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Bessey, Charles Edwin

Published onJul 30, 2021
Bessey, Charles Edwin

(May 21, 1845 - Feb. 25, 1915)

Quick Facts

A pioneer in American botany, Bessey created the first undergraduate botanical laboratory in the United States and established the now-named Ada Hayden Herbarium.


Source: University Archives, Iowa State University Library

Charles Edwin Bessey was born May 21, 1845 in Milton, Ohio. He received a BS (1869) and an honorary MS (1872) from Michigan Agricultural College (Michigan State University); an honorary PhD (1879) from the State University of Iowa (University of Iowa); and a LLD (1898) from Grinnell College. Bessey also studied under Dr. Asa Gray at Harvard University during the winters of 1872, 1873, and 1875.

Bessey held several positions during the early years of Iowa Agricultural College (IAC, now Iowa State University) including Instructor and then Professor of Botany and Horticulture (1870-1884); Vice President of the College (1882); and Acting President of the College (1882). He guided the Department of Botany during its formative years and created the first undergraduate botanical laboratory in the United States in 1871. Bessey also established Iowa State University's herbarium, later named the Ada Hayden Herbarium (1988).

Bessey left Iowa State in 1884 to become the Chair of Botany and Horticulture and Dean of Agriculture (1884-1915) at the University of Nebraska. He was the Acting President of the University (1888-1891, 1909) and Dean of Deans (1909-1915). While in Nebraska, Bessey was chosen as Scientist of the State Board of Agriculture. He assisted in the passing of the Hatch Act and initiated a tree planting experiment that resulted in the Nebraska National Forest, the first man-made national forest in the world.

Charles E. Bessey was the author of numerous articles and publications, including The Essentials of Botany (1884), which he later re-wrote with his son, Ernst Bessey, and re-titled The Essentials of College Botany (1914). Selected other titles include Botany for High Schools and Colleges (New York, 1880), Elementary Botany (1904), Plant Migration Studies (1905), Synopsis of Plant Phyla (1907), Outlines of Plant Phyla (1909), and co-authored with others, New Elementary Agriculture (ninth edition, 1911).

Charles Bessey, 1963 by Velma Rayness (American, 1896 - 1977). Oil on canvas. Commissioned by Iowa State College. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U2012.100

Location: Iowa State University, Bessey Hall, Room 353

Bessey is best remembered as a botany proponent of the “new botany” which shifted botany away from a concentration on taxonomy towards evolutionary classification. He actively participated in several professional scientific organizations, including the Society for Promotion of Agricultural Science (President, 1889-1891), the Botanical Society of America (President, 1895-1895), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (President, 1910-1912), among others.

Charles Bessey married Lucy Athearn (1847-1920) December 25, 1873. They had three sons: Edward Athearn (1875-1910), Ernst Athearn (1877-1957), and Karl (Carl) Athearn (1878-19??).

Bessey passed away February 25, 1915 in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Selected Sources

Charles Bessey Papers, RG RS 13/5/11, University Archives, Iowa State University Library, Ames.

Charles Bessey Botany Papers, RG/12-07-10, Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries

Overfield, Richard A. Science with Practice: Charles E. Bessey and the Maturing of American Botany (Iowa State University Press Series in the History of Technology and Science), 1st Edition, 1993.

Pool, Raymond J. “A Brief Sketch of the Life and Work of Charles Edwin Bessey.” American Journal of Botany, Vol. II, No. 10 (December 1915). Available online: (Accessed November 2017)

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