University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Saving the Herbarium

Torrey Hall on fire
Photograph by Jeremy Matt

THE GREEN

Saving the Herbarium

PLANT BIOLOGY | When the roof of Torrey Hall caught fire the morning of August 3, UVM researchers feared that the 300,000 historic and rare plant specimens housed primarily on the top floor wouldn’t survive the blistering heat. Or, if by some chance they did, surely the gallons of water firefighters used to control and extinguish the fire would ruin the prized scientific collection, the third largest herbarium in New England, exceeded only by those at Harvard and Yale.

But a $470,000 grant from the National Science Foundation secured in 2014 was used to upgrade storage of the collection, from wooden cabinets to cabinets designed to protect against fire and water damage. When the fire was out, a preliminary examination showed that the cabinets had done their job. The collection was safe. Only materials that had not been processed and were outside the new cabinets sustained damage.

Quick thinking and heroic work by the Burlington Fire Department were also key to the herbarium’s survival. Briefed on the importance of the collection inside, firefighters arriving on the scene entered the burning building to cover the cabinets with tarps in an effort to further protect the collection.

The fire was ignited by soldering work under way as part of renovations on the 1863 building.

The herbarium contains specimens collected by botanists dating back to Fanny Allen, widow of Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen. It’s named for Cyrus Pringle, a native of Charlotte, Vermont, who traveled to the western frontier in the late 1800s to discover new species. By the end of his life, he had collected more than 500,000 specimens, 12 percent of which were entirely new to science.

The collection is critical for researchers studying plant diversity and systematics, or how living things evolve and change over time. “It’s a world-renowned resource,” says plant biologist Dave Barrington, curator of the Pringle Herbarium.

As Barrington dealt with salvaging and preserving the collection in the fire’s aftermath, he received help from many across campus, from Physical Plant to UVM Libraries to the Fleming Museum, where director Janie Cohen made the Marble Court available as a space to dry out the specimens.

“It’s amazing,” says Barrington. “It takes a village, and this is one hell of a village.”

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