How It All Began

“As well as a flourishing library, the school by 1909 had a wood collection containing specimens of nearly all of Pennsylvania’s native trees and large shrubs. For each species, cross sections and radial and tangential sections had been prepared to show the gross appearance of the wood. The next step was the preservation of samples in alcohol and glycerin so that sections suitable for microscopic examination could be cut. These latter sections were to be especially useful in the study of timber physics (wood technology)." E.H. Thomas, “A History of the Pennsylvania State Forestry School, 1903 – 1929.” p. 67

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Shoulders of Giants

Today is a significant day of accomplishment in the Penn State Xylarium. I've been working for four years, off and on, organizing, validating, verifying, and re-naming specimens that were originally documented by Drs. Wallace White, Richard Jorgenson, Newell Norton, and their predecessors up until Dr. Norton's passing in 1968.

Here are Dr. Wallace White, and Mr. Richard Jorgenson, Professor and Instructor of Wood Technology at Penn State in 1951.

That's Dr. Newell Norton on the right in the tie, seated along with Forestry Instructor John Halberg, in 1951.
And here is what the sum of their work, sixty years in the effort, amounted to.

There were a total of 4,115 specimens organized and documented. These include 2,110 unique accession numbers assigned, but in their original reorganizing that was winnowed down to 2,005 unique specimens. My work on the collection has reduced that number down to 1,760 unique "accepted" species. In addition, there are an additional 31 species for which the proper identification is still unresolved in the scientific community.

The specimens represent 149 different biological families, and have been collected from 130 different countries (or states and provinces in North America) around the world. They were brought together from the collections of 30 different individuals or organizations, and represent the work of hundreds of different collectors. (That number will never be known, as only about forty percent of the specimens have voucher documentation indicating the name of the original collector.)

Practically none of these specimens are what we consider "standard" collector size today, as they were all collected prior to the formation of the "Wood Collectors Society" in the United States from which the final standard evolved. As a result, they are all different sizes, and Dr. Norton decided on four different shape classifications: Type I, which resemble today's standard specimens but are slightly smaller; Type II, which are very small sections, resembling cut-offs from the larger Type I specimens; Type III, which are round or semi-round specimens cut from either very small stems or branches of larger trees; and Type IV, which are blocks, or other odd shapes. I have not yet tabulated how many of each are, a task that remains for another month's worth of work.

All of these specimens have typed documentation (in triplicate!) on file which I used as the beginning of my examination of each specimen. In addition, the 2000 or so specimens from the collection of collector Joseph L. Stearns are all documented by hand by Mr. Stearns in his original notebook, and the 800 or so specimens from the "Project One" distribution by State University of New York have summary sheets and field sheets on file here in the lab.

All of the work is now summarized and available for inspection in the "Database" link in the right-hand column of this blog.

Dr. Norton apparently was the last scientist to work on the collection, his work continuing through the 1960's until his death in 1968. At that time, only about 2/3 of the collection was documented with access numbers. The remaining 1/3 of the collection still sits here, waiting for the next generation of researcher to take it on.

Which I will do, but I have a larger, more pressing task immediately in front of me.

My next line of focus will be to perform the same work on the 4,000 specimen collection of Dennis Brett, who donated his collection of seventy years of collecting to Penn State in 2016. Mr. Brett's collection will become the largest donation to the Penn State Xylarium, double the size of Mr. Stearn's contribution in 1956.

Obviously, I'm eager to get the new collection properly documented and entered into the database. So that comes next.

How long will it take? Well, that depends on any number of factors. Perhaps I will obtain funding that will allow me to step up the resources committed to the work. If not, it will take a while. But in this type of work, the journey is so much more enlightening than achieving the destination.

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