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Emma Cole, Grand Rapids Flora Pioneer


October 19, 2020


Successful Teacher and Botanist.

Emma Jane Cole is best known for being a well-loved teacher and an esteemed botanist at a time when there were almost no women in the sciences.

Emma Jane Cole was born on January 23, 1845 in Milan, Ohio.  Her family moved to Vergennes Township in Michigan, roughly 11 miles east of Grand Rapids, sometime between 1855 and 1859. After she graduated from high school, Emma taught at the Vergennes District School, the Lowell Union School and the Greenville High School. In 1876, 31-year-old Emma enrolled in Cornell University in New York to study botany (the study of plants), only six years after the university had started admitting women.  She completed two years at Cornell University before returning to Grand Rapids and becoming a teacher at Central High School in 1881.  Emma taught there for 26 years, retiring in 1907.

This is the only known photo of Emma Jane Cole. The date of this photo is unknown, but it appears to have been taken early on in her teaching career at Central High School. The same photo was used in all the school’s yearbooks.

Emma was one of the first female members of the Kent Scientific Institute, now known as the Grand Rapids Public Museum, and was the curator of its botanical collection and was elected vice president in 1900. The Kent Scientific Institute’s collection was housed at Central High School for many years, giving the teachers access to its collection and library for instructional purposes.

When Emma started teaching at Central High School, she was assigned grammar and history, but her lessons on these subjects were very tedious.  It wasn’t until she got the opportunity to teach botany, a subject she loved, did she blossom and became one of the most popular teachers at the high school.  Early in her teaching at Central High School, Emma recognized a need for an up-to-date account of the plants in the Grand Rapids area to aid in the teaching of botany. This was the inspiration for a project that would end in 1901 with a published book titled: Grand Rapids Flora: A Catalogue of the Flowering Plants and Ferns Growing Without Cultivation in the Vicinity of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Emma publishised other scientific articles, but her 1901 book is the most well-known.

Grand Rapids Map
This map comes from Emma Cole’s 1901 book called the Grand Rapids Flora and shows the geographic area covered in the book. The map was prepared by Homer C. Skeels, a former student of Emma’s.

The Grand Rapids Flora is still the most comprehensive account of plants in the greater Grand Rapids area and still referenced by botanists today. The book includes 1,290 taxa covering 585 square miles, with most of the plant specimens collected between 1892-1900.  It includes 16 townships of Kent and Ottawa counties, centered around Grand Rapids, and a quarter of Vergennes Township, reflecting the area around Emma’s family country home. The Grand Rapids Flora also includes common names for the plants, general blooming times, habitat preferences, and the occurrence of rare and invasive species. Emma wrote the book by hand, because typewriters were not readily available at that time, and paid for the entire cost of the project, including printing and field work associated expenses.  This was not a small expense and Emma only had a small teaching salary. 

Emma corresponded with botanists around the world, trading information and plant specimens to create an extensive herbarium, which is a collection of dried, pressed plants, scientifically labeled and organized. Charles Sprague Sargent, who was the first director of the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University and a long-time colleague of Emma’s, named a new species of hawthorn, Crataegus coleae, in her honor. Crataegus coleae is still considered a valid species today.

Crataefus coleae
Crataegus coleae, the species of hawthorn named in Emma Cole’s honor. This specimen was collected by Emma in 1903.

Emma’s travels can be re-traced from the plant specimens she collected.  She traveled to Europe in 1903, went out West in 1905, to Cuba in 1908 and Mexico in 1910. Emma fell ill on her return trip from Mexico and was hospitalized in San Antonio, Texas, dying shortly thereafter.  Her illness was pronounced “walking typhoid,” but her death certificate, dated April 25, 1910, says that the cause of death was acute nephritis – kidney failure.

Emma is buried in the Vergennes Township cemetery near the little Methodist church she had attended as a young girl.  Her grave is marked by a large stone which she selected years before. Emma left several significant donations, including to the Grand Rapids Board of Education to support the Botany Laboratory at Central High School. She set up a fund for an annual flower service to be held by one of nine churches in downtown Grand Rapids on the second Saturday of June. The sermon was to focus on flowers and the church was to be amply decorated with floral arrangements, to perpetuate a love and interest in flowers. This service was held every year until 1968. To the Kent Scientific Institute, Emma willed her personal herbarium collection, consisting of 3,581 curated plant specimens and 1,278 pressed specimens that still needed to be mounted. She also donated her microscope, prepared slides and lantern slides, 300 copies of Grand Rapids Flora, and all future sales from the book.  Emma also left an endowment to the University of Michigan to establish the Emma J. Cole Fellowship, for a graduate student pursuing studies in botany that has given evidence of distinguished attainments. This fellowship continues today.

Over 2,600 plant specimens collected by Emma are on long-term loan to the University of Michigan Herbarium from the Grand Rapids Public Museum, where they are being utilized for research and collegiate education.  About three-fifths of this collection come from Michigan, mostly near Grand Rapids, and the rest of the plant specimens were collected during Emma’s travels or received through correspondents with other botanists active in the U.S. between 1880 and 1895. Additional plant specimens collected by Emma are housed at the Michigan State University Herbarium, the Albion College Herbarium, and numerous other herbariums across the country.

In 1994, Emma was remembered in the celebration of Women’s History Month in Grand Rapids in a play which explored the accomplishments of four Grand Rapids’ women. On October 17, 2007, Emma Jane Cole was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame for her achievements in the field of science and technology.

Emma Cole Women's Hall of Fame Award
Emma Cole’s plaque from being inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 2007. A sample of Emma’s handwriting describing shrubs, and a copy of her 1901 publication with the abbreviated title of Grand Rapids Flora.

By: Dr. Cory Redman, the GRPM’s Science Curator

Late Opening Notice.

On Saturday, May 11, the Museum will open at 12 p.m. due to road closures for the Amway River Bank Run.

Early Closure Notice.

The Museum will close at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, May 1 for Museum Adventure After Dark. Tickets are still available!