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Pammel, Louis Hermann

Published onJul 30, 2021
Pammel, Louis Hermann

(April 19, 1862 - March 23, 1931)

Quick Facts

Pammel is known for his numerous protégés and contributions to Iowa State and the State of Iowa through botany.

Source: University Archives, Iowa State University & Ada Hayden Herbarium

Louis Pammel arrived at Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) in February 1889 as third Professor of Botany (following Charles Bessey’s and Byron Halstead’s tenures). In his 30 year career, he grew the Botany Department to 15 staff members, and laid the groundwork for several future plant-related departments. He was an inspiring and popular teacher and a researcher across the breadth of the field of botany and beyond. He interacted with many thousands of Iowans statewide as the Extension Botanist and in educational outreach, and he was a leader of the movement for conservation and the establishment of state parks. His research resulted in 10 books and ca. 700 articles. The list of his protégés is lengthy, including George Washington Carver, Robert E. Buchanan, and Ada Hayden (the first woman to receive a PhD at Iowa State), among many others. Thus, he epitomizes the land-grant ideal in research, education, service and outreach.

Pammel was born on April 19, 1862, the second of six children, in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. In 1866, the family moved from LaCrosse to a 600 acre farm south of the town. This provided young Pammel a large playground in which he explored plants and animals, as well as observing the way of life of Native Americans who still lived in the area. As the eldest son, Pammel left the rural school in 1872, after completing the 5th grade to help his father on the farm. He was home-schooled until 1878, when he was tutored in LaCrosse by the high school principal and took courses at the LaCrosse Business College to earn his high school equivalency.

In 1881, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, and began his studies of botany in 1882 under the eminent botanist William Trelease. He received his BS in Agriculture with special honors in 1885. His education then once again became opportunistic. In 1886, he joined his UW botany professor Trelease at the Henry Shaw School of Botany in St. Louis (the forerunner of the Missouri Botanical Garden) and took courses in the Shaw School through the fall of 1886, while employed there. He enrolled at Washington University in spring 1887.

In June 1887 he married Augusta (“Gussie”) Marie Emmel. A year later, the first of their six children was born. In need of summer employment to support his growing family, he accepted a summer position in 1888 at Texas A&M College in College Station, where he studied cotton root rot. This led to the discovery of fungal disease instead of cotton rootworm as the cause of the root rot. He recommended rotational agriculture and the removal of specific weeds – an early example of what is today called “integrated pest management.” He returned to Washington University for the fall 1888 semester.

Pammel soon learned that the position of botanist at Iowa Agricultural College (IAC) was open, following the departure of Byron Halstead. Although Pammel had not yet completed his studies for a Master’s degree from Washington University, he applied and was hired, beginning his tenure in late February 1889. That summer, he returned to Texas A&M for ongoing studies of cotton root rot. In 1891, he received his Master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin, based on the coursework at Washington University and his research project on root rot in cotton. To advance in faculty rank at IAC, he recognized that he should have a PhD. Thus, he spent his winter vacations from 1896-98 at Washington University completing his dissertation research on the anatomy of the seed coat of several legume species, and the PhD. was conferred in 1899 by Washington University. Such achievements, and the opportunities afforded him through the kindness of his professors, influenced his own interest in the success of his IAC students and informal education of Iowa’s citizens.

Pammel’s courses at Iowa State were diverse, including those eventually included in a number of ISU departments – botany (including cryptogamic botany/mycology), horticulture, landscape architecture, agriculture, bacteriology (microbiology) and veterinary science. Many of his students went on to achieve great success. Notable among these were botanist, agriculturist and educator George Washington Carver (BS 1894, MS 1896), bacteriologist and educator Robert E. Buchanan (BS 1904, MS 1906), and botanist, conservationist and educator Ada Hayden (BS 1908, MS 1910, PhD 1918).

Photograph courtesy of the Ada Hayden Herbarium of Iowa State University (ISC).

Pammel was an outstanding researcher, as the diversity of his 10 books and ca. 700 papers attest. These span the fields of plant ecology and floristics, economic botany, pollination biology, weed biology, seed biology, mycology, bacteriology, climate studies, forestry, horticulture, conservation and parks, botanical history and biography, and more. He was a visionary scientist who engaged both colleagues and students in helping develop his ideas while providing assistance with data collection, microscopy, photography and illustrations to flesh out his ideas.

Pammel reached out beyond the campus in numerous ways, as well. He enjoyed interacting with the people of Iowa in his service as Extension Botanist and with the Agricultural Experiment Station. This involved frequent travel around the state where he joined citizens in fieldwork, provided lectures, and led or attended meetings. Replying to correspondence requesting his help with botanical questions filled much of his time during the growing season. He was a leader and active participant in a number of professional organizations, including the Iowa Academy of Science, Iowa State Horticultural Society, Iowa Park and Forestry Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other scientific organizations, as well as Phi Kappa Phi, the Cosmopolitan Club, and the Episcopal Church. He was a member of more than 40 organizations.

Pammel’s work in conservation deserves special recognition. With Thomas Macbride and Bohumil Shimek of the University of Iowa, he petitioned the state government and community leaders to set aside lands as state parks. Pammel served as the first president of the State Board of Conservation which held its first meeting in 1918. Within a year, Backbone State Park was established as Iowa’s first state park. During the decade that Pammel served on the Board, an additional 37 parks, including Pammel State Park near Winterset, were also dedicated. He pushed for a national park in northeast Iowa, and he helped establish and was an instructor for the American School of Wild Life in McGregor. He also worked as an Iowa representative on several national projects, including for protection of the Upper Mississippi River.

Pammel stepped down as Chair of the Botany Department in 1929 and died on March 23, 1931. His burial was in the Iowa State University Cemetery near Pammel Woods. The naming of Pammel Drive also recognizes his many contributions to the college. In addition to Pammel State Park, he is also commemorated in the species name of several plants and fungi.

Selected Sources

“Louis Hermann Pammel Papers, 1856-2011,” Archives RS 13/5/13, Special Collections, Parks Library, Iowa State University.

“Louis Hermann Pammel Archive,” Ada Hayden Herbarium, Iowa State University.

Pohl, Marjorie Conley, “Louis H. Pammel: Pioneer Botanist,” Proceedings of the Iowa Academy of Science 92 (1985): 1-50.

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