Botany was taught at Brown in 1811 by Solomon Drowne 1773, professor of materia medica and botany, in the newly established medical lectures. The course was designed for medical students, but undergraduates could attend the lectures by paying a fee. Edwards A. Park 1826 was one of those students, and recalled his experience:“I had a very pleasant acquaintance with Dr. Solomon Drowne, and attended one course of his lectures on Botany. The course consisted of only twelve or fourteen lectures. They were illustrated by some botanical specimens, which, however, appeared to me quite ‘dry.’ His lectures were technical, and did not interest me. Still I was only sixteen years old when I heard them, and was not prepared for as many technicalities as he introduced.” Drowne’s lectures ended when the medical lectures were discontinued in 1827.
In February 1877 the Brunonian announced, “Mr. W. W. Bailey of the class of ’64, has very kindly volunteered to give some lectures preparatory to the course in Field Botany ... The attendance, which is voluntary, is limited to the upperclassmen.” By soliciting subscriptions Bailey was able to procure ten botanical dissecting microscopes for the University. He also placed in the Museum an herbarium of 2000 mounted and labelled specimens. Observing the success of Bailey’s lectures and the demand for more instruction in botany than had been previously available in the physiology course, President Robinson recommended that Bailey be retained to continue his voluntary course while the establishment of a professorship of geology with botany included was under consideration. In 1881 Bailey was appointed to the newly established professorship of natural history, including botany, which was made possible through $25,000 from the estate of Stephen Thayer Olney, whose bequest also included his herbarium, his microscopes, 712 botanical books, and a $10,000 fund of which the income would be used for the purchase of plants and books. In November 1880 James Lawrence Bennett, a local botanist, donated his herbarium of about 13,000 specimens. A condition of the bequest of the Olney herbarium was that it be placed in a fire-proof building, and a room in the basement of the new library was deemed acceptable, but was later found to be too damp and the herbaria were moved to the southeast room on the first floor of Manning Hall. The herbaria were increased in 1883 by the purchase of the collection of James F. Robinson of Manchester, England, and the gift of the herbarium of W. W. Ayres of Wickford, Rhode Island.
An advanced course in botany for juniors was introduced in 1889-90. In his report that year Bailey noted that “Botany has long since ceased to be a fancy or ornamental study,” and asked for the introduction of water into the laboratory, laboratory desks, and gas apparatus. In 1890 James L. Bennett was placed in charge of the herbaria. The next year he was also named “Curator of the Museum of Economic Botany.” The herbarium moved once again in December 1895, this time to the basement of Maxcy Hall where modern cases with 660 shelves had been provided. Winthrop J. V. Osterhout 1893 was instructor in the department from 1893 to 1895, and Haven Metcalf 1896 from 1896 to 1899. After Bennett’s departure, James Franklin Collins was curator of the herbarium from 1894 to 1911, and curator of the museum of economic botany in 1894-95. He was instructor in botany from 1899 to 1905, and assistant professor until 1911. Bailey retired in 1905, and Collins was replaced as assistant professor in 1911 by Harlan H. York, who had recently earned a Ph.D. degree at Johns Hopkins University, and had been an instructor in botany at the University of Texas from 1906 to 1909. A greenhouse, 18 by 25 feet, was erected in 1912 in the rear of the house at 100 George Street. The Bureau of Plant Industry of the United States Department of Agriculture installed a laboratory of forest pathology in Maxcy Hall in 1913 with J. Franklin Collins in charge. Its special purpose was the study of the diseases of shade and ornamental trees and shrubs. In 1913 Collins also rejoined the faculty as demonstrator in botany. York left for West Virginia, and Walter H. Snell ’13, who had been assistant in botany in 1915-16 and instructor in 1919-20, took his place. The greenhouse was removed for the building of Littlefield Hall in 1925 and replaced by another one built to the east of Maxcy Hall. A new greenhouse was acquired from government surplus in 1947. George L. Church joined the department as instructor in 1928, became assistant professor in 1934, associate professor in 1946, and professor in 1951. Professor Hubert J. Dyer came in 1950. Professor Snell was named Stephen T. Olney Professor in 1942. He retired in 1959, and Professor Church became chairman of the department in 1958. In 1965 the Departments of Botany and Biology and the Division of Medical Science were merged into the Division of Biological and Medical Sciences.