Meet Tumamoc's Pioneers & Heroes

Frederick Coville

Volney Spalding

Daniel MacDougal

William Cannon

Burton Livingston

Godfrey Sykes

Francis Lloyd

Burt Bovee

Forrest Shreve

Effie Spalding

Ray Turner

Paul Martin

Frederick Vernon Coville        


In 1887, Frederick Coville (1867-1937), with a freshly minted degree in botany from Cornell University, began working for the US Department of Agriculture. In 1893, he became its Chief Botanist. He remained with USDA for the rest of his life.

When Coville participated in the Death Valley Expedition of 1891, he saw a world of heat and drought that was new to him. Marvelously and mysteriously, it was also inhabited successfully by many species of plants (which he described for the world: Botany of the Death Valley Expedition. 1893. U.S. Government Printing Office). His experiences and discoveries proved to be the seed that germinated into the Carnegie Desert Botanical Laboratory.

And he participated fully in its germination. When the newly organized Carnegie Institution convened for the first time in the latter part of 1902, its principal business was establishing laboratories for basic research. Coville, along with his colleague Daniel MacDougal, knew what was coming and they used their connections to get on the agenda. They suggested the establishment of a remote field laboratory to discover how plant life manages to thrive in deserts.

The Institution approved. Furthermore, it appointed them to find a site for one. And so the two botanists boarded a westbound train in February 1903. Largely because of its great variety of habitats and plant species, they decided upon Tumamoc (Frederick Coville and Daniel T. MacDougal, Desert Botanical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution. 1903. Carnegie Institution).

How ironic that Coville helped to found the first basic laboratory in the USA. After all, he favored the use, rather than the preservation of wilderness. As a 32-year old junior scientist on the Harriman Expedition to study the coast of Alaska, he noted that Alaska's "enormous growth of grass" was "going to waste every year."
(; accessed 27 July 2015)

Once the lab was a going concern, Coville quickly turned to other botanical projects. One of the most celebrated allowed blueberries to become a commercial crop. The breakthrough: he discovered that blueberries need acidic soil. He also led sustained efforts to establish the United States National Arboretum and became its acting director in 1929. When he died in January 1937, he was at work on a Flora of Death Valley.