John Kunkel Small

By Amy Weiss

Apr 21 2019

John Kunkel Small (1869-1938) was a taxonomist and botanical explorer, who specialized in the plants of the southeastern United States, especially Florida.

John Kunkel Small was born and raised in Pennsylvania. He attended Franklin & Marshall College where he met fellow student A. Arthur Heller; together they scoured the countryside on botanical excursions. During the summer of 1891, Small and Heller took a botanical trip to the mountains of western North Carolina; this expedition marked the beginning of his lifelong interest in the flora of the southeastern United States.

Upon graduation, Small secured a fellowship in botany under Nathaniel Lord Britton at Columbia College (now Columbia University). After completing his doctorate degree, he stayed on as curator of the herbarium at Columbia. When Columbia's herbarium was transferred to the New York Botanical Garden in 1898, Small followed it and became the first Curator of Museums at the Garden.

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; he personally collected over 60,000 herbarium specimens of flowering plants, ferns, mosses, hepatics, and fungi for the Garden's collections.

It was in 1901 that Small first visited Florida, to see with his own eyes the remarkable plants that others were sending him. His eyes were opened — he revisited the state on average more than once a year for the next 35 years. His excursions to Florida were lively events, conducted by boat and car, and documented with herbarium collections, photographs, and published accounts of his trips. Small often brought along his wife, Elizabeth, and their four children. 

Small published the Flora of the Southeastern United States in 1903, with a revised edition in 1913, and a condensed version for the field in 1933. It was, and remained, the best floristic reference for much of the South.


Austin, D. F., Cholewa, A. F., Lasiter, R. B., and Hansen, B. F. (1987). The Florida of John Kunkel Small: His species and types, collecting localities, bibliography, and selected reprinted works. Contributions from the New York Botanical Garden (vol. 18).

Barnhart, J. H. (1938). The passing of Doctor Small. Journal of the New York Botanical Garden 39(460): 73-79. Retrieved 20 April 2019, from  

New York Botanical Garden Mertz Library Archives and Manuscript Collections (n.d.). Records of the Herbarium (RG 4): John Kunkel Small Records (1892-1938). Retrieved 20 April 2019, from

Explore further:

John Kunkel Small photo collection, State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.