Hinckley Barbour, Feb. 13, 1915, Erwin H. Barbour, Papers, University of Nebraska State Museum, Folder: O’Gara, Patrick Joseph. [back]

Nathan Roscoe Pound, letter to Erwin Hinckley Barbour, Mar. 3, 1915, EHBP, Archives UNSM, Folder: O’Gara, Patrick Joseph. [back]

Patrick Joseph O’Gara, letter to Erwin Hinckley Barbour, Feb. 15, 1915, EHBP, Archives UNSM, Folder: O’Gara, Patrick Joseph. [back]