University of Vermont

Endowment preserves Pringle Herbarium

Dave Barrington
Dave Barrington, photo by Sally McCay

ALUMNI CONNECTION /
PHILANTHROPHY

Endowment preserves Pringle Herbarium

by Audrey Clark 

On the second floor of Torrey Hall rows of tall wooden and metal cabinets packed with pressed plants fill a high-ceilinged room with gracefully arched windows . This is UVM’s Pringle Herbarium, home to 300,000 plant specimens collected by botanists dating back to Fanny Allen, widow of Revolutionary War leader Ethan Allen. The herbarium was started in 1902 with a generous endowment from the founder of Shelburne Farms, William Seward Webb.

Richard Bundy, president of the UVM Foundation, sees that first endowment as an important legacy for the university. “William Webb’s gift is a great example of how donors can have an impact that far exceeds their natural life,” he says.

In the late 1800s, an explosion of scientific activity in the eastern United States centered around the discovery of new species on the western frontier. Cyrus Pringle, a native of Charlotte, Vermont, joined the vanguard of botanical explorers out west, braving rugged terrain, malaria, and stage coach robbers to press, dry, and ship specimens to scientists in the east. By the end of his life, he had collected more than 500,000 specimens, 12 percent of which were entirely new to science.

Although the U.S. National Herbarium and Middlebury College clamored for Pringle and his remarkable collection of plants, in 1902, Pringle’s collection was moved by horse and buggy from his farmhouse in Charlotte to Williams Science Hall on the UVM campus. Webb’s $10,000 endowment paid Pringle’s salary of $750 a year and funded his collecting trips in Mexico.

Pringle died in 1911, but the Webb endowment lives on, currently providing $4,500 a year, a small but important part of the herbarium’s annual budget of $90,000. “There’s a deep history here that has yielded a fund that’s really sustained the herbarium for a century,” says David Barrington, professor and chair of the Plant Biology Department in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the director of the herbarium since 1974.

The Webb endowment has also positioned the Pringle Herbarium to be successful in securing additional funding. A recently established endowment supports the herbarium’s role as a hotspot of fern research, and four grants currently fund the creation of an online herbarium to foster cutting-edge research on climate change.

Bundy sees the Webb endowment as part of a university-wide tradition. “At a university that’s 220-plus years old, the history of private philanthropy here is long and rich. The Pringle endowment is one special example of the long, long history of philanthropic support that helps to make higher education, scholarship, and research available in Vermont.”