Albert Spear Hitchcock, botanist, a distinguished authority on the grasses of the world, was born in Owasso, Michigan, on September 4, 1865. After spending his early years growing up in Kansas and Nebraska, Hitchcock entered Iowa State Agricultural College, receiving his B.S. in 1884, and an M.S. in 1886. Though influenced by botanists Charles Edwin Bessey and Herbert Osborn, Hitchcock majored in chemistry and accepted his first position in 1886 as an instructor of chemistry at Iowa State University. During the summer months, Hitchcock returned to Ames to botanize the region.
In 1889, Hitchcock gave up his chemistry position for a lesser salary in order to work under William Trelease at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, working as an instructor in the Engelmann School of Botany, Washington University, curator of the herbarium, and librarian at the Botanical Garden. Hitchcock left St. Louis to become professor of botany at Kansas Agricultural College, 1892-1901; and in 1901 began his association with the United States Department of Agriculture as an assistant agrostologist under Frank Lamson-Scribner. The association was to last until Hitchcock's death in 1935.
Until 1905, most of Hitchcock's work at the USDA was in the economic field of grasses. In 1905 he changed places with Charles Vancouver Piper and took over the grass herbarium in order to conduct taxonomic studies. Hitchcock became the systematic agrostologist at the USDA, and after 1928 held the title of principal botanist in charge of systematic agrostology, USDA.
Hitchcock's relationship with the Smithsonian dates back to October 10, 1912, when he was made custodian of grasses, Section of Grasses, Division of Plants, United States National Museum. Apparently, though the USDA herbarium was transferred to the Smithsonian and merged with the Smithsonian collections in 1896 (see description of the Hunt Institute collection 105), the grass section of the herbarium remained with the USDA and was not transferred until later, possibly in 1912 when Hitchcock held joint positions with the USDA and the Smithsonian. Hitchcock remained custodian (without remuneration) of the Section of Grasses until his death. Under Hitchcock, the grass herbarium increased to become the largest and most complete collection of its kind in the world.
Hitchcock was very much interested in nomenclature and helped educate botanists throughout the world on the advantages of basing specimen names on the type method rather than on previous authority. His writings and support for the Fourth International Botanical Congress project on nomenclature reunion at Ithaca, New York, in 1926, helped lay the foundation for an international agreement on nomenclature at the Congress meeting held at Cambridge in 1930.
Hitchcock also originated the idea of preserving a portion of tropical jungle in the canal zone. While he was chairman of the Executive Committee of the Institute for Research in Tropical America, Barro Colorado Island was made into a permanent preserve. (See STRI records, Record Units 134 and 135, for a history of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.)
Hitchcock traveled widely collecting botanical specimens, including the entire United States, most of Latin America, and parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe. In 1929 he was the botanist representative from the United States at the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting held in South Africa.
Among Hitchcock's 250 articles and books, his major works consisted of studies on the grasses of the United States. Included in his works are, Genera of Grasses of the United States; Manual of Farm Grasses; Manual of Grasses of the United States; Methods of Descriptive Systematic Botany; and Text-Book of Grasses.
Hitchcock received an Sc.D. from Iowa State College in 1920, and in 1934 he was awarded an honorary D.Sc. degree from Kansas State College.
Feminist and botanist Mary Agnes Chase, considered "one of the world's outstanding agrostologists and preeminent among American students in this field," by the Botanical Society of America upon presentation of her Certificate of Merit in 1956, was born in Iroquois County, Illinois, on April 20, 1869. Educated in the public and private schools of Chicago, Chase became interested in botany at an early age, working at night as a proofreader and botanizing during the day. Though Chase took extension course work from the Lewis Institute and the University of Chicago, the only degree she received was an honorary degree of Doctor of Science from the University of Illinois in 1958.
In 1901, Chase became an assistant in botany at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, working with Charles Frederick Millspaugh and illustrating each species with line drawings for his article, "Plantae Yucatanae." Chase left Chicago in 1903 to become a botanical illustrator for the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. Working beyond office hours, Chase spent her time on the collections of the grass herbarium in order to prepare a series of articles on the genera of Paniceae.
From 1907 to 1923, Chase held the position of scientific assistant in systematic agrostology, becoming assistant botanist in 1923 and associate botanist in 1925. Upon the death of Albert Spear Hitchcock, Chase became senior botanist in charge of systematic agrostology in 1936, and at the same time, became custodian of the Section of Grasses, Division of Plants, United States National Museum. She retired from the USDA in 1939, retaining her position as custodian for the grass section in the USNM. When the Division of Plants reorganized in 1947, becoming the Department of Botany, the Section of Grasses became the Division of Grasses, with Jason Richard Swallen becoming assistant curator and then curator of the Division. Chase was made a research associate in the Department, but still, it appears, retained a position as honorary custodian of the grass herbarium.
In 1959, Chase was made an Honorary Fellow of the Smithsonian, the eighth fellow in the history of the Institution. Among Chase's publications, her important works are First Book of Grasses; a revision of the Manual of Grasses of the United States; and a three-volume index to grass species that contains information from approximately 80,000 index cards. This last undertaking was published in 1962. Chase died September 24, 1963.