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James Franklin Collins

James Franklin Collins

Born in the town of North Anson, Maine, on December 29th 1863, James Franklin Collins was a quiet man with a passionate love for the botanical world. Described fondly by his friend and colleague Merritt Lyndon Fernald , as an empathetic and compassionate man with a knack for woodcraft and "mechanical technique" (Fernald, 98), the young Collins quickly found an outlet for his dynamic skills in the world of academia. After completing his grade and high school education in Providence, Rhode Island, the burgeoning botanist continued his informal study of the plant kingdom while employed as a silver worker, designer and embosser for the Gorham Manufacturing Company. At the same time, and with the help of his mentor Professor W. Whitman Bailey, head of the Department of Botany at Brown University, Collins soon gained recognition for his potential as a diligent taxonomist and field researcher. In 1894, while still working at Gorham Manufacturing Company, Collins' efforts with Bailey began to pay off when he was appointed as the curator of Brown University's Olney Herbarium. By far his longest held position, Collins would remain the Olney Herbarium's curator, and consequently supervisor, until his retirement in 1933.

The year after he was awarded an honorary Ph.B. degree by the University in 1898, Collins resigned from his position at Gorham in favor of a position instructing botany classes at Brown. By 1905 he had achieved the status as assistant professor, and by 1906 Collins had succeeded Bailey as head of the Botany Department. He would this hold the post until 1911.

Ever the master of multitasking, Collins would not be satisfied with simply teaching at Brown. From 1907 to 1911 Collins simultaneously taught his classes and fulfilled his role as head of the Brown University Botanical Department while working his way up to the rank of Special Agent in the Office of Forest Pathology of the United States Department of Agriculture. In 1913 Collins' work again earned him a promotion within Brown, this time to the post of Forest Pathologist in charge of the newly established Office of Forest Pathology. With this newfound purpose, Collins left the employ of the USDA, although he would continue to work closely with them and even patent a new formula of asphalt and sawdust to replace cement during the repair of cavities in injured ornamental plants (Snell, 95). Back at Brown, Collins turned his studies to the improvement of tree surgery and the cure for Chestnut Blight as well as the other illnesses that plagued shade and ornamental trees and shrubs from across the United States.

Outside of his work for Brown University and the USDA, Collins found friends and fellow enthusiasts in various organization including the American Forestry Association, the American Phytopathological Society (of which he was a charter member), the Josselyn Botanical Society of Maine (with whom he served as the chairman of the Bryophyte Committee for ten years), and the New England Botanical Club. It was with the NEBC that Collins made many trip through Maine and Canada to collect specimens and explore numerous mountain ranges lacing the eastern coast of North America. Indeed, it was through his work with the NEBC that Collins gained recognition from the Canadian Geological Survey for his detailed notes and maps of previously unexplored regions along the Gaspe Peninsula. To repay him for his findings, the CGS bestowed him with the honor of having one of the formerly unexplored mountains he surveyed dubbed "Mount Collins" (Snell, 95).

Drawing on his vast experience Collins published over one hundred articles in scholarly journals covering such topics as mosses, ferns, chestnut blight and other higher plant life-forms. He even served as an Associate Editor of Rhodora, the publication of the NEBC, from 1929 to 1936. He would continue to publish and maintain meticulous notes on his studies until his death on November 14th of 1940 after a long battle with his declining health.



Snell, Walter H. and Alma M. Waterman. "James Franklin Collins." Phytopathology. 31(6): 475-477.
Snell, Walter H. "J. Franklin Collins." Rhodora. 44(520): 93-97.
Fernald, Merritt Lyndon. "Incidents of Field-Work with J. Franklin Collins." Rhodora. 44(520): 98-147.

Scope and Content:

The Collins papers consist of three main parts: letters to Collins; photographs, negatives and lantern slides made by Collins; and smaller items, mostly pertaining to his field trips.

The letters occupy a little more than one drawer of a filing cabinet, are from about 240 correspondents, and date from 1884-1925, with most letters earlier than 1920. By and large they could be described as general botanical correspondence. The major correspondents (those who wrote 30 or more letters) are: Elizabeth Gertrude Britton (about 55 letters, 1893-1912); Edward Blanchard Chamberlain (over 600 letters, 1897-1925); Frank Shipley Collins (about 35 letters, 1897-1918); Walter Deane (about 130 letters, 1894-1918); Elizabeth Maria Dunham (about 35 letters, 1911-1919); Alexander William Evans (about 35 letters, 1897-1919); William Gilson Farlow (about 85 letters, 1901-1917); Merritt Lyndon Fernald (about 240 letters, 1892-1918); Abel Joel Grout (about 50 letters, 1898-1919); John Michael Holzinger (about 50 letters, 1892-1917); George Golding Kennedy (about 120 letters, 1897-1916); John Macoun (about 30 letters, 1892-1910); George Elwood Nichols (about 30 letters, 1905-1915); Edward Lothrop Rand (about 30 letters, 1896-1914); Annie Morrill Smith (about 50 letter, 1898-1912); Mary Louise Stevens (about 80 letter, 1896-1906); and E.C. Thornton (about 35 letters, 1892-1901). There are often drafts or carbons of replies sent by J.F. Collins (not included in letter-counts above). The letters are in folders arranged alphabetically by name or correspondent, which appears to be the general system followed by Collins, except that all subsections have been integrated into one alphabet. (The Collins letters had been stored in two separate locations in the archives).

The photographic materials consist of four boxes of mounted, numbered and often captioned snapshots; 7 wooden boxes and 19 packets of numbers and labeled negatives; 16 wooden boxes and 2 smaller containers of lantern slides; and 4 small boxes of negatives for lantern slides. The snapshots number from 1 to 971 and from 1.1 to 582-12 (the latter series is about three times the size of the former).

The subjects of the photos include:

  1. landscapes and cityscapes -- many shots of Providence and other parts of Rhode Island and small towns and countryside in Maine and Canada; shots from trips to the south and from two long trips to the southwest and west, 1918 and 1929
  2. field expeditions and excursions -- expeditions to the Gaspé, especially the 1906 trip; outings of botany clubs in Maine and Rhode Island.
  3. landscape panoramas composed of snapshots pasted together, especially from field expeditions
  4. family and friends and their homes
  5. pets and other animals, wild and domesticated
  6. closeups of individual plants, outside and indoors, including some lab experiments in seedling growth
  7. trees -- outdoors or herbarium specimens
  8. trunks of trees, tree wounds and repairs
  9. diagrams of plants and trees and other printed material

The photos date from about 1900 - 1935, although there are a few photos of earlier family daguerreotypes. The negatives and lantern slides seem mostly to correspond to the mounted photographs. Some of the city and town pictures could be quite useful to students of local history. The photos are mostly quite good quality.

The smaller items include:

  1. a small notebook containing notes on geography and plants from the 1906 trip to the Gaspé
  2. letters, reports, and collection labels related to the 1923 trip to the Gaspé
  3. a plaster model of Mt. Logan (in the Gaspé), presumably made by Collins
  4. a notebook containing notes on Salix; unlabeled, but appears to have belonged to Collins

The library has copies of Collins' diaries of 1896, 1904, 1905 and 1906 field trips -- Vac C69. The Semi-Historic letters file contains seven folders (about 370 letters) from Collins to Gray Herbarium staff. There is also one list of identifications of some Collins plants in Plant list book 6.


No documentation has been found on the source of the letters. It is likely that they were given to the Gray Herbarium by Collins before his death since they do not include any correspondence for the latter part of his life, 1925-1940. Collins willed his photo negatives, prints and lantern slides pertaining to field trips or botanical matters to M.L. Fernald, who presumably left them at the Gray Herbarium. Collins left his diaries (starting 1883), his books, pamphlets and papers to his sister, Edith W. Jenckes, to dispose of as she saw fit. (He had already given most of his books to the Gray Herbarium before he died). Fernald selected pamphlets, books and photos from the articles left to Mrs. Jenckes on Oct. 6, 1941; a detailed list of his selections has not been found. He apparently obtained some of Collins' diaries (he referred to them in his article about Collins in Rhodora), but what happened to them is a mystery. Collins gave the model of Mt. Logan in March, 1928; it is not clear whether the other small items were acquired before or after Collins' death.

Container Listing

See Also:

Historic Letter Collection
Semi-Historic Letter Collection
Gray Archives Photograph Collection: #0079-#0082, #0975

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Last updated April 2011
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