Clad in a dark petticoat, wildflowers tucked in her waistband, Elizabeth Britton grips her walking stick and flashes a smile, posed in leaf litter against the skin of a tree. In the mid-1800s the conventions of the time dictated this attire, as she climbed Adirondack mountains to lay her expert eyes to mosses and flowers. An acclaimed bryologist, she was considered the foremost authority in mosses for her time, publishing hundreds of scientific papers and curating natural history collections for Columbia University and for the New York Botanical Garden, where she was a founding leader.
Sean Robinson, a professor of biology at SUNY Oneonta, tells his botany students about her pioneering efforts in the High Peaks Wilderness area where they have gathered to study alpine plants. In keeping with Britton’s legacy, he leads the herbaria project at the university, extensive collections of preserved plant specimens. All in an effort to understand the history of plant life on alpine summits: how have their compositions changed over time and how are they uniquely adapted for life in the extreme?
His work, and the history of the special alpine zones in the Adirondacks is the subject of my feature for the September/October issue of the Explorer.
For more on the history of women in exploration, I produced and wrote a short film for The Explorers Club featuring oceanographer Sylvia Earle, astronaut Kathy Sullivan, archaeologist Anna Roosevelt and anthropologist Carol Beckwith. It begins at just under 22 minutes into the stream.
Editor’s note: This first appeared in Cayte’s weekly “Climate Matters” newsletter. Click here to sign up.