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Beach, Spencer Ambrose

Published onJul 30, 2021
Beach, Spencer Ambrose

(September 15, 1860 – November 2, 1922)

Quick Facts

Spencer A. Beach, noted pomologist, was vice dean of agriculture and head of horticulture from 1905 to 1922.


Beach, c. 1904. Source: University Archives, Iowa State University Library.

What kind of a world would we have were it not for the dreamer, the seer, for him who sees visions and then goes to work to bring his visions to pass?

— S.A. Beach

Spencer Ambrose Beach was born at Summer Hill, Cayuga County, New York on September 15, 1860. He attended high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and after graduation taught in Lexox, Iowa, before moving to Story County. There he met the pioneering horticulturists George O. van Houten and Professor Joseph L. Budd, Head of the Department of Horticulture at Iowa State College (ISC). In 1884 Beach entered ISC and under the inspiring tutelage of Professor Budd, selected horticulture as his major. After earning his BS in Horticulture in 1887, Beach accepted a job with Silas Wilson Nurseries in Atlantic, Iowa, and for the next three years he sold nursery stock in rural Iowa.

After marrying Norma Hannier on July 2, 1890, Beach briefly served as Head of the Department of Horticulture at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (Texas A&M University). He then accepted a position at the New York Agricultural Experiment Station at Geneva where he became an associate of the legendary Liberty Hyde Bailey. In 1892 Iowa State College granted Beach an MS in Horticulture with emphasis in Plant Pathology. During his 14-year tenure at Geneva, Beach began the first fruit breeding program in the United States. His cross of 'Ben Davis' with 'Macintosh' yielded the selection 'Cortland', one of the first successful hybridizations of apple. Beach also initiated field tests on bean, potato, celery, plum, cherry, apple, and pear, and was among the first scientific grape breeders. Later he became interested in plant diseases, foliar fungicide applications on orchard crops, and postharvest storage of horticultural crops.

The period 1903-1905 was particularly eventful for Professor Beach. During this time, his classic two-volume work, Apples of New York, was published. In recognition of this definitive work in pomology literature, Beach was honored with election to Honorary Membership in the Royal Horticultural Society of London. Beach also saw the need for a national organization of teachers, researchers, and professional horticulturists associated with land-grant colleges and the USDA. He became a prime mover for this cause and as a result, the first Annual Meeting of the Society for Horticultural Science (becoming the American Society of Horticultural Science in 1916) was held in St. Louis, Missouri, December 28-29, 1903. During the early years of the Society, Beach served as the first Secretary, and in 1911, served as its third President. He used his position and standing in this flagship organization to urge horticulturists everywhere to resist individualism and promote cooperation. In 1905 Beach returned to Iowa State College to serve as Head of Horticulture and Forestry and Vice-dean of Agriculture, positions he held until his death in 1922.

With his long-standing interest in plant breeding, Professor Beach believed the development of winter-hardy selections would lead to successful fruit production in the upper Mississippi Valley and the Great Plains. And this interest led to the development of at least 12 apple cultivars and cultural methods for producing many other horticultural crops. For more than 30 years this region led the United States in apple production, however, the historic and devastating Armistice Day freeze (November 11, 1940) killed most apple trees to the ground, seriously disabling the apple industry in Iowa and around the upper Midwest.

As Department Head, Professor Beach was instrumental in securing a building near the center of the ISC campus devoted solely to Horticulture. Horticulture Hall was renovated and expanded in 1980, outfitted with new greenhouses in 2011, and today remains the home of horticulture teaching, research, and extension/outreach at Iowa State University.

On November 2, 1922, Spencer Ambrose Beach died in Ames and was interred at the Iowa State University Cemetery. Professor Beach left behind a reputation as an insightful teacher, administrator, and leader, and his many significant contributions to horticulture research and education are still visible today. His contemporaries found him to be a true gentleman and a man of principle and high ideals. He was enthusiastic and forceful, yet humble and gracious in demeanor and speech. To his colleagues he was a steadfast friend and trusted mentor, and to students, a learned and inspiring teacher. Professor Beach believed the one true purpose in his life was that of service, and he worked tirelessly at Iowa State College, within the Ames community, and around the nation to make great and lasting contributions to the advancement of horticultural science.

Selected Resources

L.H. Pammel, Prominent Men I Have Met: Spencer Ambrose Beach (1928)

S.A. Beach, The Apples of New York, 2 volumes (1905).

Spencer Beach Papers, RS 09/16/17, University Archives, Iowa State University Library.

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