Austin Holmes (1859-1915)
Austin Holmes' signature
Photograph by Susan
Whitfield, Biology Departments, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Kindly supplied by William R. Burk, Botany Librarian of the University of
North Carolina at Chapel Hill
William R. Burk, Botany Librarian of the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill, provided the following information to the University of North
Carolina Herbarium. The essay is taken from a chapter on Joseph A. Homes that
will be published in a book on the history of botany at UNC-Chapel Hill,
which Burk is writing.
Early Years and Scientific Education
Born in the country village of Laurens, South
Carolina, on November 23, 1859, Joseph Austin Holmes was the eighth of twelve
children of Nancy Catherine Nickles and Zelotes Lee Holmes, a Presbyterian minister and teacher.
Young Holmes attended Laurens Academy and later the Holmes Academy, both in
his home village. He worked on the farm, gaining an interest in plants and
agriculture. In addition to hikes in the woods, out-door games, and horses,
Holmes enjoyed reading books. His father's library, which was particularly
strong in natural history, provided young Holmes "instruments for the
study of natural sciences" (Manning, 1915). At age seventeen, he left
home with a railway ticket and $15, heading directly for Cornell University
(Sykes, ). He began his studies there in January 1878 and worked his
way through college.
At Cornell, Holmes pursued studies in
agriculture, which allowed him to enroll in a number of scientific
disciplines. According to archival records at Cornell, he chose courses in
the following subjects: agricultural chemistry, agriculture, botany, chemistry,
entomology, horticulture, math, and veterinary science. In botany, he took
courses in systematics, histology, fungi, and extra credit, which probably
consisted of original research. By July 1879, Holmes was at the head of his
class. In addition to his scholastic pursuits, he enjoyed playing football
and baseball. Holmes earned a Bachelor of Agriculture degree in 1881
Teaching at the University of North Carolina
Upon his graduation from college, Holmes was
appointed professor of Geology and Natural History at the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill. His instruction in botany spanned most of the 1880s.
Holmes was the first professor at Chapel Hill to build up a diverse
curriculum in botany by offering several courses, improving laboratories, and
promoting field studies. At UNC, botany indeed now offered practical utility,
particularly in its application to agriculture. Instruction involved
lectures, recitations, lab work, text-books, and field trips.
During his first year, in addition to a course in
Physiological Botany (General Botany), Holmes taught a course of lectures and
laboratory work on economic botany. In Holmes’s second year of teaching, his
botany class collected and mounted plants from their field excursions, and
these were most likely placed in the growing herbarium. In the fall term of
1885, the University added several new faculty positions, including one in
zoology, which was filled by George Francis Atkinson. Holmes could now devote
additional time instructing in geology and botany. The expanded program in
botany consisted of Elements of Botany; Advanced Botany, which included two
classes (Systematic and Applied Botany and Agricultural Botany); and
In offering an expanded curriculum in natural
history, Holmes () explained how the courses, particularly in the plant
sciences, related to practical agriculture. Agricultural botany included
studies in several pertinent areas: fungi parasitic on crops, grasses and
forage plants and their cultivation and preservation, and the growth and
cultivation of plants. Horticulture featured studies on soils and methods for
improving them through such methods as drainage and manuring;
the management of orchards and forests with instruction on planting,
grafting, and pruning; and the basic principles in cultivating garden and
By the mid-1880s, the scientific laboratory
experience was gaining prominence at UNC as an educational experience.
Different scientific departments acquired additional specimens and learning
aids for illustration and instruction. The university was expanding its
resources to promote scientific instruction and the use of new methodologies.
Holmes became an active proponent of improving laboratory facilities in his
disciplines of responsibility. He believed that the university should adopt
laboratory practice “as far as possible in place of the old style text book
system of instruction.” He explained: “Seeing and examining an object gives a
student a further understanding of it than does reading about it. All
advanced institutions are adopting this plan” (BOT S-8: 158).
The progress made in increasing the faculty and
expanding the curriculum in botany (and other sciences) was short-lived. In
1885, the Legislature enacted the establishment of an Agricultural and
Mechanical College in Raleigh and transferred to it the Land Grant allocation
of $7,500 for instruction. The new institution was to be called the North
Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (now North Carolina State
University) and to be located west of and near the city of Raleigh. George
Atkinson was one of the newly appointed faculty members of 1885 who was let
go in 1888.
Following Atkinson's departure, Holmes’s
teaching responsibilities were once again stretched to include all disciplines
in natural history. Courses offered in botany were reduced to Elements of
Botany and Systematic and Applied Botany. This was a very demanding period in
Holmes’s university career. His numerous teaching responsibilities placed
overwhelming pressure on him. In the fall of 1890, Holmes (1891) taught six
courses, requiring seventeen hours per week: General Geology and Mineralogy,
18 students; Advanced Geology, 4; Advanced Mineralogy, 4; Zoology,
Physiology, and Botany, 40; Biology and Microscopic Technology, 20; and
Advanced Botany, 4. In addition to heavy teaching loads during the fall and
spring terms and geological field work during many summers, Holmes lectured
on the geology of North Carolina in the Summer School sessions in 1894-1896
From 1882 to 1891, Holmes taught botany and
horticulture to nearly 335 students. Of these students, nearly twenty-five
took courses in horticulture and advanced botany. Among these young men, two
became noted botanists: William Willard Ashe, who became particularly well
known as a forester in the North Carolina Geological Survey and later in the
U.S. Forest Service, and John Simcox Holmes (not
directly related to Joseph Austin Holmes) who replaced Ashe as North
Carolina's state forester.
The University Museum,
Its Development and Service to Students and Citizens
In addition to his teaching responsibilities,
Holmes was in charge of the University Museum, which served as an important
instructive tool. His students could consult the herbarium of local plants and
native woods. According to Kemp Battle (2: 274), the natural history
collections contained over 3,000 specimens of rocks, ores, minerals, and a
growing assemblage of woods, as well as zoological and botanical specimens
illustrating the local fauna and flora. Students were also expected to
utilize specimens of a large collection of seeds, grains, and fibers from
numerous countries in their experiments.
Keeping current with the scientific literature
and collecting specimens for preservation and instruction were important
aspects of Holmes’s scientific studies. While a student at Cornell
University, he had begun frequently requesting publications from the
Smithsonian Institution. His contact with the institution continued for at least
the subsequent twenty years. His nearly fifty letters housed in the
Institution’s archives are concerned with obtaining publications and sending
or receiving natural history specimens, among other topics. Of special note
was his donation of Cretaceous invertebrates collected in Wilmington, North
Carolina. His correspondence with scientists at the United States Department
of Agriculture (USDA) reveals distinct botanical research interests,
especially with grasses, in his early years at Chapel Hill. Geological
excursions and related research eclipsed Holmes’s botanical investigations in
Holmes had collected plants for scientific
identification while an undergraduate at Cornell. Among his botanical
collections from Ithaca, New York, were Aralia nudicaulis
L., May 30, 1879, and Tussilago farfara L., May 17, 1887, of which specimens are
preserved in the UNC Herbarium. From his correspondence, we further learn
that Holmes (1881) studied the grasses of Chapel Hill and environs soon after
moving there. Holmes wanted to learn about the economic value of grasses.
Holmes (1886) pointed out to George Vasey, a
botanist at the USDA, that he was attempting “to build up an
herbarium with a small beginning,” and he stated that any USDA duplicate
specimens might be donated to UNC. Today, selected specimens of North
Carolina plants collected by Holmes are archived at the UNC Herbarium,
examples being Lycopodium alopecuroides (L.) Cranfill
and Woodwardia areolata, both collected
in Duplin County, North Carolina, October 10, 1885; and Panax
trifolius from Orange County, North Carolina,
April 25, 1888. For several years, Holmes spent his vacation time conducting
geological field work, often taking along his advanced students.
The Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society
Holmes's active role in scientific organizations
at Cornell probably influenced his interest in developing a learned
scientific society at Chapel Hill. Holmes and three of his science colleagues
(chemistry professor Francis P. Venable, mathematics professor Ralph H.
Graves, and physics professor Joshua W. Gore) were interested in establishing
a scientific society at the university. On September 24, 1883, they convened
a meeting to discuss this issue at the home of Holmes and Venable (Venable,
1916). They also invited several other scholars (Kemp P. Battle, Thomas W.
Harris, J. Manning, William B. Phillips, and Emile A. de Schweinitz).
The assembled men chose the name “the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society” for
the newly formed association to honor the accomplishments of that versatile
Holmes and a continuous lineage of future
botanists at Chapel Hill provided guidance and leadership for the society.
Initially, the society held meetings each month during the university’s
school year. At its first regular meeting on November 10, 1883, Holmes
recounted the results of his observations and his readings on insectivorous
plants, especially about the structure and habits of the Venus flytrap, Dionaea muscipula
(Anonymous, 1883a, b). During the next several
years, Holmes presented additional papers (predominantly on geology) at the
meetings of the society; his botanical papers were on the geographical
distribution of North Carolina plants, the distribution of rhododendrons in
North Carolina, and the flora of Angola Bay, North Carolina. Concerning the
last topic, Holmes had spent the summer of 1884 conducting field work on the
plants and animals of the bay. At the October 18, 1884, meeting of the
society, which included his paper on Angola Bay, he exhibited specimens of
the plants collected on the trip (Anonymous, 1884). Some of the specimens
survive in the UNC Herbarium (NCU). In the society, Holmes served as vice
president (1883-1884, 1885-1886), president (1892-1893, 1898-1899), and as a
member of the Publication Committee (about 1885-1888).
Holmes encouraged his students to join the
Mitchell Society as associate members. Two young men who pursued advanced
studies in botany under Holmes's tutelage presented papers at the
organization's meetings. On April 12, 1887, Leander Williams Lynch reported
on the dates of flowering of nearly fifty plants growing in the region of
Chapel Hill (EMSS 1: 47). Gaston Battle presented a paper on the
"pea-nut plant" on April 21, 1891 (EMSS 1: 61). He became a planter
in Edgecombe County, North Carolina and was subsequently associated with
Sinclair Oil in Atlanta, Georgia. After graduating from UNC in 1891, William
W. Ashe, who had been an avid student of botany under the direction of Holmes,
also presented papers at the society's monthly programs. Ashe prepared a
paper on the longleaf pine and its struggle for survival, which Professor
Venable read for him on October 10, 1894 (EMSS 1: 71). The paper was
subsequently published (Ashe, 1894). Ashe also gave a presentation on the
influence of high altitudes upon the growth of plants on November 23, 1897,
which he illustrated with specimens from the Rockies (EMSS 1: 100).
Holmes resigned the professorship in natural
history in 1891 to become the State Geologist with the North Carolina
Contributions to Public Service
Holmes’s concerns for conservation extended to
the forests of North Carolina. At the Mitchell Society’s meeting of May 14,
1895, he presented a paper about restocking burned-over areas with longleaf
pine (EMSS 1: ). Four years earlier, he had suggested to American forester
and conservationist Gifford Pinchot his thoughts about establishing a forest
reservation in the Southern Appalachians (Smith, 1960). His interests in the
state’s forests continued while he served as the State Geologist of North
Carolina. Testimonials to Holmes’s efforts to conserve North Carolina’s
forests were given by forester William Willard Ashe, who commemorated his
mentor by naming two trees after him: Hicorius
holmesia (Ashe, 1896) and Crataegus
holmesiana (Ashe, ). According to a
resolution of the North Carolina Forestry Association, Holmes was “the first
to take up the investigation of the forestry problems of North Carolina and
started the campaign of education looking toward the preservation and
conservation of our forest areas” (Gibboney, Cotten, and Pratt, 1916).
Although geological themes, mainly those of
economic importance, were the focus of most of Holmes’s nearly eighty publications,
several of his early papers dealt with agricultural teaching in North
Carolina; with Abies [Tsuga]
canadensis, Pinus strobus, and Taxodium; and with
plants in gardens and fields. He wrote seven publications on botanical
topics. He also served on the Executive Committee of the North Carolina
Holmes’s horticultural interests were aimed at
beautifying the campus. According to the minutes of the June 1, 1885, faculty
meeting, he and Adolphus W. Mangum (Professor of
Moral Philosophy, History, and English Literature) were chosen as a committee
on the campus charged with planting shrubs and other plants. In October 1885,
the group was called the Grounds Committee. It would seek the counsel of the
faculty on such matters as the advisability of planting shrubs on the campus.
Holmes’s other scientific accomplishments and
leadership deserve mention. In 1903, he was
appointed Director, Department of Mines and Metallurgy of the Louisiana
Purchase Exposition at the St. Louis World’s Fair held in 1904. He was
influential in getting a bill passed by Congress to found a marine biological
laboratory at Beaufort, North Carolina, for the U.S. Fish Commission. He
became the chief of the U. S. Geological Survey laboratories for testing
fuels and structural materials at St. Louis (1905-1907) and then at
Pittsburgh (beginning 1908). When the U. S. Bureau of Mines was established
in 1910, he served as its first director, remaining in this position until
his retirement in 1915.
Holmes was keenly interested in improving the
safety of miners. He discovered that dust from bituminous coal was a greater
danger to miners than was firedamp.
Legacy and Honors
In addition to his contributions as a professor
of geology and natural history, a geologist, a conservationist, and an
administrator, Holmes earned several honors. He was a fellow and charter
member of the Geological Society of America and a fellow of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science. He was a member of the Academies
of Science in Washington, D.C., Raleigh, North Carolina, and St. Louis,
Missouri; the American Forestry Association; the American Institute of Mining
Engineers; the American Society for Testing Materials; and the American
Society of Mechanical Engineers. In honorary societies, he was elected to
Sigma Xi and Tau Beta Pi. Memberships in other organizations included the
Cosmos Club (Washington, D.C.), the St. Louis Club, and the Engineer’s Club
(New York). A recipient of two honorary degrees in 1909, Holmes was awarded
the LL.D. from UNC and the D.Sc. from the University of Pittsburgh. In
conferring on Holmes the doctor of law degree at UNC, Dr. C. Alphonso Smith aptly described him as “A man of seasoned
common sense, of winning personality, and of practical efficiency in all that
he [undertook]” (Cobb, 1910).
Holmes and his wife Jeanie had two daughters
(Jean Dalziel and Margaret Catherine) and two sons
(Joseph Austin, Jr., and James Sprunt). Holmes’s
personal commitment to his wife was steadfast.
When he retired in 1915, his health had been
declining. In 1915, he entered a sanitarium in New Mexico and died on July 12
(at age fifty-five) from pulmonary tuberculosis in Denver, Colorado,
according to his certificate of death. Joseph Holmes is buried in Rock Creek
Cemetery, Washington, D.C.
Sources on Joseph A. Holmes Not Cited in the Text.
Cornell University Archives, Carl A. Kroch Library, Division of Rare and
Manuscript Collections, Ithaca, New York.
Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina.
Joseph Austin Holmes Papers #3866. (includes
numerous newspaper clippings) see also entry under UNC (They appear to be the
Obituaries and Biographical Sketches.
AMC. American Mining Congress. 1915. Joseph Austin Holmes 1859-1915.
Washington, DC, American Mining Congress. 80 pp. (“A record of tributes paid
at the Memorial Exercises held at San Francisco, Tuesday, September 21, 1915,
under the auspices of the American Mining Congress.” Also includes tributes
from correspondents.) (p. 80).
Anonymous. 1906. Joseph Austin Holmes, p. 100. in
Prominent People of North Carolina, Brief Biographies of Leading People for
Ready Reference Purposes. Evening News Publishing Company, Asheville, NC. 128
Anonymous. 1915. J. A. Holmes dies–martyr to miners. New York Times
64(20,990): 9, Tuesday, July 14, 1915.
Anonymous. 1933. Holmes, Joseph Austin, pp. 104-105. in
The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography,
Being the History of the United States, vol. 23. James T. White &
Company, New York. (portrait).
Battle, Kemp P. 1916. Dr. Joseph Austin Holmes at the University of North
Carolina. Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 32: 20-23.
M[cDonald], P[hilip] B.
1932. Holmes, Joseph Austin, pp. 167-168. in Dumas
Malone (ed.), Dictionary of American Biography, vol. 9. Charles Scribner's
Sons, New York.
Pratt, Joseph Hyde. 1916. Memorial sketch of Dr. Joseph Austin Holmes.
Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 32: 1-15. (portrait and bibliography). ("Read at the annual
meeting of the Geological Society of America, Washington, DC, December 28, 1915.")
Vinson, Frank Bedingfield. 1988. Holmes, Joseph
Austin, pp. 177-178. in William S. Powell (ed.),
Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, vol. 3. University of North Carolina
Press, Chapel Hill. (sources cited)
Anonymous. 1883a. For the Home and Democrat.
University of North Carolina. Charlotte Home and Democrat (Charlotte, NC),
new series 13 (642): , Friday, November 16, 1883.
Anonymous. 1883b. University Day at the University. Fayetteville Observer
(Fayetteville, NC) [Weekly], new series 1(42): , Thursday, November 22,
Anonymous. 1884. [Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society meeting, held October
18, 1884]. University Magazine, new series 4: 87-88.
Ashe, W[illiam] W. 1894. The Long leaf pine and its
struggle for existence. Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 11:
Ashe, W[illiam] W. . Notes on the hickories
of the United States. [The Author], Chapel Hill, NC. 1 p. (Paper read before
the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society and distributed at the meeting held
April 15, 1896. Copy in the Botany Libraries, Harvard University).
Ashe, W[illiam] W. . New East American
species of Crataegus. (Contributions from my
herbarium. No. VI). Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 16:
Battle, Kemp P. 1907-1912. History of the University of North Carolina.
Printed by Edwards & Broughton , Raleigh, NC. 2
vols. (vol. 2, p. 274)
BOT. Board of Trustees, Minutes. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
(Vol. S-8, p. 158). (University Archives, Louis Round Wilson Library,
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill).
Cobb, Collier. 1910. Joseph Austin Holmes. Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific
Society 26: 167-170. ("Reprinted from the Charlotte Observer.").
EMSS. Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society. (Records of the Elisha Mitchell
Scientific Society #40183, University Archives, Louis Round Wilson Library,
University of North Carina, Chapel Hill). (Box 1 contains two volumes of
minutes of the society's proceedings; volume 1 covers 1883 to 1940).
Gibboney, James H., Robert R. Cotten
and Joseph Hyde Pratt (Special Committee of the North Carolina Forestry
Association). 1916. [Resolution on behalf of Joseph Austin Holmes], North
Carolina Forestry Association. (Box 3, folder 29, Joseph Austin Holmes Papers
#3866, Southern Historical Collection, Louis Round Wilson Library, University
of North Carolina, Chapel Hill).
Holmes, Joseph A. 1881. Letter to George Vasey,
October 31, 1881. (Record Unit 220, United States National Museum, Division
of Plants, 1870-1893, Records, Box 8, Folder 10, Smithsonian Institution
Holmes, Joseph A. . [Studies in natural history that bear upon practical
agriculture]. (Box 48, folder 1729, University Papers #40005, Louis Round
Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill).
Holmes, Joseph A. 1886. Letter to George Vasey,
July 7, 1886. (Record Unit 220, United States National Museum, Division of
Plants, 1870-1893, Smithsonian Institution Archives).
Holmes, Joseph A. 1891. Report to Kemp P. Battle, January 24, 1891. (Box 19,
folder 633, University Papers 40005, University Archives, Louis Round Wilson
Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill).
Manning, Van H. 1915. Historical sketch and appreciation of Dr. Joseph A.
Holmes, pp. 9-20. in Joseph Austin Holmes 1859-1915.
American Mining Congress, Washington, DC. 80 pp.
Smith, Charles Dennis. 1960. The Appalachian National Park Movement,
1885-1901. North Carolina Historical Review 37: 38-65. (p. 39).
Sykes, R. H. . Joseph Austin Holmes Papers. (Box 1, folder 1, Joseph
Austin Holmes Papers #3866, Southern Historical Collection, Louis Round
Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill).
Venable, F.P. 1916. Joseph Austin Holmes. The Journal of the Elisha Mitchell
Scientific Society 32: 16-19.
of Joseph Austin Holmes
Section M, lot 56, site 5, Rockcreek Cemetery,
Washington, D.C., March 6, 2006.
(Photograph by Kenneth J. Wurdack)