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The Yale Peabody Museum’s fossil plant holdings belong to 3 separate collections, each with a different history. In addition to the original Yale collection, there are two “orphaned” collections: the New York Botanical Garden Collection, and the Princeton University Collection.

Well before the establishment of the Museum in 1866, Yale’s first geologist Benjamin Silliman assembled a teaching collection that included a substantial number of fossil plants. On Silliman’s retirement in 1853, Yale purchased this collection, and many of its specimens remain among the the holdings of the Paleobotany Division today.

The Yale Peabody Museum’s paleobotany holdings continued to grow throughout the late 1800s with the acquisition of several important collections, including:

  • A large collection of Carboniferous specimens received from I.F. Mansfield in 1877;
  • Specimens from the Dakota Sandstone from Ellsworth County, Kansas, collected by Charles Sternberg;
  • A middle-late Cretaceous flora from Teton County, Wyoming, collected by W.H. Forwood in 1882;
  • A collection of Tertiary specimens collected during the 1870s from Bridge Creek, Oregon, by Leander Davis and William Day.

In the early 1890s O.C. Marsh became interested in an extinct group of Mesozoic plants known as the cycadeoids and instructed his agent, H.F. Wells, to begin acquiring them for Yale. Aiding Marsh in this collecting was George R. Wieland, the Peabody’s first paleobotanist. Wieland’s scientific interest in these enigmatic fossil trunks flourished, and it is principally through his efforts that the Museum accumulated over 1,000 specimens—the world’s largest collection of cycadeoids.

Wieland is also responsible for assembling a major collection of cycadeoid thin sections. This remarkable collection not only includes mounted thin sections meticulously prepared by Wieland from cycadeoids found in the Division’s holdings, but through his connections with European scientists, Wieland acquired thin sections of invaluable, historic European cycadeoids, including Bennettites gibsonianus, Cycadeoidea etrusca, Cycadeoidea (Bennettites) morierei and Cycadeoidea masseiana.

After Wieland’s retirement in the1940s the Peabody was without a paleobotanist until 1962, when Theodore Delevoryas was appointed Associate Curator. During his 10-year stay, Delevoryas expanded and enhanced the collection with specimens of Triassic and Jurassic cycadophytes. After another hiatus, Bruce Tiffney became Curator in 1977, and added several collections of Mesozoic and Tertiary flowering plants.

In 1982, Leo J. Hickey came from the Smithsonian Institution to assume directorship of the Yale Peabody Museum, and to join Tiffney as Curator in the Division of Botany. Hickey brought with him, and he and his students continue to amass, major collections of Cretaceous and Tertiary angiosperm fossils. Tiffney left in 1986, leaving Hickey as curator-in-charge of the paleobotanical collection. From 1989 until 2008 Linda Klise served as the Paleobotany Division’s first Collections Manager. In 2008 Dr. Shusheng Hu was hired as the Division’s Collections Manager.


Paleobotany Today

In June 2002 the Paleobotany Division completed the monumental task of moving its entire collection of over 150,000 fossil plants into the new state-of-the art facilities of in the Class of 1954 Environmental Science Center.

Once housed in rows of rusted grayish green cases and overcrowded drawers, these specimens are now in a bright new storage room in mobile open drawer units and on mobile shelving. Previously stored in the Kline Geology Laboratory, many of the oversized, heavy specimens had been tightly packed under deep, drab open shelving. Because of their weight — some over 1,000 pounds (more than 450 kilograms) — they were partially concealed and inaccessible. These are now stored on heavy duty pallet racking, and for the first time are visible and accessible for research.

In support of this move, the Division of Paleobotany was awarded a grant of $365,346 from the National Science Foundation (DEB 9987475) to help purchase and install the mobile compact storage system and hire personnel to assist in the move, reorganization and electronic cataloging of the paleobotany collections. This grant project was completed in October 31, 2004.