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The Pringle at 100

By Cheryl Dorschner Article published March 4, 2003

Cyrus Pringle
Cyrus Pringle and his assistant Filemon Lozano working in 1910-era Williams Hall. (Archival photo by B.F. Lutman, courtesy of the botany department.)

Cyrus Guernsey Pringle became UVM’s first herbarium director in 1902, bringing with him his sizeable collection of botanical specimens. One hundred years later, the university will mark that event and the formation of the Botany Department with several celebrations, says current Pringle Herbarium director and botany professor David Barrington.

On March 12 at 7 p.m., Barrington will speak at the Vermont Institute for Natural Sciences in Montpelier about the herbarium and Pringle’s plant explorations. Beginning in May, naturalists will lead Cyrus Pringle botany walks in Vermont areas where Pringle collected specimens. The Fleming Museum will launch an extensive exhibit of Pringle’s writings, specimens and memorabilia next fall.

Early interests
Pringle was born in East Charlotte in 1838. "He was well-schooled in Hinesburg and Bakersfield, Vermont, and later at Stanbridge, Quebec," according to the Life and Work of Cyrus Guernsey Pringle, by Helen Burns Davis and published by the University of Vermont in May 1936.

Pringle entered UVM in 1859, but when his older brother died during Cyrus’ first semester of study, he had to abandon college to work the farm for his already widowed mother. Much later, Pringle was awarded honorary degrees from UVM and Middlebury College.

It was on his mother’s farm where his grandfather had planted apples and pears that Pringle grafted apples at age 19, started a nursery in 1858 and, in the 1870s, crossbred new potato varieties such as Snowflake, Alpha and Ruby. He sold seedlings of lilies, gladioli and wheat. He grew more than 100 varieties of Iris and nearly all the then-known species of lilies. His Hubbard squash seeds brought a dollar a pound at one time, and he ran a veritable hospital for bulbs. "People sent him their sick specimens from great distance to healthy Vermont and his skillful practice," according to Davis’s account.

Pacifist to botanist
In 1863, Pringle was drafted into the Union Army along with two other Vermont Quakers. He was jailed and later "staked to the ground with his arms outstretched and legs racked," Davis wrote, and was threatened with death because he refused to perform military duties. He would not give in and after the torture wrote in his diary that it had "been the happiest day of my life – to be privileged to fight the battle for universal peace." President Lincoln personally intervened to gain the parole of the three Quakers.

Pringle began to collect plant specimens. He first attempted exploration of Camel's Hump in 1874 but abandoned it two years later for Mount Mansfield, which was much richer in flora. In 1878 he exhibited Vermont specimens at the Paris Exposition. In 1880 he was commissioned by the American Museum of Natural History, the famed Harvard botanist Asa Gray and the U.S. Census to collect plant specimens on the U.S. Pacific Slope and explore the forests there. Five years later, he was commissioned to collect in Mexico. Many of his specimens were the first specimens (called "type specimens") of new species. Pringle worked in Mexico for 26 years until his death in 1911.

By the end of his life, he had distributed an astounding 500,000 sheets of some 20,000 species – 29 new genera and 1,200 new species, 100 new varieties and four new combinations, unsurpassed by almost any other collector. More than 100 years later, these specimens are still among the best collected and preserved.

"His species are beautiful," Barrington says. “This art shines where plants are reduced from three to two dimensions. But what is important is that they display the character of plants to scientists."

And, no, although he bred potato varieties, there is no connection between Cyrus Pringle and that fabricated snack food that bears the same name. Barrington says, "We wrote to Proctor and Gamble asking where they came up with the name. They wrote back and said they just picked it because they thought it was a good name." .