The Archivist’s Nook: A Scientist’s Work Revealed – The Herman Theodor Holm Papers

This week’s post is guest-authored by Joseph Smith, a graduate student in Library and Information Science at Catholic University.

Herman Theodor Holm, n.d. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

This semester, I had the privilege of processing a collection to create a finding aid (or inventory) of materials belonging to a remarkably prolific scientist: Herman Theodor Holm.  The variety and amount of items in the collection not only speak about Holm’s evident passion for his field (botany), but also demonstrate why they should be made available to the University Archives’ patrons, be they seasoned researchers or casual lovers of science and history.

Born on February 3, 1854, in Copenhagen, Denmark, Holm had an interest in biology from a young age.  It was not until 1882 that the young Holm embarked on “his first great opportunity… when he was attached to the Danish North Pole Expedition as botanist and zoologist,sailing from Copenhagen in July of that year and spending the next two winters in the ice packs of the Arctic Ocean” near Nova Zembla.[1]  After this, Holm “spent the summers of 1884-1886 in West Greenland” engaged in additional botanical and zoological work.  In 1888, Holm immigrated to the United States and became a citizen.  The jobs he held in America included “assistant botanist in the United States National Museum” (now the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.) and a position at the U.S.Department of Agriculture.  Along with this work, his early days in the United States included studying plant life in Colorado for a three-year period.  As such, he was a noted expert on plant life of alpine and arctic regions.

Holm’s connection with CUA stems from his earning a doctoral degree in botany in 1902.  Starting around 1921, he lived in rural Clinton, Maryland, but in early 1932, he took up a resident academic position at CUA with the title of “Research Professor of Biology.”

Holm passed away later that year on December 26.  In the wake of his sudden death, he left behind an immense array of unorganized papers.  His will appears to bequeath his library and his botanical collection to the University of Louvain in Belgium in response to the losses that the institution had suffered during the First World War.

Photograph of the Djimphna, which Holm sailed on in 1882 during an expedition, ca. 1880s. Featured in ”Illustrations – I – Glumiflore – Th. Holm,” ca. 1882-1925

The Herman Theodor Holm Papers contain numerous botanical notes on various categorizations of plants that were of particular interest to Holm, such as “sedges (Cyperaceae) and grasses(Gramineae),”[2] both of which are represented in the collection. Topics pertaining to botany are prevalent throughout mediums ranging from individual sheets of paper, notebooks (that sometimes function as sketchbooks), and even manuscripts.  Holm also penned a variety of articles, some of which were published in Merck’s Report, as highlighted in the collection.

The collection includes correspondences panning decades.  Based on some of the items in the collection it seems that Holm kept in touch with other fellow scientists of his day, such as the naturalist John Macoun of the Geological Survey of Canada, and his son, the botanist James M. Macoun.

Illustrations can be found throughout the collection in the form of sketches and plates.  Holm was a talented illustrator.  His depictions of plant life (and occasionally marine and insect life) are extraordinarily meticulous, and having an eye for detail would certainly be necessary for a serious scientist.

Botanical illustration (Plate 221) by Holm from ”Illustrations – III – Glumiflore – Th. Holm,” ca. 1920-1926. Herman Theodor Holm Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Not long after his death, a statement recognized his work as follows: “For nearly 60 years, Dr. Holm was acknowledged as a leading authority on Arctic and Alpine flora and although his contributions to the field of botany in the form of discoveries, collections,drawings, and the like, are unparalleled [sic] he had spent the last decade of his life in so obscure a fashion that only a few scientists in this city[Washington, D.C.] were aware of his residence near here [the University].”[3]  For a man who is regarded as such an important figure in the realm of science, I find it remarkable that Holm is not better known.  Even a quick Google search today produces very little about him, apart from a small Wikipedia entry and some scattered bibliographic references. 

It would seem that now is the time for the relics of his life and work to be brought forward.  Many of the items, such as the manuscripts and the botanical notes, have yet to be deciphered and transcribed, and this is something that makes this collection particularly exciting.  It provides a wealth of opportunity for researchers to explore, study, and share the prolific information that Holm accumulated.  The promotion of this collection may be the start of furthering the notability of this overlooked scientist.

[1] James Waldo Fawcett, “Recalls War Tragedy: Botanist Leaves Work to Belgium,” Washington Star, January 29, 1933.

[2] H. B. Humphrey, Makers of North American Botany (New York: Ronald Press, 1961), 114-15.

[3] “Celebrated Catholic Botanist’s Collection Is Willed to Louvain U.,”N.C.W.C. News Service, February 13,1933. Courtesy of the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

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