The NMC Herbarium History

The herbarium at NMSU began with the hiring of Elmer Otis Wooton as Professor of Chemistry and Botany in January,1890, by the newly founded New Mexico College of Agricultural and Mechanical Arts (the origin of the international acronym for the herbarium, NMC). That spring Wooton began collecting widely in the territory and continued doing so until he left for Washington, D.C., in 1911. At the time of his departure the herbarium collection is reported to have been about 35,000 specimens, generated by Wooton’s collections, those of his student and colleague, Paul Carpenter Standley, and by exchange with other institutions. From 1911 to the early 1950’s little is known of the history of the herbarium. A few specimens that supported agricultural studies were accessioned in the late 1930’s, but there is little other evidence of activity. There are no loan records known to be in existence. Specimens apparently were used in large part for teaching. Some specimens were seriously degraded by extensive use and insect damage during this period.

In the early 1950’s David Dunn was hired as curator. He left after a few years, replaced by W. A. Dick-Peddie, a plant ecologist, in 1954. In 1956 the Biology Department was administratively split, the research faculty moving to the College of Agriculture, the teaching faculty becoming part of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Fig. 1,2. Elmer Ottis Wooton. 1. In 1986, at age 31 near the begining of his New Mexico years (Hobson-Huntsinger University Archives, New Mexico State University Library). 2. In 1908, at age 48 near the end of his New Mexico years (Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation)

The herbarium was situated in the latter college. Dick-Peddie cared for the collection until 1966. 

In 1966, in response to pressures for accrediting its fledgling Ph. D. program, the Biology Department hired a plant taxonomist, Don Gordon, who began to care for and develop the herbarium through extensive curatorial efforts. Gordon left in 1968, and in that year NMSU hired Richard Spellenberg as a plant taxonomist and curator of the herbarium.

During Spellenberg’s oversight of the herbarium, the collection grew from approximately 37,500 specimens to 70,000 specimens. Additions to the collection came from the work of NMSU faculty, exchange with other institutions, and donation of specimens by local botanists, some of whom were affiliated with land management agencies.


Fig. 3. Dr. Spellenberg collecting at Basaseachic, Chihuahua.

Growth was directed toward developing a strong regional and research collection. A backlog of about 20,000 specimens stored in the attic of Foster Hall was processed, those supporting the goals of the herbarium accessioned (such as Pringle’s later collections from Mexico), others sent to various herbaria. Duplicated specimens (some as many as 8 times) that had been added to the main collection over the years were withdrawn from the herbarium as they were discovered and were sent to specialists. Specimens of geographic origin that had virtually no potential of supporting botanical work at NMSU or in the local community, received by unrestricted exchange in the early history of the collection, were also sent to specialists or other regional herbaria. Development of an electronic database was initiated in the early 1990’s. The database now contains 34,500 records, or about ½ the collection (early 2004). Data entry has been supported by NMSU, the NMSU Foundation, the NM State Land Office, the Long Term Ecological Research program, and the NSF. All specimens of species of conservation concern have been databased (locations will be released only upon demonstrated need). The collections holds approximately 200 types, yet to be databased. Spellenberg retired in 2000 and tended the herbarium as emeritus faculty until the arrival of the new curator, Dr. Donovan Bailey, in 2003.

In 1971 the herbarium moved from a small room on the third floor of the north wing of Foster Hall to larger, remodeled quarters on the second floor as part of an overall renovation of the building. In 1993 it moved again to its present location in the Biology Annex, originally an air mechanics work area, when it vacated its space in Foster Hall for a new research laboratory devoted to molecular ecology and evolution. This last move again increased usable space. Moreover, the quality of the physical facility was upgraded through a grant from the National Science Foundation. It now is a spacious, well-lighted, pleasant place for faculty and visitors to work. Associate with the herbarium is a technical literature collection of about 3000 items.

Fig.4. Dr. Bailey at NMC herbarium (C. Laney)

Direction of growth: The goal of growth for the herbarium is to make the a quality regional and national resource developed within limited availability of funds. For the general collection, emphasis is placed on accessions from New Mexico, surrounding states, the Chihuahua Desert, and the Sierra Madre Occidental of Mexico. In addition, specimens from anywhere in the world that supported specific faculty and graduate research projects were welcome.