Bessey Family Papers

Summary Information

Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections
Bessey family, (Charles Bessey, 1845-1915)
Bessey, Charles E., (Charles Edwin), 1845-1915
Bessey, Ernst Athearn, 1877-1957
Bessey family papers
Date [inclusive]
1.0 Cubic feet

Preferred Citation

Researchers wishing to cite this collection should include the following information: "Item title, Collection title, Collection Identifier, Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections, East Lansing, Michigan."

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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 in 1866 and studied under Albert Nelson Prentiss and William James Beal, two botanists noted for their teaching skills. Correspondence with them is included in the collection.

Graduating from M.A.C. with a B.S. in 1869, he 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 Dr. 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. A draft section of the text is available in the collection.

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 Pinchat, USDA Forester, he worked to establish a forest in the Sand Hills region of Nebraska. Correspondence with USDA leaders pertaining to the establishment of the National Forest is available in the collection.

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.

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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 1902-1904, 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 Ph.D. in 1904. Photograph albums, manuscripts and letters in the collection document these travels.

From 1908-1910, 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 University. He succeeded W.J. Beal as professor of Botany from 1910-1920, was made head of the Botany department in 1920, and later served as acting dean of the Applied Science division from 1927-1930. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Graduate School at M.S.U., 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.

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Scope and Contents note

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

The series Biographical Data 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 series Manuscripts and Publications 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 series titled General 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 uredinologist of this country. Correspondence with many noteworthy botanical leaders of the era is available in the collection, including Liberty Hyde Bailey and William James 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 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 Dr. Asa Gray; on Dr. 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.

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Administrative Information

Publication Information

Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections April 1991

Conrad Hall
888 Wilson Road, Room 101
East Lansing , MI, 48824

Revision Description

 revised scope August 2014

Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research.

Legal Status

Copyright: Michigan State University. Property Rights: Michigan State University.

Conditions Governing Use

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

Custodial History

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

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Related Materials

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.

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Controlled Access Headings

Corporate Name(s)

  • Iowa Agricultural College.
  • Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College.
  • Michigan State University.
  • United States. Department of Agriculture.
  • University of Nebraska at Omaha.


  • Letters (correspondence)
  • Photographs
  • Scrapbooks

Geographic Name(s)

  • Russia -- Description and travel

Personal Name(s)

  • Arthur, Joseph Charles, 1850-1942
  • Bailey, L. H., (Liberty Hyde), 1858-1954
  • Beal, W. J., (William James), 1833-1924
  • Bessey, Edith Carleton Higgins
  • Fernow, B.E., (Bernhard Eduard), 1851-1923
  • Higgins, Ella Noyes, 1851-1931
  • Higgins, Harry Noyes
  • Higgins, Leslie A., -1951
  • Holt, Henry, 1840-1926
  • Kearns, Ellen
  • Kuhn, Madison
  • McKune, Lawrence E.
  • Noyes, Bertha Higgins
  • Pinchot, Gifford, 1865-1946
  • Porter, Mable Cornell Higgins


  • Botanists -- United States
  • Botany -- United States
  • Education
  • Mycology

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Collection Inventory

Biographical Data 

Box Folder

Bessey, Charles Edwin - Biographical Information 1911-1954 

1 1

Bessey, Ernst Athearn - Biographical Information 1910-1968 

1 2

Higgins, Edith Carleton - Biographical Information on Relatives 1931-1951 

1 3

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Manuscripts and Publications 


Bessey, Charles Edwin 

Box Folder

Lecture Notes undated 

1 4

Manuscripts undated 

1 5-6
Box Folder

Manuscripts Written by Colleagues of Charles Edwin Bessey undated 

1 7

Manuscripts - Author Unknown undated 

1 8

Bessey, Charles Edwin -- Manuscript of "Travel to Caucuses" 1903-1904 

1 9

Bessey, Ernst Athearn 

Box Folder

Letters from Abroad 1903-1904 

1 10

Publications 1905, 1918, 1942 

1 11

Bessey, Charles Edwin -- Lecture Notes "Plans and Purpose in Nature" circa 1895 

1 12

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Box Folder

Bessey, Charles Edwin - Royal Botanic Gardens Contributions Receipts 1885-1902 

1 13

Newspaper Clippings - Omaha World-Herald 1914, 1952 

1 14

Bessey, Charles Edwin - Botanical Drawings, Exams Clippings, Fragmented Speeches undated 

1 15

"On the Affinities of Ceratophyllaceae" 1837 

1 74

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Arthur, Joseph C. 

Box Folder

New York Agricultural Experiment Station, Geneva 1882-1885 

1 16

New York Agricultural Experiment Station, Geneva 1886-1887 

1 17

Agricultural Experiment Station of Indiana 1887-1903 

1 18
Box Folder

Austin, C.F. undated 

1 19

Bailey, Liberty Hyde 

Box Folder

Michigan Agricultural College 1885-1887 

1 20

Cornell University 1890-1900 

1 21
Box Folder

Barnes, Charles Reid 1884-1897 

1 22

Barnes, Charles Reid 1898-1903 

1 23

Beal, Foster E.L. 1885-1886 

1 24

Beal, William James - Michigan Agricultural College 1885-1903 

1 25

Bebb, M.S. - Rockford, Illinois 1881-1885 

1 26

R & J Beck Manufacturers and Importers of Scientific Equipment, London - W.H. Walmsley, Manager 1881 

1 27

Brewer, W.H. - Sheffield Scientific School of Yale 1887-1898 

1 28

Britton, Elizabeth Gertrude - Columbia College 1886-1902 

1 29

Britton, Nathaniel Lord - Columbia College 1885-1894 

1 30

Britton, Nathaniel Lord - Columbia College -- 1895-1904 

1 31

Burrill, Thomas Jonathan - University of Illinois 1886-1903 

1 32

Carleton, Mark Alfred - Cerealist, USDA 1897-1902 

1 33

Coulter, John Merle - University of Chicago 1881-1895 

1 34

Coulter, John Merle - University of Chicago 1897-1903 

1 35

Curtiss, A.H. - Jacksonville, FL 1885-1895 

1 36

Curtiss, A.H. - Jacksonville, FL 1896-1903 

1 37

Ellis, Job Bicknell - Mycologist; Newfield, NJ 1878-1887 

1 38

Ellis, Job Bicknell - Mycologist; Newfield, NJ 1888-1899 

1 39

Fernow, Bernhard E. - USDA, Division of Forestry 1892-1902 

1 40

Gibbes, M. 1897-1898 

1 41

Goodale, George L. - Harvard University 1893-1898, n.d. 

1 42

Greene, E.L. 1887 

1 43

Henry Holt, Publisher 

Box Folder

New York, NY 1879-1886 

1 44

New York, NY 1887-1904 

1 45

New York, NY - Publication Sales (receipts) 1881-1894 

1 46

Kellerman, William Ashbrook 

Box Folder

Kansas State Agricultural College 1883-1889 

1 47

Ohio State University 1895-1899 

1 48
Box Folder

Leummings, Clara E. - Wellesley College 1885-1903 

1 49

McClathchie, A.J. - Throop University, Pasadena, CA 1892-1893 

1 50

McClathchie, A.J. - Throop University, Pasadena, CA 1894-1903 

1 51

Manatt, James Irving - University of Nebraska 1884-1886 

1 52

Meehan, Thomas 1885-1900 

1 53

Moll, Francis 1887 

1 54

Morgan, A.P. - Preston, Ohio 1886-1892 

1 55

Morton, Julius Sterling - Secretary, USDA 1887-1895 

1 56

Pinchot, Gifford - U.S. Forester 1894-1904 

1 57

Prestiss, A.N. - Cornell University 1890-1895 

1 58

Riley, Charles Valentine - USDA, Division of Entomology 1885 

1 59

Robinson, Benjamin Lincoln - Gray Herbarium, Harvard 1894-1903 

1 60

Sargent, Charles Sprague - Arnold Arboretum, Harvard 1880-1896 

1 61

Sargent, Charles Sprague - Arnold Arboretum, Harvard 1897-1904 

1 62

Sturtevant, Edward Lewis - New York Agricultural Experiment Station, Geneva 1884-1886 

1 63

Underwood, Lucien Marcus - Columbia University 1885-1903 

1 64

Vasey, George - USDA, Bureau of Botany 1885-1891 

1 65

Vasey, George - USDA, Bureau of Botany 1892-1893 

1 66

Watrous, Charles Leach - Capital City Nurseries, Iowa 1894-1895 

1 67

Watson, Sereno - Herbarium of Harvard University 1884-1890 

1 68

Webber, H.J. 

Box Folder

Washington University, MO 1890-1892 

1 69

USDA, Division of Vegetable Pathology 1892-1901 

1 70

USDA, Bureau of Plant Pathology 1903-1904 

1 71
Box Folder

General Correspondence 1881-1902 

1 72

Fragment Letters 1881-1902, undated 

1 73

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Russian Photographs 1902 

SB 343

Russian Photographs 1902 

SB 344

European Photographs 1903 

SB 345

Family Album 1935-1938 

SB 346

MSU Class of 1940. Record Book 1940 

SB 347

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Oversized Materials 


Certificate of appointment of H.N. Higgins as First Lieutenant by the Department of Military Science, University of Nebraska. 1902; Nebraska High Schools, Omaha - diplomas of Bertha Noyes Higgins, Edith Carleton Higgins, and Mabel Cornell Higgins 1896, 1897, 1899 


Mycological Society of America. Meeting 


Russia. Moscow 


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Christmas Cards (3 folders) 

People. Bessey, Charles E. 

People. Bessey, Ernst A. 

People. Bessey, Marim Elizabeth 

People. Cole 

People. Cole, Dolores Maureen 

People. Frutchey, Frank Burr 

People. Groups 

People. Newcomer, Peter Jay 

People. Porter Family 

People. Unidentified 

People. Wilde Family 

People. Bessey, Charles E. 

People. Bessey, Ernst A. (2 folders) 

People. Bessey, Mrs. Ernst 

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