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.