Roland Harper (1878-1966) served as staff botanist for the Geological Survey of Alabama (GSA) from 1905 until his death. A tireless field investigator, he recorded his frequent journeys in extensive notes and photographs. He was one of the last botanists to visit and describe the native vegetation of the Southeast before it was altered drastically by human activity.
Roland McMillan Harper was born in Farmington, Maine, on August 11, 1878. His father, William, was Canadian and worked as a farmer and Methodist minister before studying science in Munich, Germany, where he met Roland's mother, Bertha, the daughter of a portrait painter. Roland was one of five children. William served as a science teacher and school superintendant in Maine and Massachusetts before relocating the family to the warmer climes of Georgia after Roland was diagnosed with possible tuberculosis.
Roland Harper graduated from the University of Georgia in 1897 with an engineering degree and then moved with his family back to Massachusetts. There, he worked in an optical factory, using his free time to pursue his new-found love of botany. His first work, describing the plants of Worcester County, Massachusetts, was published in 1899. Also that year, Harper secured a scholarship to study botany at Columbia University, intending to write a dissertation on the flora of his adopted state of Georgia. While at Columbia, Harper also acquired a knowledge of geology and its relationship to and effects on plant life. At this time, he also began keeping a journal of scientific notes and personal reflections and purchased a camera to record his travels and observations. Harper took copious notes and photographs, meticulously numbering and organizing his photographs throughout his life and leaving more than 7,000 shots arranged in scrapbooks.
Harper's dissertation project was modified to concentrate on the geologically significant Altamaha Grit Region of southeastern Georgia, and he received his Ph.D. in 1905. That year, he joined the staff of the GSA, intending to continue the work of Charles Mohr on Georgia's flora, particularly its trees, shrubs, and economically important plants. He remained associated with the GSA throughout his career, with occasional short-term duties with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Florida state census, and the University of Georgia, among other organizations.
A prolific writer, Harper published more than 600 separate works that ranged from scholarly botanical volumes to impassioned letters-to-the-editor about oddities he perceived in American culture. His first published works were botanical descriptions of collecting trips and the plants he gathered. Early in his career, he also began a series of "car-window notes" based on observations made during train rides, especially on those trips that crossed significant geological features or extensive miles of territory. Although Harper was criticized for publishing such cursory observations, they represent some of the first significant attempts to describe and define the flora of the eastern United States.
Harper's work for the GSA resulted in the publication of five volumes summarizing the plant life and natural resources of Alabama. Two volumes on the economically important plants of Alabama appeared in 1913 and 1928. Harper then published volumes on the natural resources of the Tennessee Valley region in 1942, Alabama forests in 1943, and Alabama weeds in 1944. These works remain key resources for understanding Alabama's plants and their uses.
While working for various censuses during the early 1900s, Harper was introduced to statistics and demographics. Many of his later letters-to-the-editor were based on such statistics, comparing seemingly disparate cultural elements to arrive at startling conclusions, prompting some scientists to question his credibility. Harper's reputation as a scientist has been further damaged by two other themes in his non-scientific writings: his belief in eugenics and the dangers of communism. His writings on eugenics during the 1930s contain many of the themes—the application of natural selection to human populations and strict standards for "clean living"—that were also raised by supporters of Nazism, and his works of the 1950s reflected the inordinate fear of communism of that time.
Harper remained single until June 1943, when he married Mary Susan Wigley of Dawson, DeKalb County, at the age of 65. The couple had no children. They lived in a small house near the University of Alabama campus. Harper died April 30, 1966, and was buried in Tuscaloosa Memorial Park. Most of Harper's personal and professional materials, including diaries, journals, publications, and photographs,
are housed in the W. S. Hoole Special Collections Library at the University of Alabama. Smaller collections are found among
the holdings of the Alabama Museum of Natural History and the Geological Survey of Alabama.
Works by Roland Harper
"A Phytogeographical Sketch of the Altamaha Grit Region of the Coastal Plain of Georgia" (1906)
"Economic Botany of Alabama, Part 1: Geographical Report, Including Descriptions of the Natural Divisions of the State, their Forests and Forest Industries, with Quantitative Analyses and Statistical Tables" (1913)
"Economic Botany of Alabama, Part 2: Catalogue of the Trees, Shrubs and Vines of Alabama, with their Economic Properties and Local Distribution" (1928)
"Natural Resources of the Tennessee Valley Region in Alabama" (1942)
"Forests of Alabama" (1943)
"Preliminary Report on the Weeds of Alabama" (1944)
"Studying the Georgia Flora and Some Red-Letter Days in the Life of a Botanist" (1967)
Davenport, L. J. and G. Ward Hubbs. "Roland Harper, Alabama Botanist and Social Critic: A Biographical Sketch and Bibliography." Alabama Museum of Natural History Bulletin 17 (May 1995): 25-45.
Shores, Elizabeth Findley. On Harper's Trail: Roland McMillan Harper, Pioneering Botanist of the Southern Coastal Plain. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008.
L. J. Davenport
Published August 24, 2009
Last updated April 26, 2013