EDGAR THEODORE WHERRY

Photo of Edgar Wherry

Edgar was born September 10, 1885, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was educated at the Friends Central School from 1897 to 1902 and the University of Pennsylvania where he earned a BS degree in chemistry in 1906 and a PhD degree in mineralogy in 1908. He taught at Lehigh University from 1908 to 1913 and became an assistant curator of mineralogy at the Smithsonian in 1913. Although he had no botanical training, he became interested in the relation of plants to underlying rock, publishing his first ecological paper on Camptosorus (walking fern) on mica-gneiss rock in the Potomac Valley, a pioneer study of the range in soil reaction to a single species. In connection with this, he developed a method for determining soil acidity in the field by dyes, a procedure that became commonplace. He specialized in identification of minerals by optical-crystallographic properties. In 1917, he was invited to join the Bureau of Chemistry of the U.S.Department of Agriculture and became the first official in the world with the title of crystallographer.

A beekeeper brought a problem to the Bureau: honey in his hives was crystallizing. Edgar determined the crystals to be a rare and valuable sugar, melezitose, and he was sent to ascertain the origin. It came from honeydew of nearby pine trees but, in the preparation for the trip, he had noted the rare box huckleberry (Gaylussacia brachycera) occurred in the county. He collected roots for culture. These came to attention of Frederick Coville who was looking for someone to help bring blueberries into cultivation. Edgar collaborated on the project, traveling widely to obtain soil acidity data on pertinent native plants. Beside technical articles, this resulted in his first book in 1928, The Wild Flowers of Mt. Desert Island, Maine. In 1935, he rediscovered “lost” Elliottia racemosa and collected the first seed ever found.

He had long been photographing plants and printed them on glass slides that he water colored and used for lectures to the Wild Flower Preservation Society and to garden clubs all over the Northeast. He became far more widely known as a botanist than a crystallographer and was invited in 1930 to join the Department of Botany at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught until his retirement in 1955. During this period he developed a State Wild Flower Preserve, served as president of the American Fern Society from 1934 to 1938, reorganizing its affairs and published in 1937 a booklet Guide to Eastern Ferns, founded a new periodical, Journal of the American Rock Garden Society in 1942, and helped revivify that organization. In 1948, he prepared The Wild Flower Guide and was made honorary national president of the Wild Flower Preservation Society. In 1955, he published a major taxonomic revision, The Genus Phlox. This was followed by The Fern Guide of 1961, the Southern Fern Guide of 1964, and, in 1979 Atlas of the Flora of Pennsylvania.

In 1973, the American Rock Garden established the Edgar T. Wherry Award. In 1985, the Pteridological Section of the Botanical Society of America renamed their best contributed paper award the Edgar T. Wherry Award to honor “Dr. Wherry’s many contributions to floristics and patterns of evolution of ferns.” Not many are honored by being given awards. Few are honored by having an award named for them, let alone two awards! He was awarded the Mary Soper Pope Award on his 79th birthday (September 10, 1964) by the Cranbrook Institute of Science for “noteworthy and distinguished accomplishment in the field of the plant sciences.” He died on May 19, 1982, in Philadelphia.

Edgar was elected to the Washington Biologists’ Field Club in 1917, became a non-resident member in 1931, and was awarded an honorary membership in 1974.