When the Jenkintown-born botanist and horticulturalist Mary Gibson Henry at age 82 died of heart disease on April 16, 1967 in Wilmington N.C. while on a field trip, according to her death certificate that I found online via Ancestry.com, she had lived an extraordinary life of intrepid traveling to far-flung places, leaving behind a legacy of preserving “unusual species” of the Earth’s plant ecosystems.
So, during this modern age of global warming that threatens our planet as the Trump administration largely ignores the dire consequences of uncontrolled flooding, extreme weather, deforestation and runaway fires, Henry’s determination and dedication are prime examples of what’s needed to literally save our planet.
“Often one has to shove one’s self through or wriggle under briars, with awkward results to clothing,” Henry once said, according to the article, “Mary Gibson Henry, Plantswoman Extraordinaire,” by Mary Harrison at http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu. “Wading usually bare legged through countless rattlesnake infested swamps adds immensely to the interest of the day’s work … On several occasions I have been so deeply mired I had to be pulled out.”
Henry’s first trip to the Southeast U.S. “covered 2,000 miles,” traveling “along the Atlantic Coastal Plain, on the Piedmont Plateau, in Appalachia, and in the mountains of east Tennessee and Alabama,” Harrison noted, as well as to northern British Columbia while she acquainted herself with such early botanists as John and William Bartram. During one trip, in fact, she and a daughter were reportedly held up by bandits but managed to escape unharmed.
Born 1884 at her grandparents’ Jenkintown home to John Howard Gibson and Susan Worrell Pepper, Henry’s maternal “family were Quakers who had come from England with William Penn and taken part in the founding of Philadelphia,” Harrison noted. “Horticulture was a traditional pursuit on both sides of the family.”
And although Henry had only attended the Agnes Irwin School in Philly for just six years, departing in 1902, she gravitated to plants as her father took the family on excursions to Moosehead Lake in Maine, says Harrison, where the luscious “twin flower (Linnaea Borealis)” on “a dwarf evergreen shrub” caught her eye and “awakened in her ‘not only a love for and appreciation of the absolute perfection of the flower itself, but also for the dark, silent forest that shelters such treasures.’”
By 1909, she married John Norman Henry, “a physician who later became Philadelphia’s director of public health,” with the couple taking up residence in Philadelphia, but eventually purchasing residences in Maryland and a 90-acre estate in Pennsylvania’s Gladwyne, outside of Philadelphia.
Even after giving birth to five children, Henry traveled extensively and corresponded with well-known botanists and horticulturalists to become one of the most respected experts in the world, all with the encouragement of her husband who even provided her with a specially-outfitted Lincoln, Continental featuring plant-preserving mechanisms, a portable illuminating desk and chauffeur.
In fact, Henry was very concerned about the depletion of natural habitats worldwide due to human-induced environmental hazards and likely would have been quite upset about current inefficient government policies to preserve such habitats and associated species.
Recent reports indicate deforestation rapidly increasing globally in the Amazon forests of Brazil and Peru via greenhouse gases, etc., consequently hurting woodlands in Indonesia, Russia, Mexico and Papua New Guinea while Africa’s Sudan and Nigeria are being devastated. Only an abysmal six percent of Nigeria’s forests still exist.
Meanwhile, artic wildfires due to increasingly dry conditions are raging throughout the region, incinerating forests in Greenland, Siberia and parts of Alaska, as well as several U.S. western states. Such fires are releasing a record amount of CO2 or carbon dioxide into the air, further depleting the Earth’s upper atmosphere and adding to global warming that leads to more flooding and erratic weather patterns.
Closer to home, in 1949, Mary Gibson Henry’s prized “garden was threatened with destruction when the State of Pennsylvania and the U.S. Army Engineers decided to use Gladwyne,” according to Harrison, as a place to deposit sewage and silt from the nearby Schuylkill River.
Henry’s fierce appeal and organizing, that included letters from distinguished supporters, saved her estate and led to the establishment of what’s today the Henry Foundation for Botanical Research (www.henrybotanicgarden.org) on 50 acres of gardens and plants – many of them rare – where visitors can relish the work of a woman dedicated to saving some of the Earth’s most important and delicate resources.