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Elizabeth Britton

(September 1998)

Vital Life Statistics

Elizabeth Knight Britton was born on January 9, 1858, in New York City, New York. As a young girl, her parents moved to Cuba, and she was raised on the sugar plantation her family owned. She attended school in both Cuba and New York. She performed especially well in science.

Britton graduated from Hunter College in 1875. There she worked for the next ten years, dabbling in botany. Through her work, she established herself as a leading amateur botanist. She married Columbian College geologist Nathaniel Britton in August 1885.

Elizabeth Britton died in the Bronx, New York, on February 25, 1934.


By 1883, Elizabeth Britton had chosen a specialty in botany, bryology. Bryology is the study of mosses. Her marriage to Nathaniel, a Columbian College professor, opened up new doors. Soon she was given charge of the moss collection at Columbia. She built an impressive collection, notably with the purchase of the collection of August Jaeger of Switzerland in 1893.

Britton, with the support of the Torrey Botanical Club, took the lead in advocating the establishment of a botanical garden in New York. Her efforts were successful. The New York Botanical Garden was incorporated in 1891. Her husband became the first director of the 250-acre establishment in Bronx Park in 1896.

Next Britton helped found two botanical organizations. She helped found the Sullivant Moss Society in 1898. (It changed its name to the American Bryological Society in 1949.) Then in 1902, she founded the Wild Flower Preservation Society of America. With the Wild Flower Society, Britton led movements that saved numerous endangered wildflower species across the country.

Throughout her career as a botanist, Elizabeth Britton published more than 340 signed scientific papers.

Awards and Honors

Elizabeth Britton became a member of the Torrey Botanical Club in 1879. She was editor of the Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club from 1886 until 1888.

Britton became the unofficial curator of mosses at the Columbia College Herbarium, after it was moved to the New York Botanical Garden in 1899. She was appointed honorary curator of mosses in 1912.

Britton was the secretary and treasurer of the Wild Flower Preservation Society of America from 1902 until 1927. Also during that time, from 1916 to 1919, she was the president of the Sullivant Moss Society.

Britton's most notable honors are have 15 species and one moss genus, Bryobrittonia, named after her.


  1. "Elizabeth Gertrude Knight Britton," Women in American History by Encyclopedia Brittanica.
  2. "Elizabeth Knight Britton," 4000 Years of Women in Science.
  3. Noble, Abbey. "Plant Ambitions: Elizabeth Knight Britton (1858-1934)." New Moon: The Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams January/February 1998: 33.
  4. The photograph of Elizabeth Britton illustrated with permission from the Archives of The New York Botanical Garden.
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