Starting in 1925 she logged in nearly 65,000 miles exploring the trees and shrubs of Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Her resulting 1950 book, Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America, laid the foundation for the measurement and evaluation of all future ecological changes in the hardwood forest. The book has been reprinted three times already, and is still used for reference today.
Dr. Lucy Braun (1889-1971) was one of the pivotal influences in the developing field of ecology. She contributed mightily to the fields of vascular plant taxonomy, plant geography, plant ecology, and land conservation. Braun expanded on the theory that the southern Appalachians were the center of the survival of plants during the glacial era, and from there the forest communities spread. She was the first ecologist to identify the mixed mesophytic forest as a coherent system.
“I have attempted, first, to portray what is (or was) present in any geographic area and to reconstruct the pattern of original forest insofar as the fragments permit,” said Braun in the preface of her most well known book, “second, to give data on composition and aspect of forest communities in all parts of the deciduous forest; and third, to trace through geologic time the development of the present pattern of forest distribution.
“As the years go by, it becomes increasingly difficult to form any concept of the original forest cover. The virgin forests have been cut, the land is either cleared and farmed or is clothed with second-growth forest which may in no way suggest the original forest. In many sections no single tract of virgin forest remains today.”
Braun’s commitment to conservation led to the eventual preservation of over 10,000 acres in Ohio. Much of this land was carefully studied by Braun and her students at the University of Cincinnati, and the plant life cataloged for posterity.
Lucy Braun spent her entire academic career at that school, starting as an assistant in geology (1910-1913) and progressing to associate professor in botany (1927-1946). An early study compared the plant life of the Cincinnati area in the 1920s and 1930s to plant life in the same area 100 years earlier. This work provided a model for analyzing the changes in a plant system over a specific time period, and was one of the first such studies in the United States.
Braun was made a full professor in plant ecology in 1946. She held the position for only two years, retiring early so she could devote the remainder of her career to research involving field studies. From 1934 to 1963 Braun drove her own car on her field excursions, never shying away from difficult backwoods roads. Her sister accompanied Lucy on her travels; Annette studied moths while Lucy observed plants.
During the 1940s Braun described four species and four varieties of vascular plants, all from Kentucky, and one hybrid, a fern from Adams County, OH, as ‘new to science.’ In 1950 she was named president of the Ecological Society of America.
From 1943 to 1967 Braun published several noteworthy books. An Annotated Catalog of the Spermatophytes of Kentucky appeared in 1943. She published The Woody Plants of Ohio (1961) and The Monocotyledoneae: Cat-tails to Orchids (1967) toward the end of her career.
They were written as part of a project, undertaken by the Ohio Flora Committee of the Ohio Academy of Science, to do a comprehensive study of the vascular flora of Ohio. Braun also edited Wildflower, the journal of the Cincinnati chapter of the Wildflower Preservation Society, which she founded. In all Dr. Braun published more than 180 works.
Sources: Women in the Biological Sciences: A Biobibliographic Sourcebook, by Louise S. Grinstein, Carol A. Biermann, Rose K. Rose, 1997, Greenwood Publishing Group