Margaret C. Ferguson and her legacy
Published: Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 24, 2012 18:10
Between the much-celebrated Hillarys and Maddys on the list of impressive alumnae, Margaret C. Ferguson is an oft-overlooked dynamo. Both a student and a professor at Wellesley College, Ferguson was an outstanding botanist, highly regarded in her field, and a dynamic leader of the botany department at Wellesley College in the early 20th century. She is the unsung hero of the Wellesley College landscape as we know it, as well as the brilliant designer of our greenhouses, which were named in her honor. She is the reason we have 22 uninterrupted acres of wanderable land, containing a diverse array of specimens, tucked behind the Science Center.
According to an article by Christina Wood ’83 published in a 2006 Wellesley College Friends of Horticulture newsletter, Ferguson first came to Wellesley at age 25 in 1888 to participate in the College’s non-degree program, where she explored chemistry and botany with a focus on improving her teaching skills. After leaving Wellesley, Ferguson completed both a B.S. and a Ph.D. at Cornell University. Ferguson then returned to Wellesley in 1901 as a professor of botany and, in 1904, was named the head of the botany department. In 1929, she became the first woman president of the Botanical Society of America, and in 1940, she was named one of the 100 most important American women by the Women’s Centennial Congress.
Ferguson was a groundbreaker in the field of botany, and her exhaustive dissertation at Cornell on the eastern white pine tree was the first to study American pine trees at such an intensive level. She recognized the importance of a serious study of botany at a time when it was regarded as mostly a field of plant classification. In a retrospective article, “1875-1925, Botany at Wellesley,” Ferguson asserted that the future of the nation’s food and energy supply would be reliant on the botanist’s work: “If the government wishes to increase the food supply of the world, it must turn to the botanist for guidance....The real solution must be found in a knowledge of the complex reactions of the cells, the plant as an organism.” Today, we know this to be true.
In addition to her influence in the field of botany, Ferguson has had an immeasurable impact on the Wellesley we know today. Consider a Wellesley College untouched by the forward-thinking Ferguson:
Firstly, we would likely have no greenhouses to speak of. Before the construction of the current greenhouses in 1924, botany students used a small, aging greenhouse inherited from Pauline Durant, wife of Henry Durant and co-founder of Wellesley College. (Poking around the current College Club, an observant eye might discover the remaining foundation outline of this original campus building.) After the College Hall fire of 1914, Wellesley College was in a position to reassess the campus layout and buildings, and Ferguson lobbied the Trustees to fund the greenhouses’ construction. She herself designed and carefully mapped out the 14 glass houses. The greenhouses were state-of-the-art and one of the first in the country to have lights on timers (remember, this was 1924). Ferguson was also adamant that the greenhouses be attached to the science building, an unusual and revolutionary request at the time that was protested by the hired architects. Ever the mover and shaker, Ferguson got her way.
Without Ferguson’s work, who knows what would otherwise be in the space occupied by the arboretum and botanic gardens. While designing the greenhouses and lobbying for their funding, Ferguson was also persuading the Trustees to preserve land for outdoor study and leisure spaces. She convinced the Severance family to fund the Alexandra Botanic Garden (named for their deceased daughter), and the Hunnewell family (the same family with the funky topiary across the lake) to endow the H.H. Hunnewell Arboretum. Students used both the botanic garden and arboretum for studying plant life cycles and growth. Still today, students are able to benefit from the fruits of Ferguson’s labor, both through study and leisure activities.
Ferguson is a great example of a powerful Wellesley “woman who will.” How wonderful is it that we, almost 100 years later, can so easily witness and experience first-hand the manifestations of her productivities?
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