Collectors and Their Legacies

July 8, 2024 Research & Conservation

Denver Botanic Gardens houses more than 100,000 preserved plant, fungal and insect specimens that are used for a multitude of purposes including scientific study. As part of my job as the collection's assistant, I see almost every single specimen incorporated into our collections. One of my favorite things to do is learn about who collected these specimens. I thought it would be fun to share the stories of some of the collectors whose specimens are housed here at the Gardens.

The oldest specimen in our collection was collected by Dr. Johann Wilhelm Helfer (1810 – 1840) in Calcutta, India in 1837. Johann was born in Prague and ended up in Calcutta after parting from an expedition down the Euphrates River. Most of the collections he made were deposited at Kew Botanical Gardens in London, UK, but we ended up with one of his specimens through a series of exchanges. Unfortunately, Johann’s career was cut short after he was hit with an arrow on an expedition to the Andaman Islands. 

Plant specimen

Symplocos spicata Roxb. collected by Dr. Johann Wilhelm Helfer in India.

About 1,000 fungal specimens were collected by Dr. Alexander H. Smith (1904-1986) Alexander was a prominent mycologist working at the University of Michigan who ended up describing many fungal species new to science. Over his lifetime Alexander accumulated more than 100,000 fungal collections. He advised a plethora of students who went on to become prominent mycologists, including Harry D. Thiers, who worked in San Francisco, and Orson K. Miller, who spent over 30 years at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA (1970-2002).

Black and white headshot man with glasses

Dr. Alexander H. Smith 

The specimens created by Dr. Helfer and Dr. Smith are their legacies, and our collections are filled with specimens from hundreds of collectors. Highlighting each of their stores breathes new life into their preserved specimens. By picturing yourself in the shoes of these historical scientists, you can relive their adventures and imagine how all these specimens came to be.

dried mushroom specimens

A.H. Smith mushroom specimen

Lastly, I want to also acknowledge that the lives of the men I highlighted today are well documented. For many people of color, Indigenous people, women and other “hidden” figures, their stories are not as well documented but their contributions to collections is just as important! Part of my current research is bringing to light Kathryn Kalmbach, the namesake of our non-living plant collection.

Want to hear a story about a hidden botanical legend from Virginia? Check out this talk by Dr. Andrea Weeks from George Mason University on Lena Artz, a pioneer of botanical exploration in Virginia.  

This article was contributed by Collection’s Assistant Matthew Sheik. 


Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Sign up for our e-newsletters!