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1920s botany professor鈥檚 mycology samples return to Brown

Herbarium now houses collections of Walter H. Snell, former professional baseball player, Brown professor

<p>Former Brown professor Walter H. Snell was integral in mycology —&nbsp;the scientific study of fungi — and a notable figure in Brown’s history. </p><p>Courtesy of Brown Digital Repository</p>

Former Brown professor Walter H. Snell was integral in mycology 鈥 the scientific study of fungi 鈥 and a notable figure in Brown鈥檚 history.

Courtesy of Brown Digital Repository

This fall, the Brown University Herbarium welcomed back a piece of the University鈥檚 history: mushrooms pressed onto paper.

Tucked away inside the boxes 鈥 overflow from the University of Rhode Island鈥檚 herbarium 鈥 were the collections of former Brown professor, pro baseball player and botany luminary

Snell was integral in mycology 鈥斅爐he scientific study of fungi 鈥 and a . But the decades-in-the-making homecoming of Snell鈥檚 mushroom masterpieces also signal a leap in the biological diversity of Brown鈥檚 cherished herbarium.

鈥淗aving these specimens incorporated into our database and being able to make them available to people is really important,鈥 said Rebecca Kartzinel, director of Brown鈥檚 herbarium, interim director of the Plant Environmental Center and lecturer in ecology, evolution and organismal biology. 鈥淏ut I love the history of having Snell鈥檚 work back here.鈥澛

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From URI to Brown

It started when the URI Herbarium ran out of space.聽

According to Keith Killingbeck, professor emeritus of biological sciences at URI, the university鈥檚 herbarium has two rooms: one that houses its more than 12,000 specimens and a smaller room that stores dozens of boxes. URI is converting the smaller room into an office space. That compelled Killingbeck to search for a new home for an overflow of 49 boxes of plants and fungi.

Brown 鈥 with the closest herbarium to URI, a large collection of Rhode Island specimens and an active staff 鈥 was the perfect home for URI鈥檚 extra specimens, Killingbeck said.聽

He contacted Kartzinel, and she traveled to the herbarium with Martha Cooper, curatorial assistant for Brown鈥檚 Herbarium, to determine if the specimens would be significant additions.

鈥淚t was a very big and exciting acquisition for us,鈥 Kartzinel said. The donated samples range from plants collected in the late 1800s to Costa Rican flora from the 1960s to other samples from Rhode Island 鈥 which the Herbarium is 鈥減articularly interested in.鈥澛

Over the course of multiple weeks, the boxes were shipped to Brown. There, they were frozen for about two weeks to get rid of any insects and bacteria, Kartzinel said.聽

Since the specimens inside the boxes had not been cataloged, Kartzinel and Cooper had to go through the boxes themselves, most of which were 鈥渇ungal specimens,鈥 Kartzinel said.聽

鈥淲e noticed the name Snell came up a lot,鈥 she added. 鈥淲hen I Googled him, I realized his name sounded familiar because he was a professor at Brown.鈥澛

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And not just a professor: He was a Brown student athlete, a notable figure in the advancement of mycology and a professional baseball player.聽

Snell at the University

Snell was a professor of botany at the University from 1920 to 1959, according to his , chairing the department nearly the entire time. He was responsible for establishing the University鈥檚 fungal collection, according to David McLaughlin PhD鈥62, emeritus professor at the University of Minnesota and a fungi curator. McLaughlin wrote a short on Snell in 1983.聽

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鈥淗e did this mushroom field work at a time when there was no color photography to capture the colors, which are important for identification of these fungi, so he taught himself to paint them in watercolors,鈥 McLaughlin wrote in an email to The Herald. 鈥淭hese paintings became a major part of his book on the boletes of northeastern North America and his 鈥.鈥

The book was a 鈥渃ulmination of his life鈥檚 work,鈥 co-written with Esther Dick, class of 1931, another Brown professor and Snell鈥檚 wife, Kartzinel said. The watercolors are 鈥渂eautiful,鈥 she added.聽

Along with contributing to the understanding of mushroom groups and , Snell was also the vice president of the Mycological Society of America during the second World War and a .

Snell served as a baseball, football, basketball and soccer coach for Brown for many years in addition to his position in the botany department, according to the Department of Athletics . In a , Snell was identified as 鈥渙ne of Brown鈥檚 greatest athletic figures.鈥澛

McLaughlin worked for Snell as both an undergraduate and graduate student. 鈥淗e was a very important mentor for me, and it led to a 50-year career in fungi and to becoming a curator,鈥 he wrote.聽

According to McLaughlin, Snell was 鈥渁 gifted storyteller and always had an amusing story to tell. 鈥 He often talked about catching for Babe Ruth during his baseball career. 鈥 He said that he still uses Snell鈥檚 glossary on a regular basis.聽

In 1979, Snell鈥檚 fungal collection was donated to the mycologists at what was then URI鈥檚 botany department.聽

This semester, those same fungi returned to Brown.

The future of the collections

Kartzinel said that it will take several months, if not years, to organize all of the specimens. That process includes filing them in the databases, taking images and mounting certain specimens onto paper.

鈥淲e welcome anyone who is interested in working on the project,鈥 Kartzinel said, including students to help file and organize specimens.

Kartzinel said one of the herbarium鈥檚 recent missions is to document the 鈥渇lora of Rhode Island鈥 to assess how the state has changed over time and get a 鈥済ood snapshot鈥 of what the state鈥檚 specimens have looked like during this time period.

鈥淲e think that this was the best outcome for these so-called 鈥榦rphan specimens,鈥欌 Killingbeck said, referring to the flora being transferred to Brown. 鈥淚鈥檓 just really pleased.鈥


Robayet Hossain

Robayet Hossain is a Science and Research staff writer focusing on up-and-coming research and departmental updates. He is a first-generation sophomore from Bangladesh and graduated in New Orleans. He loves listening to a variety of music genres and reading horror stories just to have problems falling asleep.



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