Person Details: J. K. Small
( John Kunkel Small )
J. K. Small
31 Jan 1869 – 20 Jan 1938
Algae; Bryophytes; Pteridophytes; Spermatophytes
Author, Collector, Determiner
United States of America, Bahamas, Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania
John Kunkel Small (1869-1938) was a taxonomist and botanical explorer, specializing in the southeastern United States, especially Florida. He was the first Curator of Museums at The New York Botanic Garden , a post in which he served from 1898 until 1906. In 1906, as the Garden's staff expanded, Small was named Head Curator. He held this position until 1934. As such, he played an active part in building the institution and establishing the herbarium collections and the protocols for their exhibition. He personally collected over 60,000 herbarium specimens of flowering plants, ferns, mosses, hepatics, and fungi for the Garden's collections. In 1934 he was named Chief Research Associate and Curator.
Small was born on January 31, 1869 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He attended Franklin & Marshall College, graduating with a degree in botany in 1892. His first explorations of the southeastern flora - the mountains of western North Carolina - occurred during those years. His account was accepted by the Torrey Botanical Club and published in the Memoirs . This brought him to the attention of N. L. Britton, who offered him a fellowship to pursue graduate studies at Columbia. His dissertation Monograph of the North American Species of Polygonum, 1895, was the first volume of the Memoirs of the Department of Botany of Columbia College. After graduation, he stayed on as Curator of the Herbarium at Columbia , establishing it as the first herbarium arranged according to the Engler and Prantl sequence. When Columbia's herbarium was transferred to The New York Botanical Garden in 1898, Small followed it as Curator.
Small was the first botanist to explore Florida since A. W. Chapman and many of the areas he documented had never been examined. His doctoral dissertation, published as Flora of the Southeastern United States in 1903, and revised 1913 and 1933, remains the best floristic reference for much of the south. His first trip to Florida was in 1901 when Miami had some 2,000 residents. The Florida hammock in which he was particularly interested had disappeared to such an extent by 1929 that he published From Eden to Sahara: Florida's Tragedy, sparking a movement for conservation of the wetlands that eventually resulted in the formation of The Everglades National Park.
Small followed the taxonomic philosophy of Britton. He contributed descriptions of several families for the first edition of Britton and Brown's An Illustrated Flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British possessions... 1896-1898. Today, some scientists consider his species classifications too narrow, yet other of his observations have been reconfirmed. Index Kewensis cites Small as the author of 2,057 genera, species, and binomials.
Dr. Small discovered the Louisiana wild Iris after glimpsing a bed growing in a swamp as the train he was on passed by. He returned using a hand-car, the railroad had put at his disposal. He harvested the irises and with E. J. Alexander classified nearly ninety distinct species, documented in Addisonia. Small distributed 6,500 packets of seeds and several thousand plants throughout the world. Because the swamps in which they were growing were being drained, Dr. Small is credited with saving the Louisiana wild Iris from extinction.
Dr. Small lived at a time before foundation or governmental research support. His excursions to Florida were under the patronage of Charles Deering and later, Arthur C. James. These were lively events, conducted by boat and car. Dr. Small often brought along his wife, Elizabeth, and four children. On at least one occasion (1918) the Garden sent along the artist Mary Eaton, who produced twenty-eight watercolors of rare flowering plants.
Because he would have been compelled to pay for publication from his own pocket, only a small portion of Small's work was ever published. Much of his material remains in the form of bound typescripts. Of the work that has been published, there have been reprints as recently as 1987. His bibliography consists of 450 items, mostly articles. In his later years, Small concentrated on ferns, cacti and palms. Between 1927 and 1931, he worked with Thomas A. Edison on his search for rubber-producing plants. This included fieldwork in Florida and hybridization in the laboratories of The New York Botanical Garden.
John Kunkel Small died at his home on East 207th Street in Manhattan on January 20, 1938.
See Contrib. New York Bot. Gard. 18. 1987, for lists of species described, sites botanized and bibliography of J. K. Small.
Reference: Authors of Plant Names. 1992
From the Finding Guide of the Archives and Manuscript Collections webpage of the Lu Esther T. Mertz Library: