Former Curators: Otto Emory Jennings
by former curator Leroy Kershaw Henry in Trillia No. 12 iii–vi. 1964
The death of Dr. O.E. Jennings on January 29, 1964, resulting from a stroke suffered that morning, has deprived the scientific world of a devoted natural scientist and distinguished educator. He not only had a thorough foundation in botany but also a wide knowledge of paleobotany, zoology, geology, and ecology.
My acquaintance with Dr. Jennings began in the fall of 1924 when I was a student in his botany class at the University of Pittsburgh. The following summer, I worked for him in the section of Botany at Carnegie Museum where he was curator. Thus began a friendship of forty years, during which he was teacher, friend, and co-worker. He was always willing to listen to the problems of others and to give needed advice. His keen observation and stimulating conversation made him an excellent fieldtrip leader, for he not only explained the details of the plant life seen, but also pointed out such things as the topography and geological background of the habitat, or the origin of the name.
O.E. Jennings was born October 3, 1877, on a farm near the village of Olena, in the firelands of the Connecticut Reserve of northern Ohio, of pre-Revolutionary New England parentage. His boyhood on the farm gave him many opportunities to study natural history first-hand. He attended a one-room country school and a township high school. After finishing high school, he taught country school for three years and then enrolled at the Ohio State University. Having become deeply interested in plants, he made his first herbarium in 1895, and as he worked his way through school, he became University florist and assistant in the Department of Botany. He received the BS degree in Agriculture in 1903.
In February 1904, he was appointed Custodian of Botany at Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. Being still interested in the field of education, he taught botany at the Ohio State University Lake Laboratory during the summer of 1905 and ecology in the summers of 1910 and 1911, collecting for the museum all the while. Then, in 1915, he was made Curator of Botany at the museum, and in 1930, Director of Education in addition. Subsequently he advanced at the museum to become Acting Director in 1945 (upon the resignation of Director Avinoff), Director in 1946, and Director Emeritus in 1948.
While still Assistant Curator at the museum, he was appointed Instructor of Paleobotany in the School of Mines at the University of Pittsburgh in 1911, and subsequently published (in 1920) a memoir, The Fossil Plants from the Beds of Volcanic Ash near Missoula, Montana. Thus began a long association with the University, and his advancement there was as regular as it was at the museum. He was appointed Professor and Head of the Department of Botany in 1914 and, in 1935, was named Professor and Head of the newly created Department of Biological Sciences, from which he retired as Professor Emeritus in 1947. During the period between 1930 and 1946 he directed and taught at the Lake Laboratory in Erie.
At the museum, his efforts were largely concerned with field and laboratory research in identification and classification of the native plants. One of his first publications was A Botanical Survey of Presque Isle, Erie, Pennsylvania, issued in 1909. In 1912 A Manual of Mosses of Western Pennsylvania was issued, and this came out in a revised edition in 1951.
Not all of this work was confined to local flora. He carried on fieldwork in northwestern Ontario during the summers from 1912 to 1917, and in 1915 he botanized across the state of Washington. He made an expedition to the Isle of Pines, Cuba, and in 1917 published the Botany of the Isle of Pines. During Christmas and Easter vacations from the University, in various years from 1917 to 1934 and during one summer, he botanized and collected for the museum in Florida. He taught a summer session of botany at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island in 1921, and an expedition in August 1924 took him to the Reelfoot Lake region of Tennessee.
A prolific writer through the years, Dr. Jennings published numerous articles on plant ecology, geography, and taxonomy, and many popular accounts of plant life. His masterpiece, after nearly fifty years of field work on the local flora, is the sumptuous two-volume Wild Flowers of Western Pennsylvania and the Upper Ohio Basin, with reproductions of 200 watercolors by Dr. Andrey Avinoff, former director of the museum. This work, published in 1953 by the University of Pittsburgh under a grant from the Buhl Foundation, contains keys and descriptions of approximately 2,200 flowering plants. It was named one of the ‘Fifty Books of the Year’ and is regarded as a collector's item.
The degree of Doctor of Philosophy was awarded O.E. Jennings in 1911 and the honorary degree of Doctor of Science in 1930, from the University of Pittsburgh. The Doctor of Laws degree was bestowed upon him by Waynesburg College in 1947.
During his lifetime Dr. Jennings held office in numerous societies. He became associated with the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania at the very beginning of his career at the museum, and served as its president 1907–09 and 1936–60 and as its secretary 1909–36. He was dedicated to the Society as he directed its operations, led many of its field trips, and edited its occasional publication Trillia.
His interest in the mosses of western Pennsylvania led to his appointment in 1913 as editor of the Bryologist, the journal of the American Bryological Society, and he held this post until 1938.
Dr. Jennings was the first president of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science, 1925, and he was president of the Academy of Science and Art of Pittsburgh from 1934 until his death.
He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Ohio Academy of Science. Further, he held membership in the honorary societies of Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi, and Phi Sigma. While his memberships in scientific organizations totaled more than twenty, he also belonged to other societies, including Agora, Junta, the Author's Club, and the Goose Lookers. He was a member of the advisory board of the Federal Northeastern Forest Experiment Station from 1935 until 1947.
The Jennings Blazing Star Prairie in Butler County, Pennsylvania, was named for him by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, and in 1959 they presented him an honorary life membership in the Conservancy, in recognition of his Botany activities.
Otto E. Jennings was married in 1906 to Grace E. Kinzer, Assistant in Botany at Carnegie Museum 1902–1918. She was his valued aid and constant field companion through their fifty years of marriage, and to her he attributed a great share of credit for what he accomplished. She died in 1957.
Dr. Jennings will long be remembered as a man of quiet manner, tact, and consideration for others, who because of his warmth and generosity won and retained friends among all with whom he came in contact.