E. Lucy Braun, Plant Ecologist, Born (1889)

Pioneers are people who create paths through unknown places.  Lucy Braun did so, figuratively and literally.

Emma Lucy Braun was born on April 19, 1889, in Cincinnati, Ohio, which would be her home for her entire life (she died at age 81 in 1971).  She roamed the local woodlands as a young girl with her family.  Her parents quizzed her and her sister, Annette, on the names of the plants and animals they encountered, sparking an intense interest in natural history.  In high school, she began pressing and drying plants, building a reference collection that eventually contained 11,891 specimens (now held by the Smithsonian Institution).  She first studied geology at the University of Cincinnati, earning BS and MS degrees.  She then turned to botany, earning her PhD degrees there in 1914, the second woman to receive a doctorate from the university.  The first was her sister Annette, who beat Lucy by two years, with a doctorate specializing in the study of moths.

Emma Lucy Braun (photo by The New York Botanical Gardens)

After finishing her degrees, she began working as a teacher and researcher for the University of Cincinnati, advancing stepwise to full professor in 1946.  She retired from the university two years later, determined to escape the demands of teaching so she could concentrate on her research.  In fact, her pre-eminent work, the book Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America, was published two years after retirement, in 1950.

She was a pioneer in the understanding of hardwood forest ecology.  And she did it the hard way, by hiking through the forests she sought to understand.  She walked an estimated 65,000 miles through the forests of the southern Appalachians, at a time when women seldom performed such extensive or demanding field work.  And by her side for most of those miles walked her sister Annette.  Braun continued exploring throughout her life, leading hikes until she was 80 years old.

That work made her the singular expert on the plant ecology of the eastern deciduous forest.  With her background in geology, she was able to relate plant communities to site conditions, and supplementing her own field work with survey records from earlier times, she was able to reconstruct the changes in forest composition over hundreds of years.  Her book on deciduous forests and her other work, published in more than 180 papers, remain among the seminal foundations of modern forest ecology.

Photo by Lucy Braun of an eastern deciduous forest, shown at her 1935 speech to the Kentucky Garden Club.

She was also a pioneer for the role of women in ecology and conservation.  She advised mostly female graduate students.  In 1917, she founded the Wildflower Preservation Society of North America (now known as the Cincinnati Wildflower Preservation Society), which recently celebrated its centenary.  She was the first woman elected president of the Ohio Academy of Science (1933-1934) and the first woman president of the Ecological Society of America, elected in 1950 (the society established the E. Lucy Braun Award for outstanding student poster presentations in 1987).  Just before her death in 1971, she was the first woman inducted into the Ohio Conservation Hall of Fame.

As well as being a pioneering scientist and role model for women, Braun was a staunch conservationist.  She fought for the protection of intact forest ecosystems for their biodiversity and scientific values.  The Nature Conservancy’s first property in Ohio is named for her—the E. Lucy Braun-Lynx Prairie Preserve.  It is part of an 18,000-acre tract that comprises the Edge of Appalachia Preserve.  Braun loved this area, which her research showed was particularly high in biodiversity in mixtures of open prairies and woodlands.  Braun was responsible for several other land conservation projects throughout the midwest.

At a speech to the Kentucky Garden Club in 1935, Braun explained her passion for preserving the forest:

“Nowhere in the whole world is there the equal in beauty and magnificence of our eastern deciduous forest.  It is unexcelled.  And in Kentucky and Tennessee this deciduous forest reached its superlative development….Why not save a piece of your native country, your native state, in its original condition as a monument to the original beauty and grandeur of your forests, just as you save an historical shrine?”

Just as the pioneers worked their ways westward through the eastern deciduous forest, using the wood and clearing the land for farms, pastures and towns, so Lucy Braun pioneered the work of keeping some of that land around for people like her—men and women—to learn, perhaps, how to keep the broader environment intact as well.


Pine Mountain Settlement School Collections.  Emma Lucy Braun.  Available at:  https://pinemountainsettlement.net/?page_id=15577.  Accessed April 18, 2018.

Rafferty, John P.  2018.  Emma Lucy Braun, American Botanist and Ecologist.  Encyclopedia Britannica, 4-12-2018.  Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Emma-Lucy-Braun.  Accessed April 18, 2018.

The Nature Conservancy.  Edge of Appalachia Preserve, The E. Lucy Braun Lynx Prairie Preserve.  Available at:  https://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/ohio/placesweprotect/tnc-eoa-buzzardroost-rock-trail-map-and-guide-1.pdf.  Accessed April 18, 2018.

This Month in Conservation

September 1
Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, Died (1914)
September 2
President Roosevelt Dedicated Great Smoky National Park (1940)
September 3
Wilderness Act passed (1964)
September 4
Fort Bragg, Home of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Established (1918)
September 5
UNESCO Established First World Heritage Sites (1978)
September 6
Alcide d’Orbigny, French Naturalist, Born (1802)
September 7
Edward Birge, Father of Limnology, born (1851)
September 8
UN Millennium Declaration ratified (2000)
September 9
First “Bug” Found in Computer (1945)
September 10
Henry Hardtner, Father of Southern Forestry, Born (1870)
September 11
World Wildlife Fund Began Operations (1961)
September 12
Canyonlands National Park Established (1964)
September 13
Walter Reed born (1851)
September 14
Marc Reisner, Author of Cadillac Desert (1948)
September 15
Darwin reaches the Galapagos Islands (1835)
September 16
Ed Begley Jr., Environmental Advocate, born (1949)
September 17
Edgar Wayburn, Wilderness Advocate, Born (1906)
September 18
Grey Owl, Pioneering Conservationist in Canada, Born (1888)
September 19
Urmas Tartes, Estonian Nature Photographer, born (1963)
September 20
AAAS Founded (1848)
September 21
Assateague Island National Seashore Created (1965)
September 22
Peace Corps becomes law (1961)
September 23
Rose Selected as U.S. National Flower (1986)
September 24
President Kennedy Dedicated Pinchot Institute (1963)
September 25
Pope Francis Addressed the UN on the Environment (2015)
September 26
Johnny Appleseed Born (1774)
September 27
“Silent Spring” Published (1962)
September 28
National Public Lands Day
September 29
Steinhart Aquarium opens (1923)
September 30
Hoover Dam Dedicated (1935)
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