A little bit of local history.

A photo of the aftermath of the 1932 Alabama tornado, courtesy of the Hoole Library blog, where you can find more information about the Roland Harper Collection which includes this (and many other) photos. Who was this fellow named Roland Harper?

Roland Harper was a field botanist by profession, and took countless photographs during his long professional life. He served as staff botanist at the Geological Survey of Alabama in Tuscaloosa from 1905 until his death. As a tireless field investigator , Harper recorded his frequent journeys with journal notes and photographs. He was one of the last botanists to visit and describe the original vegetation of the Southeast before it was drastically altered by human activity.

Born August 11, 1878 in Farmington, Maine, he moved to Georgia with his family in 1887. While earning an engineering degree from the University of Georgia, Harper took his first botany class and became an avid student of local flora. In 1899, Harper entered the Botany program at Columbia University and earned his PhD in 1905. His work in documenting the fauna of the Southeast was extensive.

Harper’s work for the GSA resulted in the publication of five volumes summarizing the plant life and natural resources of the state. 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.

Harper began working on censuses during the early 1900‘s, a time when social reformists began using number and statistics to attempt to improve the conditions of life for many Americans. During this time, Harper was introduced to statistics and demographics, ways in which social scientists measure characteristics of large social groups and populations.

Unfortunately, Harper’s use of statistics did not directly improve the quality of life for local residents. Many of his later letters-to-the-editor, which he based on such statistics, compared seemingly disparate cultural elements to arrive at ugly conclusions. Colleagues began to question his scientific credibility.

Harper’s reputation as a scientist was 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.

In her new book about Harper, Elizabeth Findley Shore describes him as “an interesting man”. Ms. Shore first learned about Harper from her mother and uncle, whose parents rented a room to the “eccentric botanist” in their childhood home at 329 University Boulevard. Apparently, Harper’s mind never strayed far from his work. He couldn’t just ride the train or later an automobile and relax. He would look intently at the wayside and make notes, constantly, on the flora he observed. Harper claimed to be able to make accurate lists of plants along the way. Many colleagues scoffed, but it later was agreed he was remarkably accurate. Harper also declined to learn to drive, so, over the course of his career, he probably hiked a hundred thousand miles, on the ground, camping out, which was rather brave of him since he had a phobia of snakes as well as driving.

Indeed, many aspects of Harper’s life were unconventional. His did not marry until he was 63 years old. He and his wife had no children.

Although he worked for 35 years here in Tuscaloosa at the Alabama Geological Survey with his office in the center of campus, he refused to teach any courses. His mother wrote to him at one point, “I cannot understand you… You must be crazy.” Refusing to teach, or leaving teaching, is regarded by many as spurning a mission of significant public service, but Harper would have nothing to do with it. He loathed teaching, so he took a lower salary and filled his notebooks and journals.

Harper passionate interest in longleaf pine forests, which were largely being destroyed at the time of his studies, led him to a critical discovery. He realized that the longleaf stands can withstand fire but, more importantly, that they need fire to keep down undergrowth, discourage hardwoods, and germinate their seeds. Since total fire suppression was the doctrine of the day, the US Forestry employees mocked him. We now know that Harper’s insights were correct, and total fire suppression is no longer the reigning theory. In 1949, the longleaf pine was named Alabama state tree.

Among the many materials left by Harper, there is a map of the economic botany of Alabama circa 1913 which he made while working at the GSA. You can find a copy of this map in archives at the Hoole Library.

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.

You can also download a pdf copy of the Tuscaloosa Biography for Roland Harper I created for our 2010 Local History Workshop. Print and share.