Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation

Archives Collections List

Norman Hudson Russell (1921–)

Taxonomist, plant ecologist, poet

Letters, Essays, and Poems 1963–1975

HI Archives collection no. 219

One box

Russell, Norman Hudson
Photographer: Walter H. Hodge

Date: 1962
Location: Missouri Botanical Garden
HI Archives portrait no. 1

Biographical note
Until three years ago I produced the sort of standard articles that I was supposed to mainly on the taxonomy of violets and in the process got my name into Am. Men of Science [10th ed., 1961, p. 3498] and also built up something of a reputation as the North American “authority” on the genus Viola. I was even convinced myself that I knew a great deal about them. Then I quite suddenly discovered that I knew nothing at all about them, that I was merely following the sterile prescriptions of “authorities.”
—Russell, July 1963
Norman Hudson Russell was born in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, in 1921. He earned a B.S. from Slippery Rock College (now Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania) in 1946, after a stint in the U. S. Army Air Force (1942–1946), where he served in India and rose to staff sergeant.  He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1951, specializing in plant ecology and taxonomy, particularly the genus of Viola. Russell taught at Grinnell College, Iowa (1951–1959), was professor and chairman of botany at Arizona State University (1959–1963) and visiting professor of botany at Rutgers University, New Jersey (1963–1965), and taught at Buena Vista College, Iowa (1967–1969). He served as professor of botany, chairman of biology, and dean of math and science at Central State University (now University of Central Oklahoma, Edmond, 1965–1967, and 1969–1978. Russell shifted his career and divided his efforts between science and writing poetry influenced by his Cherokee background after around 1970—indeed he was professor of biology and creative studies after 1979.  In a 1978 interview in the journal Southeast Review, Russell explained “the sort of science I studied—botany, outdoor work—is really the science of observation and how you observe nature.  This is what the Indian does and this is what the poet does” (Contemporary Authors Online, The Gale Group, 2001).  

Content note
This collection documents, in a series of 22 conversational letters to ornithologist Leon Hugh Kelso (1907–1982), one scientist’s struggle to accept the boundaries of his discipline. Russell’s letters to Kelso range from 1963 to 1975 and mark out a maverick sensibility that may be more difficult to find in contemporary botany. Russell wrote to Kelso in 1968: “There does seem to be a pattern in science, politics, even in poetry and other art forms, that has become strong today…. [T]he biologist has become increasingly concerned with DNA, genes, molecules, chemical pathways, and such invisible inventions, thereby increasingly ignoring genuine ecological and taxonomic problems, which in turn means ignoring human necessities. Humanity has been dehumanized to a rather alarming extent, I think.” But Russell is more than an academic trapped in the past or an old-fashioned Luddite. He goes on in the 1968 letter to explain that the trouble is far more serious than that and despairs of “trying to select a textbook for my freshman biology, so far without success. I want to reach these kids, to tie biology to their life and needs, to show them something perfectly obvious—that biology is the most important study in the curriculum, enormously pertinent to their lives. But I find nothing of this in the textbooks available to me. They begin and end with…things, in short, that are absolutely meaningless to these young people” (26 August 1968). This collection shows Russell as a philosophical, thoughtful professor and is important in that it articulates a late-1960s university position that is neither hippie nor administration, serving to complicate traditional histories of the period.

Interspersed with the letters are the following poems (undated except where noted):
No exit,” “In the year two thousand and one,” “How shall I remember you?,” “The test is a terrible thing” (in Journal of General Education, 21(1), April 1969), “Great owl great eagle of the night”; and essays: “Conceptual and operational approaches in biology” (9 pp., 10 April 1963); “What is happening to the world?” (3 pp., 17 January 1969); “To spawn or not to spawn—A biological alternative” (2 pp., 5 March 1970); “War” (5 pp., 14 January 1971). Also included are three short stories, all undated, all a single page.

Other resources
Individual and group portraits of this subject are available from the Hunt Institute portrait collection. Thumbnails of the individual and group portrait holdings are available as PDFs for research purposes. For publication-quality images, contact the Archivist to place an order.

Biographical citations for this subject are available from the Hunt Institute biographical collection as a PDF.

Left to right: Richard Myron Straw (1926–), Norman H. Russell, Aaron John Sharp (1904–1997),
Reed C. Rollins (1911–1998), and Margaret H. Fulford (1904–1999) at a meeting.
Photographer: Ida Langman.
Date: 1961.
HI Archives group portrait no. 100

Left to right: Hugh Iltis (1925–), Norman H. Russell, E. N. Transeau (1875–1960), R. E. Shanks (1912–1962), and William T. Jackson (1923–).
Date: June 1948.
HI Archives group portrait no. 853

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