Liriodendron tulipifera flower

The University of North Carolina
A Department of the North Carolina Botanical Garden


Collectors of the UNC Herbarium
Information compiled by Carol Ann McCormick, December 2011

Ellison Adger Smyth, Jr.
(26 October 1863 - 1941)

The University of North Carolina has to date catalogued about 20 botanical specimens collected by Ellison A. Smyth, Jr. Most were collected in the environs of Columbia, South Carolina ca. 1890.


Ellison Adger Smyth, Jr.
date unknown,  photograph courtesy of Virginia Tech

Smyth was a professor and founding head of the Department of Biology (1891-1925), and first dean of the faculty (1902-1906) at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia.  Smyth Hall, currently housing the Department of Crop & Soil Environmental Science, is named in his honor (1).  He was primarily a zoologist, but interested in all aspects of natural history.  In 1892 Professor Smyth became the first football coach at VPI (2).

Ellison Adger Smyth, Jr. was born at Summerton, Clarendon County, South Carolina on October 26, 1863 to James Adger Smyth and Annie R. Briggs.  James Smyth was a cotton merchant and two term mayor of Charleston. 

In his boyhood and youth, the proclivities and the interests which have marked the professional work of Professor Smyth were early manifested.  Birds and butterflies awakened a passionate interest in him, when he was a very small boy.  Fond of all out-of-door sports, and especially boating and shooting, while a boy of fourteen he taught himself to stuff and mount bird-skins.  Passing his boyhood in the city of Charleston, his summers were uniformly spent on the sea-coast, at Sullivan’s Island, and on the old family plantation in Clarendon county.  While attending school regularly, his father believed in training every child to undertake some regular duties which involved manual labor; and the son recognizes his lifelong debt to the training in the use of his own hands which was thus given him early in life.

Entering Princeton college in 1880, he was graduated with the degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1884.  The next winter, he passed in study at Columbia college in New York city.  In 1887 he attended the summer law school of the University of Virginia.  In 1890 he was engaged in work in the biological laboratory at Woods Holl [sic], Massachusetts. 

In 1885, he became a clerk in the law firm of Smyth and Lee, at Charleston, South Carolina; but his four years’ excursion into the study of and practice of law was undertaken only for family reasons.  Love of biology was already too strong to be resisted.  As a boy of ten years, he had begun collections of his own in the study of insects and of birds; and in 1888, then a partner in the above named law firm, he definitely left the law to take up his life’s work in biology the innate love for which had been stimulated by the friendship of such older men of science as Dr. Gibbes and Dr. G. E. Manigault, of Charleston.

In 1889, he was made adjunct professor of biology in the University of South Carolina; in 1891 he resigned that position to become professor of biology in the Virginia Polytechnic institute at Blacksburg, Virginia – a chair which he has filled for the last fifteen years.  During the absence of the president in the academic year, 1905 to 1906, Professor Smyth shared with Professor T.P. Campbell the duties of the executive.

Professor Smyth is the author of various articles in the “Entomological News”; of bulletins on the economic relations of birds of prey, and on grasses, etc; and on birds and bird life.

He has discovered and named two new species of butterflies and moths, and he has determined by breeding experiments the identity of three species of moths, hitherto considered distinct; and this work of Professor Smyth’s has been recognized in Europe. 

He received the degree of A.M. from Princeton university in 1887; and in June, 1906 the University of Alabama conferred upon Professor Smith the honorary degree of LL.D.  He is a member of the New York Entomological society, one of the original members of the Entomological Society of America, and an associate of the Ornithological union.

He married Miss Grace Allan, daughter of James Allan of Charleston, South Carolina on the 29th of December 1897.  They have three children, two sons and a daughter, all of whom are living in 1907. 

As to his religious convictions, Professor Smyth is an elder in the Presbyterian church at Blacksburg and says, “I have always been a Presbyterian, as were my Scotch-Irish ancestors before me.”  He is a Democrat.  He finds his favorite forms of amusement and exercise on the salt water, in boating, sailing and fishing; and in collecting, observing, and studying birds, insects and marine life, in forest, field and on the shore; and in sketching and painting, as well as in music. (3)

Professor Smyth’s son, also named Ellison Adger Smyth (1903- 12 March 1998), became a Presbyterian minister and married Mary Linda Vardell (b.? – d. 1 April 1998).  Mary Linda Vardell earned a M.A. under Dr. William Chambers Coker at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1933 with her thesis, “Seed development in Spigelia marilandica.”  After marrying Ellison Smyth, Mary Linda Vardell Smyth worked in the Herbarium at VPI for many years.


PUBLICATIONS (incomplete list)

Smyth, Ellison A., Jr. (1893)  Capture of the Black-capped Petrel inland in Virginia.  The Auk 10(4):  361-362.
-- (1902)  Franklin's Gull in the Virginia mountains.  The Auk 19(1):  74-75.
-- (1906)  Bachman's Finch in Montgomery County, Virginia.  The Auk 23(3):  341.
-- (1907)  The Goshawk in Montgomery Co., Virginia.  The Auk 24(2):  214.
-- (1908)  An unusual Graffian Follicle.  Biological Bulletin 14(5):  319-320.
-- (1908)  Nelson's Finch in the mountains of Virginia.  The Auk 25(4):  475-476.
-- (1912)  Birds observed in Montgomery County, Virginia.  The Auk 29(4):  508-530.
-- (1924)  As students understand it.  Science, New Series 60(1548):  200-201.
-- (1925)  White-crowned Sparrow in Montgomery Co., Virginia in January.  The Auk  42(2):  275.
-- (1927)  Additional notes on the birds of Montgomery Co., Virginia.  The Auk 44(1):  44-46.
-- (1939)  Swallow-tailed Kite in Roanoke County, Virginia.  The Auk 56(1):  75.




3.      “Ellison Adger Smyth, Jr.” pp. 367-369 in Men of Mark in Virginia:  Ideals of American Life, A Collection of Biographies of the Leading Men in the State, Volume IV.  Editor in Chief Lyon G. Tyler.  Washington, DC:  Men of Mark Publishing Company, 1908.


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University of North Carolina Herbarium
CB# 3280, Coker Hall
University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3280
phone: (919) 962-6931
fax: (919) 962-6930

Last Updated: 7 May 2007