Joseph Austin Holmes


The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Herbarium (NCU) has cataloged approximately 60 vascular plant specimens collected by J. A. Holmes. The earliest ones (1877-1880) were collected around Ithaca, New York, while the later ones (1883-1888) were collected from various locations in North Carolina.

As more of NCU’s collections are cataloged, we hope to find additional specimens collected by J. A. Holmes.

by William R. Burk

Early Years and Scientific Education

Born in the country village of Laurens, South Carolina, on November 23, 1859, Joseph Austin Holmes was the eighth of twelve children of Nancy Catherine Nickles and Zelotes Lee Holmes, a Presbyterian minister and teacher. Young Holmes attended Laurens Academy and later the Holmes Academy, both in his home village. He worked on the farm, gaining an interest in plants and agriculture. In addition to hikes in the woods, out-door games, and horses, Holmes enjoyed reading books. His father’s library, which was particularly strong in natural history, provided young Holmes “instruments for the study of natural sciences” (Manning, 1915). At age seventeen, he left home with a railway ticket and $15, heading directly for Cornell University (Sykes, [1916]). He began his studies there in January 1878 and worked his way through college.

At Cornell, Holmes pursued studies in agriculture, which allowed him to enroll in a number of scientific disciplines. According to archival records at Cornell, he chose courses in the following subjects: agricultural chemistry, agriculture, botany, chemistry, entomology, horticulture, math, and veterinary science. In botany, he took courses in systematics, histology, fungi, and extra credit, which probably consisted of original research. By July 1879, Holmes was at the head of his class. In addition to his scholastic pursuits, he enjoyed playing football and baseball. Holmes earned a Bachelor of Agriculture degree in 1881.

Teaching at the University of North Carolina

Upon his graduation from college, Holmes was appointed professor of Geology and Natural History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His instruction in botany spanned most of the 1880s. Holmes was the first professor at Chapel Hill to build up a diverse curriculum in botany by offering several courses, improving laboratories, and promoting field studies. At UNC, botany indeed now offered practical utility, particularly in its application to agriculture. Instruction involved lectures, recitations, lab work, text-books, and field trips.

During his first year, in addition to a course in Physiological Botany (General Botany), Holmes taught a course of lectures and laboratory work on economic botany. In Holmes’s second year of teaching, his botany class collected and mounted plants from their field excursions, and these were most likely placed in the growing herbarium. In the fall term of 1885, the University added several new faculty positions, including one in zoology, which was filled by George Francis Atkinson. Holmes could now devote additional time instructing in geology and botany. The expanded program in botany consisted of Elements of Botany; Advanced Botany, which included two classes (Systematic and Applied Botany and Agricultural Botany); and Horticulture.

Portrait of Joseph Austin Holmes (photographer & date unknown). Portrait kindly provided by William R. Burk, Botany Librarian of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In offering an expanded curriculum in natural history, Holmes ([1885]) explained how the courses, particularly in the plant sciences, related to practical agriculture. Agricultural botany included studies in several pertinent areas: fungi parasitic on crops, grasses and forage plants and their cultivation and preservation, and the growth and cultivation of plants. Horticulture featured studies on soils and methods for improving them through such methods as drainage and manuring; the management of orchards and forests with instruction on planting, grafting, and pruning; and the basic principles in cultivating garden and farm crops.

By the mid-1880s, the scientific laboratory experience was gaining prominence at UNC as an educational experience. Different scientific departments acquired additional specimens and learning aids for illustration and instruction. The university was expanding its resources to promote scientific instruction and the use of new methodologies. Holmes became an active proponent of improving laboratory facilities in his disciplines of responsibility. He believed that the university should adopt laboratory practice “as far as possible in place of the old style text book system of instruction.” He explained: “Seeing and examining an object gives a student a further understanding of it than does reading about it. All advanced institutions are adopting this plan” (BOT S-8: 158).

The progress made in increasing the faculty and expanding the curriculum in botany (and other sciences) was short-lived. In 1885, the Legislature enacted the establishment of an Agricultural and Mechanical College in Raleigh and transferred to it the Land Grant allocation of $7,500 for instruction. The new institution was to be called the North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (now North Carolina State University) and to be located west of and near the city of Raleigh. George Atkinson was one of the newly appointed faculty members of 1885 who was let go in 1888.

Following Atkinson’s departure, Holmes’s teaching responsibilities were once again stretched to include all disciplines in natural history. Courses offered in botany were reduced to Elements of Botany and Systematic and Applied Botany. This was a very demanding period in Holmes’s university career. His numerous teaching responsibilities placed overwhelming pressure on him. In the fall of 1890, Holmes (1891) taught six courses, requiring seventeen hours per week: General Geology and Mineralogy, 18 students; Advanced Geology, 4; Advanced Mineralogy, 4; Zoology, Physiology, and Botany, 40; Biology and Microscopic Technology, 20; and Advanced Botany, 4. In addition to heavy teaching loads during the fall and spring terms and geological field work during many summers, Holmes lectured on the geology of North Carolina in the Summer School sessions in 1894-1896 and 1898-1901.

From 1882 to 1891, Holmes taught botany and horticulture to nearly 335 students. Of these students, nearly twenty-five took courses in horticulture and advanced botany. Among these young men, two became noted botanists: William Willard Ashe, who became particularly well known as a forester in the North Carolina Geological Survey and later in the U.S. Forest Service, and John Simcox Holmes (not directly related to Joseph Austin Holmes) who replaced Ashe as North Carolina’s state forester.

Joseph Austin Holmes’ signature. Photograph by Susan Whitfield, Biology Departments, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Kindly supplied by William R. Burk, Botany Librarian of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The University Museum:  Its Development and Service to Students and Citizens

In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Holmes was in charge of the University Museum, which served as an important instructive tool. His students could consult the herbarium of local plants and native woods. According to Kemp Battle (2: 274), the natural history collections contained over 3,000 specimens of rocks, ores, minerals, and a growing assemblage of woods, as well as zoological and botanical specimens illustrating the local fauna and flora. Students were also expected to utilize specimens of a large collection of seeds, grains, and fibers from numerous countries in their experiments.

Botanical Investigations

Keeping current with the scientific literature and collecting specimens for preservation and instruction were important aspects of Holmes’s scientific studies. While a student at Cornell University, he had begun frequently requesting publications from the Smithsonian Institution. His contact with the institution continued for at least the subsequent twenty years. His nearly fifty letters housed in the Institution’s archives are concerned with obtaining publications and sending or receiving natural history specimens, among other topics. Of special note was his donation of Cretaceous invertebrates collected in Wilmington, North Carolina. His correspondence with scientists at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reveals distinct botanical research interests, especially with grasses, in his early years at Chapel Hill. Geological excursions and related research eclipsed Holmes’s botanical investigations in later years.

Holmes had collected plants for scientific identification while an undergraduate at Cornell. Among his botanical collections from Ithaca, New York, were Aralia nudicaulis L., May 30, 1879, and Tussilago farfara L., May 17, 1887, of which specimens are preserved in the UNC Herbarium. From his correspondence, we further learn that Holmes (1881) studied the grasses of Chapel Hill and environs soon after moving there. Holmes wanted to learn about the economic value of grasses. Holmes (1886) pointed out to George Vasey, a botanist at the USDA, that he was attempting “to build up an herbarium with a small beginning,” and he stated that any USDA duplicate specimens might be donated to UNC. Today, selected specimens of North Carolina plants collected by Holmes are archived at the UNC Herbarium, examples being Lycopodium alopecuroides (L.) Cranfill and Woodwardia areolata, both collected in Duplin County, North Carolina, October 10, 1885; and Panax trifolius from Orange County, North Carolina, April 25, 1888. For several years, Holmes spent his vacation time conducting geological field work, often taking along his advanced students.

The Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society

Holmes’s active role in scientific organizations at Cornell probably influenced his interest in developing a learned scientific society at Chapel Hill. Holmes and three of his science colleagues (chemistry professor Francis P. Venable, mathematics professor Ralph H. Graves, and physics professor Joshua W. Gore) were interested in establishing a scientific society at the university. On September 24, 1883, they convened a meeting to discuss this issue at the home of Holmes and Venable (Venable, 1916). They also invited several other scholars (Kemp P. Battle, Thomas W. Harris, J. Manning, William B. Phillips, and Emile A. de Schweinitz). The assembled men chose the name “the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society” for the newly formed association to honor the accomplishments of that versatile scientist.

Holmes and a continuous lineage of future botanists at Chapel Hill provided guidance and leadership for the society. Initially, the society held meetings each month during the university’s school year. At its first regular meeting on November 10, 1883, Holmes recounted the results of his observations and his readings on insectivorous plants, especially about the structure and habits of the Venus flytrap, Dionaea muscipula (Anonymous, 1883a, b). During the next several years, Holmes presented additional papers (predominantly on geology) at the meetings of the society; his botanical papers were on the geographical distribution of North Carolina plants, the distribution of rhododendrons in North Carolina, and the flora of Angola Bay, North Carolina. Concerning the last topic, Holmes had spent the summer of 1884 conducting field work on the plants and animals of the bay. At the October 18, 1884, meeting of the society, which included his paper on Angola Bay, he exhibited specimens of the plants collected on the trip (Anonymous, 1884). Some of the specimens survive in the UNC Herbarium (NCU). In the society, Holmes served as vice president (1883-1884, 1885-1886), president (1892-1893, 1898-1899), and as a member of the Publication Committee (about 1885-1888).

Holmes encouraged his students to join the Mitchell Society as associate members. Two young men who pursued advanced studies in botany under Holmes’s tutelage presented papers at the organization’s meetings. On April 12, 1887, Leander Williams Lynch reported on the dates of flowering of nearly fifty plants growing in the region of Chapel Hill (EMSS 1: 47). Gaston Battle presented a paper on the “pea-nut plant” on April 21, 1891 (EMSS 1: 61). He became a planter in Edgecombe County, North Carolina and was subsequently associated with Sinclair Oil in Atlanta, Georgia. After graduating from UNC in 1891, William W. Ashe, who had been an avid student of botany under the direction of Holmes, also presented papers at the society’s monthly programs. Ashe prepared a paper on the longleaf pine and its struggle for survival, which Professor Venable read for him on October 10, 1894 (EMSS 1: 71). The paper was subsequently published (Ashe, 1894). Ashe also gave a presentation on the influence of high altitudes upon the growth of plants on November 23, 1897, which he illustrated with specimens from the Rockies (EMSS 1: 100).

Holmes resigned the professorship in natural history in 1891 to become the State Geologist with the North Carolina Geological Survey.

Contributions to Public Service

Holmes’s concerns for conservation extended to the forests of North Carolina. At the Mitchell Society’s meeting of May 14, 1895, he presented a paper about restocking burned-over areas with longleaf pine (EMSS 1: ). Four years earlier, he had suggested to American forester and conservationist Gifford Pinchot his thoughts about establishing a forest reservation in the Southern Appalachians (Smith, 1960). His interests in the state’s forests continued while he served as the State Geologist of North Carolina. Testimonials to Holmes’s efforts to conserve North Carolina’s forests were given by forester William Willard Ashe, who commemorated his mentor by naming two trees after him: Hicorius holmesia (Ashe, 1896) and Crataegus holmesiana (Ashe, [1900]). According to a resolution of the North Carolina Forestry Association, Holmes was “the first to take up the investigation of the forestry problems of North Carolina and started the campaign of education looking toward the preservation and conservation of our forest areas” (GibboneyCotten, and Pratt, 1916).

Although geological themes, mainly those of economic importance, were the focus of most of Holmes’s nearly eighty publications, several of his early papers dealt with agricultural teaching in North Carolina; with Abies [TsugacanadensisPinus strobus, and Taxodium; and with plants in gardens and fields. He wrote seven publications on botanical topics. He also served on the Executive Committee of the North Carolina Agricultural Society.

Holmes’s horticultural interests were aimed at beautifying the campus. According to the minutes of the June 1, 1885, faculty meeting, he and Adolphus W. Mangum (Professor of Moral Philosophy, History, and English Literature) were chosen as a committee on the campus charged with planting shrubs and other plants. In October 1885, the group was called the Grounds Committee. It would seek the counsel of the faculty on such matters as the advisability of planting shrubs on the campus.

Holmes’s other scientific accomplishments and leadership deserve mention. In 1903, he was appointed Director, Department of Mines and Metallurgy of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition at the St. Louis World’s Fair held in 1904. He was influential in getting a bill passed by Congress to found a marine biological laboratory at Beaufort, North Carolina, for the U.S. Fish Commission. He became the chief of the U. S. Geological Survey laboratories for testing fuels and structural materials at St. Louis (1905-1907) and then at Pittsburgh (beginning 1908). When the U. S. Bureau of Mines was established in 1910, he served as its first director, remaining in this position until his retirement in 1915.

Holmes was keenly interested in improving the safety of miners. He discovered that dust from bituminous coal was a greater danger to miners than was firedamp.

Legacy and Honors

Gravestone of Joseph Austin Holmes, Section M, lot 56, site 5, Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Kenneth J. Wurdack, March 6, 2006.

In addition to his contributions as a professor of geology and natural history, a geologist, a conservationist, and an administrator, Holmes earned several honors. He was a fellow and charter member of the Geological Society of America and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was a member of the Academies of Science in Washington, D.C., Raleigh, North Carolina, and St. Louis, Missouri; the American Forestry Association; the American Institute of Mining Engineers; the American Society for Testing Materials; and the

American Society of Mechanical Engineers. In honorary societies, he was elected to Sigma Xi and Tau Beta Pi. Memberships in other organizations included the Cosmos Club (Washington, D.C.), the St. Louis Club, and the Engineer’s Club (New York). A recipient of two honorary degrees in 1909, Holmes was awarded the LL.D. from UNC and the D.Sc. from the University of Pittsburgh. In conferring on Holmes the doctor of law degree at UNC, Dr. C. Alphonso Smith aptly described him as “A man of seasoned common sense, of winning personality, and of practical efficiency in all that he [undertook]” (Cobb, 1910).

Holmes and his wife Jeanie had two daughters (Jean Dalziel and Margaret Catherine) and two sons (Joseph Austin, Jr., and James Sprunt). Holmes’s personal commitment to his wife was steadfast.

When he retired in 1915, his health had been declining. In 1915, he entered a sanitarium in New Mexico and died on July 13 (at age fifty-five) from pulmonary tuberculosis in Denver, Colorado, according to his certificate of death. Joseph Holmes is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.



Sources on Joseph A. Holmes Not Cited in the Text

Archival Collections.
Cornell University Archives, Carl A. Kroch Library, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Ithaca, New York.

Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina. Joseph Austin Holmes Papers #3866. (includes numerous newspaper clippings) see also entry under UNC (They appear to be the same.)

Obituaries and Biographical Sketches.
AMC. American Mining Congress. 1915. Joseph Austin Holmes 1859-1915. Washington, DC, American Mining Congress. 80 pp. (“A record of tributes paid at the Memorial Exercises held at San Francisco, Tuesday, September 21, 1915, under the auspices of the American Mining Congress.” Also includes tributes from correspondents.) (p. 80).

Anonymous. 1906. Joseph Austin Holmes, p. 100. in Prominent People of North Carolina, Brief Biographies of Leading People for Ready Reference Purposes. Evening News Publishing Company, Asheville, NC. 128 pp.

Anonymous. 1915. J. A. Holmes dies–martyr to miners. New York Times 64(20,990): 9, Tuesday, July 14, 1915.

Anonymous. 1933. Holmes, Joseph Austin, pp. 104-105. in The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Being the History of the United States, vol. 23. James T. White & Company, New York. (portrait).

Battle, Kemp P. 1916. Dr. Joseph Austin Holmes at the University of North Carolina. Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 32: 20-23.

M[cDonald], P[hilip] B. 1932. Holmes, Joseph Austin, pp. 167-168. in Dumas Malone (ed.), Dictionary of American Biography, vol. 9. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.

Pratt, Joseph Hyde. 1916. Memorial sketch of Dr. Joseph Austin Holmes. Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 32: 1-15. (portrait and bibliography). (“Read at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America, Washington, DC, December 28, 1915.”)

Vinson, Frank Bedingfield. 1988. Holmes, Joseph Austin, pp. 177-178. in William S. Powell (ed.), Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, vol. 3. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill. (sources cited)

Literature Cited

Anonymous. 1883a. For the Home and Democrat. University of North Carolina. Charlotte Home and Democrat (Charlotte, NC), new series 13 (642): [2], Friday, November 16, 1883.

Anonymous. 1883b. University Day at the University. Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, NC) [Weekly], new series 1(42): [1], Thursday, November 22, 1883.

Anonymous. 1884. [Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society meeting, held October 18, 1884]. University Magazine, new series 4: 87-88.

Ashe, W[illiam] W. 1894. The Long leaf pine and its struggle for existence. Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 11: [1]-16.

Ashe, W[illiam] W. [1896]. Notes on the hickories of the United States. [The Author], Chapel Hill, NC. 1 p. (Paper read before the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society and distributed at the meeting held April 15, 1896. Copy in the Botany Libraries, Harvard University).

Ashe, W[illiam] W. [1900]. New East American species of Crataegus. (Contributions from my herbarium. No. VI). Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 16: 70-79.

Battle, Kemp P. 1907-1912. History of the University of North Carolina. Printed by Edwards & Broughton , Raleigh, NC. 2 vols. (vol. 2, p. 274)

BOT. Board of Trustees, Minutes. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. (Vol. S-8, p. 158). (University Archives, Louis Round Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill).

Cobb, Collier. 1910. Joseph Austin Holmes. Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 26: 167-170. (“Reprinted from the Charlotte Observer.”).

EMSS. Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society. (Records of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society #40183, University Archives, Louis Round Wilson Library, University of North Carina, Chapel Hill). (Box 1 contains two volumes of minutes of the society’s proceedings; volume 1 covers 1883 to 1940).

Gibboney, James H., Robert R. Cotten and Joseph Hyde Pratt (Special Committee of the North Carolina Forestry Association). 1916. [Resolution on behalf of Joseph Austin Holmes], North Carolina Forestry Association. (Box 3, folder 29, Joseph Austin Holmes Papers #3866, Southern Historical Collection, Louis Round Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill).

Holmes, Joseph A. 1881. Letter to George Vasey, October 31, 1881. (Record Unit 220, United States National Museum, Division of Plants, 1870-1893, Records, Box 8, Folder 10, Smithsonian Institution Archives).

Holmes, Joseph A. [1885]. [Studies in natural history that bear upon practical agriculture]. (Box 48, folder 1729, University Papers #40005, Louis Round Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill).

Holmes, Joseph A. 1886. Letter to George Vasey, July 7, 1886. (Record Unit 220, United States National Museum, Division of Plants, 1870-1893, Smithsonian Institution Archives).

Holmes, Joseph A. 1891. Report to Kemp P. Battle, January 24, 1891. (Box 19, folder 633, University Papers 40005, University Archives, Louis Round Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill).

Manning, Van H. 1915. Historical sketch and appreciation of Dr. Joseph A. Holmes, pp. 9-20. in Joseph Austin Holmes 1859-1915. American Mining Congress, Washington, DC. 80 pp.

Smith, Charles Dennis. 1960. The Appalachian National Park Movement, 1885-1901. North Carolina Historical Review 37: 38-65. (p. 39).

Sykes, R. H. [1916]. Joseph Austin Holmes Papers. (Box 1, folder 1, Joseph Austin Holmes Papers #3866, Southern Historical Collection, Louis Round Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill).

Venable, F. P. 1916. Joseph Austin Holmes. The Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 32: 16-19.