In Memoriam – Elizabeth Farnsworth

On October 27, Dr. Elizabeth Farnsworth, the New England Wild Flower Society’s senior research ecologist, died unexpectedly at her home in Amherst, Massachusetts. She was 54. For those who knew and worked with her, who played music, paddled, or hiked with her, who cleaned seeds beside her while swapping stories at the long tables at Garden in the Woods and Nasami Farm, who took her online courses or heard her lectures, “unexpectedly” is a vast understatement. The words “Elizabeth” and “died” do not belong on the same page. That she was in her prime, radiating warmth and vitality, a vivid picture of apple-cheeked, wild-maned health, makes this notion profoundly hard to accept, and bitterly unacceptable.

After all, as one can imagine her shouting in the face of whatever stopped her heart that day, she still had so much to do.

She already had packed a lot of achievement into her foreshortened life, as at least one grieving colleague observed. She was an accomplished botanist, educator, and scientific illustrator. At the time of her death, Elizabeth was co-leading the Society’s effort to conserve seeds of hundreds of rare plant species throughout New England. But Elizabeth’s many contributions to the Society started more than two decades ago. Recent members might know that she wrote, constructed, and taught the Society’s first set of online botany courses and wrote the ground-breaking “State of the Plants” report. A few years earlier, she co-led the National Science Foundation grant for developing Go Botany, our interactive online guide to the entire New England flora, and then won an additional grant from the same source to support student research in conservation biology. She coordinated planning for the conservation and management of more than 100 species of rare plants. She illustrated dozens of entries in Flora Novae Angliae by Arthur Haines, the Society’s research botanist. And with a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, she conducted an assessment of seed banking and collections practices at the Society and published a model protocol by which to prioritize target populations for seed collection. A natural and passionate teacher, Elizabeth jumped in to serve as interim education director in 2013, arranging all the courses the Society offered.

The Society is not the only institution that will miss her and her scholarly contributions. When she died, Elizabeth was serving as senior editor of the botanical journal Rhodora and on the graduate faculties of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the University of Rhode Island. Before that, she also had taught at Smith, Mount Holyoke, and Hampshire colleges and the Conway School of Landscape Design. As a writer, she displayed the rare ability to address both academic peers and novice botanists with equal clarity—and not a whit of condescension for the latter. To date, she had published 54 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles and 61 invited publications for public media. She also co-authored the award-winning A Field Guide to the Ants of New England, which she also illustrated; the Connecticut River Boating Guide: Source to Sea; and the Peterson Field Guide to the Ferns. Her delicate, precisely rendered illustrations also grace the pages of Natural Communities of New Hampshire and three other books.

How, then, did she find time to deliver more than 230 invited presentations throughout the world, much less to sing and play guitar semi-professionally and paddle her prized hand-built kayak? Alas, it is too late to ask. She loved to travel, preferably in further exploration of the natural world, and, at various times in her career, she conducted research on ecosystems all over the globe, focusing on conservation, plant physiology, mangroves, and climate change. She served as a scientific consultant to the United Nations, the National Park Service, The Trustees of Reservations, the U.S. Forest Service, the Massachusetts and Connecticut Natural Heritage programs, and the Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust.

Brilliance marked her early: At Brown University, Elizabeth earned her B.A. in environmental studies in seven semesters, graduating with honors. She went on to study at University of Vermont, receiving her M.S. in field botany. While earning her Ph.D. at Harvard University, she was awarded a Bullard Research Fellowship and a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship. Her dissertation on mangrove seedlings launched a journey to 17 countries as a Harvard Traveling Scholar, to conduct a comparative survey of mangroves. She was honored to be chosen as a teaching assistant to E. O. Wilson, with whom she shared a passion for ants.

Elizabeth, a gifted storyteller, enjoyed sharing tales of her travels and other adventures—about the time all the members of the Grateful Dead crashed at the house she shared with roommates in college, about sitting around camp with David Attenborough in a South American rainforest, about leeches invading unmentionable places (which, of course, she mentioned). Now her friends, colleagues, and students are seeking solace by sharing our memories and stories about her.

“She was that rare human being who was talented in both the sciences and the arts, who excelled in everything she did,” said Director of Conservation Bill Brumback, the person at the Society who has worked most closely with Elizabeth over the years. “And she made the world a little better for those who knew and worked with her.”

For those who would like to honor Elizabeth’s legacy with a donation, her family suggests sending donations to New England Wild Flower Society, Hitchcock Center for the Environment, or any other conservation organization of the donor’s choice.

Friends and family members are planning a memorial celebration in western Massachusetts, probably after Thanksgiving. For further information on developments, check periodically.