Elizabeth Knight Britton's Early Career

By Dr. Emily Sessions

Feb 26 2021

Elizabeth Knight Britton went on to complete her schooling at the Normal School (now Hunter College) in New York and then joined the school as a faculty member. She taught botany there for over ten years. One letter pasted into her personal scrapbook, now held by the NYBG archives, tells Elizabeth Knight Britton that she was “a little girl with ambition to pass all your classmates below you by being the first to find out the generic and specific name of a fern. I felt sure that such ambition would lead to no common result.”

As a young scientist, Britton published extensively on bryophytes and ferns and gave lectures across Brooklyn and the United States. She was, of course, a key driver of the establishment of the New York Botanical Garden during the 1890s along with her husband Nathaniel Lord Britton and served as the Honorary Curator of Mosses for the Garden for fifteen years. One newspaper article actually calls her the “director-in-chief of The New York Botanical Garden” – this may have been an error, but shows the central role that she played. Elizabeth Knight Britton, in fact, pasted this article into her scrapbook, along with a handwritten note teasing Nathaniel Lord Britton for “letting your wife surpass you in the eyes of the public.”

This note also hints at the sexism that Elizabeth Knight Britton faced. She was unable to keep her teaching job upon getting married (a common restriction at the time) and she struggled to get credit for her early contributions to the field. Marcia Myers Bonta, for instance, has argued that Able Joel Grout, a former student of Britton’s, stole her plan to publish a handbook of mosses as well as her plan to found the Sullivant Moss Society. It may have been because of these experiences that Elizabeth Knight Britton took such relish in her leadership roles in the Botanical Garden expeditions to her childhood home, Cuba.

A Closer Look

More about: Women in Science

Dr. Emily Sessions is the current Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Humanities Institute at the LuEsther T. Mertz Library

The material presented in this exhibition is all drawn from the collections of the Library and of the NYBG Archives. For more information on Elizabeth Knight Britton and on the NYBG's work in Cuba, please see references:

Bonta, Marcia Myers. Women in the Field: America’s Pioneering Women Naturalists. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1991.

Harding, Sandra G. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives. Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1991.

Rossiter, Margaret W. Women Scientists in America: Forging a New World Since 1972.Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.

Schiebinger, Londa L. The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1989.