Britton, Nathaniel Lord, 1859-1934

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Biographical History

Nathaniel Lord Britton was born January 15, 1859, in New York City, New York. He earned a degree in Engineer of Mines from the School of Mines in Columbia College. While attending Columbia he studied under John Strong Newberry. Newberry and naturalist John J. Crooke were important influences in Britton’s scientific career. Newberry and Crooke encouraged Britton to join the Torrey Botanical Club where he developed his personal interest in botany and would later prove important in his professional life and connections that led to the establishment of the New York Botanical Garden. After graduation he was hired as an instructor under Newberry, later taking over Newberry’s professorship at Columbia. Britton spent several years working as part of the Geological Survey of New Jersey. In 1885 he married Elizabeth Gertrude Knight, also a member of the Torrey Club, and a botany enthusiast. He earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1887. Britton’s drive to establish the New York Botanic Garden was strengthened after a visit to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, with his wife in 1888. He and his wife worked with connections in the Torrey Botanic Club and the public to organize the Garden. When it was incorporated, Britton was professor of Geology and Botany at Columbia University and in charge of the University herbarium and botany library. He left the University to become the first director-in-chief of the New York Botanic Garden. He maintained a strong relationship with Columbia University throughout the rest of his life. Britton had several interests in the field of botany. He recognized the importance of botanical nomenclature and was a proponent of a system he developed called “the Rochester Code” that used the concept of “type” specimens. During his career he collected in New York, and later made regular collecting trips to the Caribbean, focusing on Puerto Rico. He published several works on the botany of Puerto Rico. Britton also worked closely with Joseph Nelson Rose and Daniel T. MacDougal of the Carnegie Institute, studying cacti. With Rose, he wrote and published the four-volume work, The Cactaceae. Britton retired in 1929, and continued his botanical work relating to Puerto Rico. He died June 25, 1934, in New York City.


  • Finding Aid for Records of the Herbarium (RG4) Nathaniel Lord Britton Records (1875-1934). Archives and Manuscript Collections, Mertz Library, New York Botanical Garden. Retrieved from
  • Merrill, E.D. (1938). “Biographical Memoir Of Nathaniel Lord Britton 1859-1934.” National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America. Retrieved from

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New York botanical garden: First director-in-chief

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