Sunday, August 29, 2021

American Plant Collector Elizabeth Emerson Atwater (1812-1878)

Plant Collector Elizabeth Emerson Atwater (1812-1878)

Elizabeth E. Atwater (born in Norwich, Vermont) started her education in Norwich until she was fourteen, and then attended the distinguished women’s school, Mrs. Emma Willard’s Seminary, in Troy, New York. Emma Willard, both a famous school and education reformist was also the sister of the famed botanist Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps.  

Elizabeth married Samuel T. Atwater who worked closely with Abraham Lincoln during his presidency & who was an executive in the insurance & railroad industries (Eckel 2003). The couple married in 1839, lived in Buffalo, New York until 1856, & then moved to Chicago. Samuel's business dealings required significant travel & Elizabeth accompanied him frequently (Clemmer 1879).

Though Elizabeth was plagued by fragile health, she commonly used the trans-America trips with her husband to collect plants & other natural history specimens from across the United States (see chapter 5 in Clemmer 1879). Mrs. Atwater developed an association with the Buffalo, Chicago, & Maryland academies of science, to each of which she donated many specimens & historical artifacts (Eckel 2003). She is acknowledged as the collector of record in publications on the flora of various regions of the United States (e.g. Hall 1878, Wood 1876). Though many specimens she contributed to the Chicago Academy of Sciences were tragically destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, other collections made by Mrs. Atwater were given to the Chicago Academy of Sciences by her husband following her death in 1878.

Twenty-two plant specimens collected by Atwater east of the Mississippi River are present in the Putnam Herbarium. They are part of a donation to Putnam from the Clinton Herbarium in Buffalo, NY. Another baker's dozen specimens collected by Ms. Atwater from Massachusetts to California may be examined via the iDigBio specimen database.


Eckel, P. M. (ed.) 2003. The Correspondence of Elizabeth Atwater (1812-1878) & George William Clinton (1807-1885). Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, Missouri.

Clemmer, Mary. 1879. Memorial sketch of Elizabeth Emerson Atwater: Written for her friends. The Courier Company. Buffalo, New York. 66 pp.

Hall, James. 1878. Additions to the state museum: botanical. in 29th Annual Rpt. New York State Museum Nat. Hist. Albany, New York. p. 21 of 357.

Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. 2015. Notable People: Elizabeth Emerson Atwater (1812 - 1878). Chicago Academy of Sciences. Chicago, Illinois.

Wood, Alphonso. 1876. American Botanist & Florist. A.S. Barnes & Company. New York City, New York. p. 200 of 448.