Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

February 1994


Published in Great Plains Research 4:1 (February 1994). Copyright © 1994 The Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Used by permission.


Science with Practice thoroughly treats the professional life of Charles Edwin Bessey, a prominent nineteenth-century American scientist, professor, and educational reformer, who helped to lay the foundation of modern plant biology. The book focuses on Bessey as a prime promoter of the laboratory as an important learning center in college and university teaching of botany and agriculture. Bessey used his broad knowledge of plant classification to innovate the Bessey System, one that is still in use. It explains Bessey in the context of American botany-student of Asa Gray and intellectual forebear of the American botanists Roscoe Pound, Pier A. Rydberg, Jared Smith, Herbert Webber, and Albert F. Woods. Overfield explains Bessey, in an educational and philosophical context, as an agent of change who gave impetus to the early American conservation and forestry movements. We learn how Bessey worked to revitalize botany via two important journals (the American Naturalist and Science) and how he promoted a scientific role for the USDA. Bessey acted as Chancellor of the University of Nebraska, the University where his students founded Sem Bot (a "Dead Poets' Society" for botany students and founding group of the Botanical Survey of Nebraska).

Bessey, primarily a plant physiologist, left a small legacy in phytopathology, an area that interested him because of its practical applicability. He recognized early the importance of the studying lower plant forms. He developed a deep understanding of both the existing phytogeography of Nebraska, and the history of vegetation in that state.