Assembling to Remember Great Scientists and Remarkable Nebraskans

August, 2013

Lincoln -- On August 9th, in perfect weather, a dozen of us assembled in Wyuka Cemetery to recall an event a hundred years earlier to the day, the International Phytogeographic Excursion's visit to Lincoln. Leading scientists of the time traveled from several different countries to observe Nebraska prairies and to learn from their Nebraska botany and ecology colleagues.* Several of the planners and participants of the 1913 event are buried at the cemetery (Charles Bessey, Samuel Avery, Frederic Clements, Frank Shoemaker, Jack Miller and William Hardy). The south fence of the cemetery is the same fence that surrounded the University of Nebraska until the early 1920s.

A walk through the cemetery took us by the grave markers of many other notable Nebraskans (the Pound sisters, the Eager brothers, Marjorie Barstow, Leta and Harry Hollingworth, Edgar Burnett, Erwin Barbour, Carl Hartley, Lawrence Bruner). In our party was a student of the Philippine American War who was particularly interested in Frank Eager and his important role in it; another in our group was a writer who has recounted Erwin Barbour's paleontological work around the state.

Several in our party quickly noticed an inverse relationship in some cases between size of gravestone and greatness. It was first remarked at the almost unnoticable marker of Louise Pound; the notion was reinforced at the modest stone of Erwin Barbour and highlighted even more at the plot of Frederic Clements, who had no marker whatsoever until recently. Robert Wolcott and Frank Shoemaker remain unmarked (although a conservation area north of Lincoln is named for Shoemaker).

The relationship is due at least in some instances to extraordinary commitment. University scholars and leaders in the early days gave their all, including their own financial resources, to their discipline and their institution. When Charles Bessey died, the state legislature created a fund for his widow; a Bessey successor put up his own resources to match an outside university grant. The academic and administrative life back then was often one of financial sacrifice. But such epitomizes greatness.

Accounts of the 1913 excursion suggest that the visiting international scientists did not spend as much time exploring prairies around Lincoln as they wanted. Commercial interests in Lincoln apparently saw the 1913 visitors as potential international boosters and took up much of their time with promotions and speeches. Some of the visitors escaped to look at prairies north and west of the city, however briefly, before their train departed the old Burlington station in the early evening of August 9, 1913.

Our small party, however, lunched not in the city with business boosters but on a prairie a few miles northwest owned in 1913 by the Eager** family, near the site of Nine Mile Prairie, a tallgrass prairie now on the National Register of Historic Places. Research on these prairies and on others nearby led to the establishment of what is known as the Grasslands or Nebraska school of ecology. This approach to ecology reached its apogee in 1929 with the publication of Frederic Clements' and John Weaver's Plant Ecology, a text that would be used throughout the world for generations.

* The University of Nebraska had established itself as one of the leading universities in the nation (admitted to the Association of American Universities in 1909) based largely on the reputation of its natural sciences faculty.

** In the 1970s, George Eager, son of Frank Eager, raised bison on the original Eager homestead north of Lincoln near Davey.