HENRY HURD RUSBY (1855-1940)

Illustration from Rusby’s book Jungle Memories (1933)

This botanist and pharmacist, plant prospector and explorer, university dean and organizational stalwart began his career collecting plants for the Smithsonian in the American Southwest, and in South America for Parke, Davis and Company. Later he taught at the Columbia University School of Pharmacy and served many years as dean. Rusby collected about 60,000 specimens representing more than 4,000 species, including nearly a thousand new ones. He is cited as the author of 49 taxon names.

At 21, Rusby won first prize at the Philadelphia Centenntial Exhibition for an herbarium of plants from his native Essex County, New Jersey. This brought him to the attention of leading botanists and, while a medical student at New York University, he spent 18 months collecting plants in Texas and New Mexico on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution. A few years later, in 1883, he returned to the Southwest to study and collect medicinal plants of Arizona for Parke, Davis & Company, which had purchased his prizewinning herbarium.

Soon after the anesthetic properties of cocaine were discovered in 1884, Parke, Davis sent Rusby on an expedition to Bolivia. His instructions were to secure a large quantity of coca and ship it to the United States; to locate and collect supplies of several other medicinal plants, especially cinchona bark; to go into the interior prospecting for new drugs; and to make botanical collections. To use today’s jargon, Rusby was bioprospecting for Parke-Davis, but his heart was in botanizing, following the collecting traditions of the 19th century. When his shipment of 20,000 pounds of coca leaf went missing during a political revolution and the company cabled him to return home, he set off instead on his own, for what became a two-year journey. He explored remote regions in Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil, collecting 45,000 botanical specimens representing 4,000 taxa, about a fifth of them new to science. Rusby published articles about his discoveries in both pharmaceutical and botanical journals.

Boris Luban, Henry Hurd Rusby, oil on canvas.
Columbia University Art Properties.

He returned to distinguish himself in a more conventional career. For more than forty years, from about 1888 until 1930, he was Professor of Botany, Physiology, and Materia Medica at the College of Pharmacy at Columbia University, and served as Dean of the Faculty for 26 years. During that time he pursued a wide range of professional interests and made several more trips to South America.

For about a year starting in April, 1906, Rusby published a monthly column on the wild foods of the United States in the elite magazine Country Life in America; each focused on what was available that month, so the July article, for example, provided an exhaustive discussion of berries, distinguishing among numerous varieties of blackberries, huckleberries, and even cactus fruits.

Rusby was active in botanical and pharmaceutical organizations. He served as an expert on drug products in the US Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Chemistry. He is considered one of the founders of the New York Botanical Garden, serving on its board of managers and influential in promoting the study of economic botany. For seven years, he was the president of the Torrey Botanical Club, the oldest botanical society in the Americas; concurrently during one of those years, he served as president of the American Pharmaceutical Association.

In 1921, at age 66 and not in the best health, Rusby led the Mulford Biological Exploration of the Amazon Basin, perhaps the most ambitious and best equipped scientific expedition to South America up to that time. It was sponsored by the H.K. Mulford Company, a Philadelphia pharmaceutical company that produced digitalis from foxglove plants. The trip proved too rigorous for Rusby, who was forced to return early. His official diary of the expedition is among his papers at the New York Botanical Garden. Expedition quartermaster and photographer Gordon MacCreagh described Rusby and his fellow professors in a derogatory account of the trip, White Waters and Black (1926), which the New York Times described as “a tale of thrilling adventure well-salted with humor.” Rusby is introduced there as “The Director, slow of movement and thought.”

Although he returned from South America quite ill, Rusby survived to do significant professional work, especially regarding revisions of the United States Pharmacopoeia. Despite his own medical degree, he championed pharmacists, as opposed to physicians, insisting that pharmacists had superior knowledge about plant drug quality, adulteration, and standardization. In 1933, he published Jungle Memories, a memoir of the original Parke-Davis expedition fifty years earlier, perhaps written in response to MacCreagh’s book. The book is in equal parts a tale of hazards, adventures, and rafting stories, and a catalog of exotic plants and birds.


H.H. Rusby, Director. Official Diary of the Mulford Biological Exploration of the Amazon Basin (transcript of the first week)

H.H. Rusby, Coca At Home and Abroad

Rusby obituary, New York Times