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Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club/V35/Lucien Marcus Underwood: a memorial tribute

Lucien Marcus Underwood : a memorial tribute*
Marshall Avery Howe

An appreciation of the character and work of Lucien M. Underwood that shall be wholly impartial and dispassionate can hardly be expected of those who were intimately associated with him during a considerable number of the most productive years of his life.   Yet those, more than others, knew the man as he was and as he worked, and they are for that reason entitled to a hearing.  It was my privilege to begin a correspondence with him in 1892 at a time when I was making the acquaintance of some of the Californian Hepaticae in the field and was trying to learn something of their published history without the advantage of access to much of the pertinent literature.  Professor Underwood had then for ten years been accumulating Hepaticae and the literature relating to this group of plants, had published his "Descriptive Catalogue of North American Hepaticae, North of Mexico" and his elaboration of the group in the sixth edition of Gray's Manual, and was the acknowledged American leader in this line of taxonomic research.  The ferns and their allies, knowledge of which, also, he had been efficient in popularizing, were likewise submitted to him, and his generous and helpful responses did much to foster and stimulate my interest, as they did that of many others.  In the autumn of 1896 he assumed the duties of the professorship of botany in Columbia University, and my more intimate personal association with him began at that time, for he then offered me an opportunity to continue my studies of the Californian Hepaticae in New York and most generously and encouragingly placed at my service not only his extensive library and herbarium but also the results of his wide experience.  In this connection, and in acknowledging my lasting gratitude to Professor Underwood, I am constrained to remark that the breadth of a man's mind and the purity of his desire for the truth is often best indicated in his attitude toward opinions and beliefs which may chance to differ from his own.  In studying the Hepaticae of California it happened in a few instances that I reached conclusions more or less at variance with views to which he had previously given expression in print, as indeed may be expected at any time as a matter of personal equation between any two investigators in the biologic sciences.  In such cases, Professor Underwood was always manifestly without bias or prejudice, desiring only the whole truth and confident that the truth alone would ultimately prevail.  In fact, his breadth of view and the comprehensiveness of his sympathies were characteristics which impressed themselves upon even casual acquaintances.  His work as a teacher of college students was not confined to exclusively botanical lines until he had reached nearly middle age.  In his earlier manhood he not only taught geology, zoölogy and chemistry, in addition to botany, but also published several papers dealing with geological, zoölogical, and biological subjects.  And his personal acquaintance with plants was remarkably wide even outside of the ferns, the Hepaticae, and the fungi, the groups in which he found his special fields for research.  Accordingly, his outlook upon botanical science as a whole had a breadth and sanity that is all too rare in the men that have been schooled in an age of more extreme specialization.


*Read at a memorial meeting of the Torrey Botanical Club, January 29, 1908.


Any just estimate of the scientific work of Professor Underwood cannot fail to emphasize its influence in popularizing botanical knowledge and in rendering it more accessible.   Sufficient evidence of the importance of this phase of his work is found in the fact that his " Our Native Ferns and their Allies," with slight variation in title, passed through six editions from 1881 to 1900. This little book was essentially a pioneer in its field, was admirably conceived and charmingly written, and it cannot be an exaggeration to assert that it has done more to stimulate and popularize the study of the American ferns than has any other single agency. The " Descriptive Catalogue of the North American Hepaticae " was likewise a pioneer in its line. It brought together in a convenient form information that had previously been very difficult of access to the ordinary student. It, unhappily, was never reprinted, but that it met a real demand is evidenced by the difficulty with which even second-hand copies were obtainable within a few years after its publication. His " Moulds, Mildews, and Mushrooms," published in 1899, was written in a somewhat popular vein as an introduction to the study of the fungi and has served a useful purpose.

In considering the more technical aspects of Professor Underwood's botanical work, one is impressed by his instincts for collecting and systematizing, by his ability to express results in a terse, vigorous, synoptical form, and by the importance which he attached to the study of living plants in their natural surroundings as distinguished from the study of their mummified remains in herbaria. In addition to numerous excursions of a more local nature, he made visits to Florida, California, Porto Rico, Jamaica, and Cuba, for the purpose of making collections and field-studies of the Hepaticae and Pteridophyta. The desirability or even the necessity of such a first-hand acquaintance with the living plants in order to gain any adequate notion of their affinities is sufficiently apparent nowadays as regards any particular group, but is perhaps especially obvious in connection with the tropical tree-ferns, species of which, in some cases, have unfortunately been described from small fragments of the dried leaves. As complementary to the study of living plants in their own homes and to the study of herbarium specimens and the literature pertaining to them, Professor Underwood insisted upon the importance of seeing, if possible, the original or taxonomic " type "-specimen whenever the first description left any reasonable doubt as to the identity of the plant.

In his several visits to Europe, he had seen and examined the materials from which most of the endemic American species of ferns were originally described, in so far as such materials are preserved, and also many foreign types with which American specimens had been identified — sometimes erroneously— by the earlier writers. The results of these comparisons have in part been incorporated in his published papers and in part they will become available to his successors through his unpublished notes and sketches. Professor Underwood's enthusiasm for the correct interpretation of all proposed genera and species was naturally correlated with an interest in other questions connected with the nomenclature of plants. His views in such matters were pronounced; they were forcefully advocated and warmly defended. In the ranks of the reformers and restorers, he was one of the most radical and most logical, one of the least compromising and least temporizing. Fifty years hence, perhaps, it will be generally conceded that he rendered a notable service to botanical science in insisting upon the importance of nomenclatural types for genera and species, upon the importance of anchoring a specific name to a certain definite specimen by which the validity of the species is to be judged, and upon the importance, in like manner, of pinning a generic name down to a certain definite species, to prevent the endless wandering and shifting which have found such portentous beginnings during the past two centuries. He saw clearly the futility of action like that of a recent International Botanical Congress in decreeing that certain generic names shall be " conserved" without taking the trouble to specify for what they shall be conserved. But names and their correct application, important as he considered them, were after all incidental details in the accomplishment of his main purposes. It was for many years his ambitious hope to assist in the publication of a descriptive flora of North America that should include all the known plants from the lowest to the highest, with the entire continent and the West Indian islands as its field. That he took a leading part in planning such a work he would doubtless consider the crowning effort of his life. That he lived to see the actual publication of five parts of a projected work of such a scope is a source of gratification to his friends.

Lucien M. Underwood was devoted to the world of plants, but he was more devoted to the world of human beings. Nothing human was foreign to him. He loved the beautiful in literature and art as well as the beautiful in the exterior world. His intimates will not soon forget the sympathetic fervor with which he could read selected passages from Victor Hugo's Les Miserables or from a treasured Life of Abraham Lincoln, or the delicacy with which he could describe his emotions on first beholding the Lion of Lucerne. His pupils will not soon forget the hours that he cheerfully gave to their assistance or the personal interest that he felt in their welfare. His friends will not soon forget his generosity, his forbearance, his sympathy, or his loyalty. Lucien M. Underwood might have been a farmer, he might have been an actor, he might have been a physician, he might have been a preacher; but, he was a botanist and a human human-being — and botany and humanity are the richer.