The Brittons: Partners in Life and Botany

By Nicole Tarnowsky, Lisa Vargues

Apr 15 2019

The establishment of The New York Botanical Garden was the result of the right ingredients combined at the right time: these were vision, determination, expertise, and support-- all of which Nathaniel Lord Britton and Elizabeth Gertrude Knight Britton had in abundance. The Brittons were at the forefront of NYBG’s founding, inspired by their honeymoon trip to England’s Kew Gardens. Upon their return, they convinced the Torrey Botanical Club to publish a public appeal to establish The New York Botanical Garden. With the support of many philanthropists of the time, including Cornelius Vanderbilt II, Andrew Carnegie, and J. Pierpont Morgan, NYBG was incorporated in 1891.

Nathaniel Lord Britton was born in 1859 in Staten Island, where his ancestral home (from ca. 1670) still stands in Historic Richmond Town. He was a Columbia College (now University) professor in botany and geology, as well as NYBG’s first Director-in-Chief. Elizabeth Gertrude Knight Britton, born in 1858 in New York City, was a graduate of Normal College (now Manhattan’s Hunter College). She was a bryologist and member of the Torrey Botanical Club, where she met N. L. Britton. E. G. Britton was an excellent botanist in a time when there were few female scientists. 

In their career together, the Brittons studied botany both in the field and in the herbarium. They made numerous expeditions to the Caribbean and a mountain in El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico, was named in their honor. The NYBG herbarium was started with Columbia College's collections at its core, and it grew quickly due to the Brittons' early leadership acquiring valuable specimens from all over the world. Their legacy has expanded our collections to be the largest in the western hemisphere.

Elizabeth’s death in February 1934 had a traumatic impact on her husband, and he passed away just four months later from a stroke. They are buried side-by-side under a sweet gum tree in Staten Island’s Moravian Cemetery. As the Brittons first envisioned, NYBG remains an advocate for the plant world.

A Closer Look