Former Curators: John Adolph Shafer


by former curator Otto E. Jennings in Trillia S; 3-7, 1915-1919

ShaferJohn Adolph Shafer was born February 23, 1863, on Penn Avenue near Seventeenth Street, Pittsburgh, where he resided until the death of his father in 1884. He attended the Ralston School on Penn Avenue when six years old, later going to the old Central High School on Bedford Avenue, and finally graduating at the age of eighteen from the Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy. He was then employed for two years in Kearn's Drug Store on Fifth Avenue at Grant Street.

Being the oldest son he was now compelled by the death of his father to look after the family and they moved from Penn Avenue to Lawrenceville, after which, for a short time, they lived on the South Side.

Shortly after his father's death he opened a drug store on Carson and Twelfth Streets, in partnership with Albert Koch, but this work was soon given up on account of its effect on his health, and the family moved to a farm which they had purchased in Moon Township, Allegheny County.

On February 23, 1888, he married Martha Tischer, whom he had met while he was employed as a druggist in the store of John Greineisen in the West End, Pittsburgh, and four children were born: Quercus T., Adolph T., Ulmus T., and Martha Hettie. Soon after his marriage he gave up pharmacy and became permanently engaged in gardening and botanical work. In 1896 his wife died. In 1898 he married Mina Tischer, a sister of his first wife, and of this marriage there were eight children: Dorothy, Elvina, Theodore, John, Catherine, Celtis, Wilma, and Grace.

As a boy John A. Shafer showed a deep interest in plants, even at the early age of eight years. His summers were spent on his grandfather's farm at Freedom, where most of his time was occupied roaming the woods in search of new plants. His love for plants is markedly shown by the following incident of his boyhood days: living in the city with only a brick yard and no place for a garden, he removed the outside cellar steps and planted the slope with as many different kinds of plants as he could find. During his entire life his books and plants were his best companions. He early began to press plants and to accumulate a herbarium, and he was one of the charter members of the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania, organized in 1886.

He was prominently associated with the activities of the Society, serving as custodian of its collections, as secretary, and as leader of many of its field trips, and he contributed largely to the herbarium from his own collections. After the founding of Carnegie Museum in 1896, the herbarium of the Society was transferred to the care of that institution and Mr. Shafer, in 1897, was appointed Custodian in the Section of Botany. Here he labored untiringly in the upbuilding of the herbarium, devoting particular attention to the flora of western Pennsylvania, and traveling far and wide throughout the southwestern part of the State; accompanied (as the labels show) on many of these trips by one or another of the enthusiasts of the earlier days of the Society, among whom may be mentioned C. C. Mellor, Adolph Koenig, D. H. Patterson, J. D. Shafer, and O. P. Medsger. In 1894 and 1895 Mr. Shafer instructed a class in botany in the Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh), and on June 16, 1895, he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Pharmacy.

Upon the invitation of Dr. N. L. Britton, Director of the New York Botanical Garden, Mr. Shafer spent the month of September 1902 in selecting duplicates for the herbarium of Carnegie Museum. During March 1903, he was with Dr. Britton on a botanical expedition in Cuba, remaining there until May; these collections being divided between the New York Botanical Garden and Carnegie Museum. In 1904, Mr. Shafer was appointed Museum Custodian at the New York Botanical Garden, a position he held until 1910. Early in 1910 he returned to his farm near Carnot (about eighteen miles west of Pittsburgh) giving his attention to his gardening and greenhouse work, but making various trips during the colder months to the American tropics as a collector for the New York Botanical Garden.

Besides the expedition to Cuba in 1903, mentioned above, Dr. Shafer collected for the New York Botanical Garden in 1907 on the island of Montserrat, in the Lesser Antilles; 1909–10 in eastern Cuba; 1911–12 in western, central, and eastern Cuba; late in 1912 he again went to western Cuba; in January, February, and March, 1913, he was one of a party making collections on St. Thomas, St. Jan, Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada, Porto Rico, and Curacao; in early 1914 he collected on the island of Vieques, Porto Rico; later in 1914 he collected in the mountains of eastern Porto Rico; and November 1916–April 1917 he collected in northern Argentina and Paraguay, specializing this time to a considerable degree on the Cactaceae.

Dr. N. L. Britton has this to say: "Dr. Shafer's several Cuban botanical collections, taken all together, are the largest ever made and studied from that island, and in scientific importance are second only to those of Charles Wright, brought together from 1859 to 1864; they contain specimens of several hundred species new to science and provide a great fund of information relative to habitat and geographic distribution of Cuban species, and many plants previously known from other lands are shown by these collections to inhabit Cuba."

Dr. Shafer was primarily a field botanist of keen and discriminating observational powers, but aside from the various general reports on his tropical expeditions he published few botanical papers. In 1901 he published A Preliminary List of the Vascular Flora of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania based upon the collections in the herbarium of Carnegie Museum, these being mainly the old collections of the Society. He described a new species of Senna from western Pennsylvania in 1904, naming it after his friend and a former member of our Society, Mr. O. P. Medsger. He assisted Dr. Britton in the preparation of the volume North American Trees, published in 1908, he being responsible for the appearance therein of various references and a few photographs relative to some of the trees occurring in western Pennsylvania.

Two genera of plants have been named after Dr. Shafer from specimens collected by him in western Oriente Province, Cuba: Shaferocharis and Shafera. Cuban species have been named in his honor in the genera Agaricus, Anastraphia, Baccharis, Cassia, Coccolobis, Eugenia, Eupatorium, Gesneria, Heptanthus, Hyptis, Lobelia, Miconia, Myrica, Passiflora, Puriaea, Revenia, Rhacoma, Rhamridium, Rondeletia, Senecio, Tabebuia, Tricera, and Varronia. From Vieques Island Malphigia shaferi is named after him, as also from Montserrat a fungus, Fuscoporella, and several of his cacti from South America.

In his enthusiasm Dr. Shafer stopped at no hardships in order to secure creditable collections, and it is probably due to this disregard for personal comfort, and to the absence of modern conveniences and methods as to matters of health and sanitation in some of the regions visited in northern Argentina and Paraguay, that he fell a prey to infection by some obscure disease (probably a blood parasite), from the effects of which, after a long illness, he died in the Sewickley Valley Hospital on February 1, 1918. He is survived by his wife and eleven children.

I first met Dr. Shafer in 1904, some time after he had taken up his work at the New York Botanical Garden, and I subsequently met him frequently during his intermittent periods of residence at his home near Carnot. Independent and impatient of authority to a fault he was, nevertheless, a man of high ideals, devoted to the study of plants, eager to help, and a delightful companion to one with like interests. In the passing of Dr. Shafer, western Pennsylvania has lost its foremost pioneer botanist, to the memory of whom much of the old collections of the Society as well as his numerous more recent collections; now in the herbarium of Carnegie Museum, will remain an enduring and worthy monument.