Amateur Collectors: The Original Crowdsourced Science

Professionally, I’m a collector. In my work as a research assistant, I work with our team of scientists, curators and technicians to describe the plant biodiversity of Canada. This all begins in the field, where piles of moss-filled paper bags and towering stacks of pressed plants signal the end of a hard day’s work. Eventually, these all find their way back to the beating heart of our institution: a collection of 10 million specimens (and counting) that document minerals, plants, animals and fossils from across the globe.

Arthur C. Waghorne.

This photo of Reverend Arthur Waghorne was published in 1900, the year of his death. Image: The Tribune Christmas Number, vol. 7 (1900): p. 5. St. John’s, Newfoundland: P.R. Bowers.

Like many of my colleagues, I’ve always been doing this, hoarding rocks, coins and many other obsessions well throughout my youth. While this is now my vocation, many amateur collectors and citizen scientists have throughout the years passionately built their own collections, driven for their love of the natural world, and often amassing thousands of specimens in their free time! We are incredibly grateful that these collectors often choose to donate these collections to us, where they add immeasurable value to the national collection. Two stories (out of hundreds) spring to mind for me.

Firstly, without the collections of Reverend Arthur C. Waghorne, some of my personal research projects would not be possible. Recently Dr. Guy Brassard, botanist and historian, dropped by our research and collections facility to present his research into the life and botanical contributions of Waghorne—an Anglican minister in Newfoundland during the last years of the 1800s. Waghorne devoted the last decades of his life to collecting and documenting the plants, lichens and mosses of Newfoundland and Labrador, in addition to his full-time job caring for his congregation!

Though he didn’t possess scientific training, Waghorne’s sharp observational skills, keen mind and energetic demeanour made him the most prolific collector in Newfoundland at that time. His brazen solicitation of pretty much every major botanist on the planet no doubt helped him too—he sought out identifications from international experts, and even took out newspaper ads to find people willing to identify his plants.

A herbarium sheet of two specimens.

One of the many botanical specimens collected by Arthur Waghorne that can be found in the National Herbarium of Canada. This beach pea (Lathyrus japonicus) is likely one of the first records for the species from Labrador. For many parts of the province, Waghorne was the first collector. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Such was his knowledge that he had began to write the first Flora of Newfoundland and Labrador, left unfinished when he passed away at the relatively young age of 50. Even so, thanks to his network of exchanges and communications with botanists from around the globe, his legacy lives on in thousands of collections in dozens of herbaria, including ours, the museum’s own National Herbarium of Canada.

Two other amateur naturalists who have contributed much to our field are the husband-and-wife team of William and Eileene Stewart. William, born in 1923 in St. Thomas, Elgin County, Ontario, possessed a lifelong love of the natural world that motivated him to collect and study the entire flora of his home county on evenings and weekends with his wife at his side! By day, he was an instrument technician for the Astronomy Department at the University of Western Ontario, but off the clock, both William and Eileene could often be found collecting specimens, photographing flowers and writing manuscripts.

Thirteen booklets arranged on a table.

William Stewart’s publications run the gamut of biodiversity in Elgin County, Ontario, covering everything from mosses to vascular plants to dragonflies. Poignantly, he even wrote biographies on other amateur collectors. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Thanks to their efforts, no other county in Ontario has such a fine-scale accounting of its biodiversity, and their collections at Western’s herbarium are still used today.

Watch an interview with William Stewart in 1978 about his botanical work in Elgin County.

I am very grateful for the background information that Guy Brassard and Jennifer Doubt provided for this article.

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One Response to Amateur Collectors: The Original Crowdsourced Science

  1. Pingback: Crowd-sourcing natural history | The Molecular Ecologist

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