Walter Henry Snell (1889-1980), professor of botany, was born in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts, on May 19, 1889. He grew up in Brockton, and was an outstanding student and athlete at the local high school and later at Phillips Academy in Andover. He was expected to go to Yale, but changed his mind and came to Brown. It has been said that his plans changed when it was pointed out to him that his predecessor as catcher on the Andover baseball team had gone to Yale the year before and already had the catcher’s position there. Whatever the reason, Wally Snell had a successful undergraduate career at Brown. He played football and basketball, was captain of the baseball team and president of his class, majored in biology and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He was looking forward to a career in major league baseball, having been signed by the Philadelphia Athletics, but broke his thumb in a post-season game against the alumni. He was sold to the Boston Red Sox and played ball during the summer of 1913. In the fall he came back to Brown to take some courses in botany while he waited for the next baseball season. For the next few years he played minor league baseball for Toronto, Rochester, and Manchester in the summers, and spent the winters as Professor Harlan H. York’s assistant in botany.
Botany won out over baseball. After receiving his master of arts degree in 1916, he continued his studies at the University of Wisconsin. He worked as a forest pathologist with the Bureau of Plant Industry from 1918 to 1920. He came to Brown as assistant professor in botany in February 1920, to replace Professor York, who had resigned. The next fall, after receiving his Ph.D. degree from Wisconsin for a thesis on wood decay in buildings, he was promoted to associate professor and chairman of the department. For twenty summers he continued working with the New York State Conservation Commission in the Adirondacks, studying white pine blister rust. During one summer he discovered a large mushroom previously unknown in North America, and in order to preserve this particular specimen for future study, he made an eighty-mile round trip daily to water the mushroom. In addition to his botanical pursuits, between 1921 and 1940, he coached 47 football, baseball, and basketball teams. He retired from coaching in 1940, but was soon back into Brown athletics, this time having been recruited in January 1943 to replace athletic director Thomas Taylor, who had left for military service. Being athletic director during the war was not an easy assignment. As “Wally” remembered it, “Schedules, transportation. and supplies were all hard to get. One year we had six baseball bats and we had to go around to the drugstores and hardware stores to get them. The only way we could get baseballs was through George Wiess of the Yankees, whom I know. Bus service was terrible. The basketball team had to stand up all the way to Amherst for one game; and then get up the next morning at five o’clock to get back here. Those were rough years.” He kept the job until 1947, kept the athletic program alive, and after the war, helped to revive hockey, lacrosse, and wrestling, which had been dropped for financial reasons.
In 1942 he was named Stephen T. Olney Professor of Botany. His title was changed to Professor of Natural History in 1945. He discovered several forms of mushrooms in the Northeast which were not thought to exist there. As an aid to teaching courses in mycology and forest pathology, he began collecting mycological terms and in 1936 produced a list, Three thousand Mycological Terms, which was typed by his assistant, Esther A. Dick ’31. His Glossary of Mycology was published in 1957. Although Snell retired in 1959, he never left the campus, but went right on working. The culmination of his work was The Boleti of Northeastern North America, written with Esther Dick, and published in 1970. The book contained more than 400 of his water-color illustrations. After the death of his first wife in 1975, he married his long-term assistant, Esther Dick. He died in Providence on July 23, 1980 at the age of 91.