Liriodendron tulipifera flower

The University of North Carolina
A Department of the North Carolina Botanical Garden


Collectors of the UNC Herbarium

Thomas Grant Harbison

Thomas Grant Harbison was born in Union County, Pennsylvania on April 23, 1862. He attended college during vacations, never actually being registered for a continuous year. Most of his classes were taken at nearby Bucknell University, but he also took short courses at the University of Norway and the University of Leipzig. He learned much from his own reading and owned a library of over one thousand volumes by the time he was twenty-one. He earned his B.S., A.M., and Ph.D. degrees through correspondence courses.

A formative event in Harbison's youth was a walking tour of Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. They carried a bag of ground wheat and a tin of brown sugar and survived almost entirely on these rations throughout the trip. While visiting Highlands, NC on this excursion, he apparently impressed the residents with his knowledge so much that they later asked him
to return as a school principal.

Portrait of Thomas Grant Harbison

He served in some educational capacity at Highlands from 1886 to 1896, with the exception of a trip to Europe to study educational systems in 1893-94. In 1896 he married Miss Jessamine M. Cobb, descendent of John Cobb, who built and operated the first iron foundry in America.  From 1893-1909 Harbison owned in the former home of Samuel Kelsey, Highland’s co-founder, at the corner of Main and 5th Streets.  Kelsey had built a lake on the property, and while it was known to botanists as “Harbison’s Lake” for many years, it is now called “Harris Lake.”  In 1921 Harbison built a house at 2930 Walhalla Road, about 3 miles south of the center of Highlands.  “The historic grounds of the Harbison House reflect three periods.  The first, dating from ca. 1921 until Mr. Harbison’s death in 1936, is associated with his work as a botanist.  Some significant portion of the open aged grove of hemlock [Tsuga canadensis], white pine [Pinus strobus], and oak [Quercus sp.] trees that forms the towering canopy of the property date to his years here.  The group of six Torreya taxifolia that stands to the east/southeast of the house is known to have been planted by Mr. Harbison.  These mid-height trees are native to Florida and are listed on the Federal Endangered Species List.  The trees were probably gathered by Mr. Harbison on one of his collecting expeditions for the Arnold Arboretum.”1

The botanical work for which Harbison is best known began in 1897 when he became a collector for the Biltmore Herbarium of the George W. Vanderbilt estate. He was employed in this capacity until the disbanding of the herbarium in 1903.

In his next job, he worked under C. S. Sargent of the Arnold Arboretum and was charged with the collecting of southern woody plants. His association with the University of North Carolina Herbarium began in 1933 when he was asked to help organize the W.W. Ashe Herbarium. The following year he was appointed Curator of the Herbarium, a post which he held until his death in 1936. Harbison was a close friend and frequent correspondent of Ashe. Both of their herbaria are now housed at UNC.

"In his last illness, Mr. Ashe wrote to Mr. Harbison, asking him in case of his death, to assist Mrs. Ashe in disposing of the Ashe Herbarium, and also expressed the hope that it could be secured by the University of North Carolina. It must be a considerable satisfaction to botanists everywhere that Mr. Harbison's own collection at Highlands has also since his death been secured by the University of North Carolina, and that the private collections of both of these men are to be found together in the same Herbarium, where they will continue to assist the present and later botanists in a way comparable to the assistance their collectors so freely gave to others while in life."—Coker, Totten, & Oosting in Harbison's obituary


This image shows a letter written by Harbison to Ashe. It may be clicked on to view a larger image. The Southern Historical Collection at UNC contains a number of letters addressed to Harbison from Charles Sprague Sargent.

Harbison handwriting sample


Harbison was not a voluminous writer. His contributions to botany were more through teaching and collecting. His known publications are listed below:

New or Little Known Species of Trillium. Biltmore Botanical Studies 1(1): 19, 1901 and 1(2): 158, 1902.

A Sketch of Sand Mountain Flora. Biltmore Botanical Studies 1(2): 151. 1902.

Notes on the Genus Hydrangea. American Midland Naturalist 11: 255, 1928.

Polycodium Ashei Harbisoni. Midland Naturalist 22: 179, 1930.

Symplocos tinctoria Ashei, a new Dyebush from the Southern Mountains. Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 46: 218, 1931.

A Preliminary Check-List of the Ligneous Flora of the Highlands Region, North Carolina. Highlands Museum and Biological Laboratory Publication no.3, 1931.

The bibliography and most of the above biographical information is derived from an obituary notice written by H. R. Totten, W. C. Coker, and H. J. Oosting which appeared in the Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society, December, 1936.

1.  “Thomas Grant Harbison House, Highlands, Macon County, MA0588 North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office, Office of Archives & History, Dept. of Cultural Resources.  accessed on 17 July 2013.

This page was constructed by Ron Gilmour
with the assistance of Mr. Bill Burk, Mrs. Mary Felton,
Dr. Jim Massey, and Mr. Jim Murphy. Additional information and corrections are welcome.

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University of North Carolina Herbarium
CB# 3280, Coker Hall
University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3280
phone: (919) 962-6931
fax: (919) 962-6930

Last Updated: 17 July 2013