William James Beal

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William James Beal
The history of the Treman, Tremaine, Truman family in America; with the related families of Mack, Dey, Board and Ayers; being a history of Joseph Truman of New London, Conn. (1666); John Mack of Lyme, (14781664474).jpg
Born(1833-03-11)March 11, 1833
DiedMay 12, 1924(1924-05-12) (aged 91)
Alma materUniversity of Michigan
Harvard University
University of Chicago
Known forPioneer in the development of hybrid corn
Founder of W. J. Beal Botanical Garden
Spouse(s)Hannah Proud Beal
Scientific career
InstitutionsUniversity of Chicago
Michigan State University

William James Beal (March 11, 1833 – May 12, 1924) was an American botanist. He was a pioneer in the development of hybrid corn and the founder of the W. J. Beal Botanical Garden.


Beal was born in Adrian, Michigan, to William and Rachel (Comstock) Beal,[1] His parents were pioneering Quaker settlers/farmers from New York state. Beal grew up in forested land surrounded by native plant and animal life.[2] He married Hannah Proud in 1863. He retired to Amherst, Massachusetts, and died there in 1924.[3]


He attended the University of Michigan, where he earned an A.B. degree in 1859 and an A.M. degree in 1862; he also received an S.B. degree from Harvard University, 1865, an M.S. degree from the University of Chicago, 1875, and a number of honorary degrees.

Between 1858 and 1861 he was a teacher of Natural Sciences at Friends Academy at Union Springs, New York.[4][3]

Research at the Michigan Agricultural College[edit]

Comparison of corns
8 rowed corn
8 rowed corn
16-24 rowed corn
16-24 rowed corn

After briefly serving as professor of botany at the University of Chicago in 1868-70, Beal went on to Michigan Agricultural College (MAC, now Michigan State University), where he was a professor of botany (1871-1910), and curator of the museum (1882-1903). While at MAC, he arranged for Liberty Hyde Bailey to work as an assistant to Asa Gray at Harvard University for two years during 1883-1884.[5] He also served as director of the state Forestry Commission (1889-1892).[3] He was a key leader of the experimental movement of agricultural botany at the college.[2]

His research at the MAC involved using cross fertilization to increase the yield from 8 rowed Indian corn to 24 rowed hybrid corn. His contributions planted him as “one of the pioneers in the development of hybrid corn” in the late 19th century.[6] Using his techniques, Beal was able to produce crops that bloomed earlier, were hardier, had more vigor, and had “better qualities” than traditionally grown varieties.[7] He began conducting these experiments in 1878. He also conducted the first turf grass experiments at the college in 1880.[2]

Beal first visited the Michigan Agricultural college in 1870. He was to teach a botany class during the summer. At that time, Lansing had a population of 1,541 residents and the addition of a new hall on campus allowed the college to accept 150 students, up from the previous 82 student accommodation. He described the college as “young, poor, and small”. Due to a lack of faculty, Beal taught a wide range of subjects. In addition to teaching his passion of botany, he also taught English, history, and civil engineering.[8] His successor at the Michigan Agricultural College, P.G. Holden, is quoted as praising Beal’s work by saying “From his original experiment has come the Twentieth Century Miracle - hybrid corn.”[6]

Beal founded MSU's W. J. Beal Botanical Garden in 1877, making it the oldest continuously operated botanical garden in the United States.[2]

Beals work was inspired by many influential scientists of the late 19th century. He arrived at Harvard to complete an undergraduate degree a mere 3 years after Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. Emerson, Lowell, and Holmes were still writing and lecturing, and Thoreau was still alive. Beal heard all of them as a young student from Michigan. The groundbreaking research by Darwin and the writing of Emerson, Lowell, Holmes, and Thoreau were surely inspiration to a young Beal as he transitioned from studying at Harvard to conducting his research at the Michigan Agricultural College. Darwin’s research on inheritance especially seems to have influenced Beal’s development of hybrid corn.[6]

In 1887, he and Professor Rolla C. Carpenter created "Collegeville", the first neighborhood in what later became East Lansing.[3]

Germination experiment[edit]

In 1879 Beal started one of the longest running experiments in botany. He filled 20 bottles with a mixture of sand and seeds, with each bottle containing 50 seeds from 21 species of plant. Then the bottles were buried, their necks pointing down to exclude water. The goal of the experiment was to unearth one of the bottles every five years, plant the seeds, and observe the number that would sprout. Later caretakers extended the experiment by opening a bottle once every decade, and later, every two decades. The most recent bottle was unearthed in 2000, and 2 of the 21 plant species sprouted. The experiment is still running, with the bottles buried on the campus of Michigan State University, and the next bottle due to be tested in spring 2020.[9][10] The end of the study is due in 2100.[11][12][13][14][15]

Published works[edit]

He was the author of The New Botany (1882), Grasses of North America (1887), Seed Dispersal (1898) and History of Michigan Agricultural College (1915).[16]


Merely learning the name of a plant or parts of a plant can no longer be palmed off as valuable training.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Beal, William James (1915). History of the Michigan Agricultural College: And Biographical Sketches of Trustees and Professors. Agricultural college. p. 414.
  2. ^ a b c d Beard, J. B. (Summer 2017). "William J. beal: Pioneer applied botanical scientist and research society builder". Agronomy Journal. 100: S4–S10.
  3. ^ a b c d "MSU’S ICONIC PROFESSORS" by Bob Bao, MSU Alumni, Spring 2003
  4. ^ "Michigan Alumnus". 1909.
  5. ^ Dupree, A. Hunter (1988). Asa Gray, American Botanist, Friend of Darwin. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 384–385, 388. ISBN 978-0-801-83741-8.
  6. ^ a b c Fussell, Betty (1992). The Story of Corn. Alfred A. Knopf Inc.
  7. ^ Beal, William J. (Summer 2017). "Horticulture at the Agricultural College". Horticultural – via Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections.
  8. ^ Beal, William J. (Summer 2017). "Notes for Beal's History of M.A.C.". William J. Beal Papers – via Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections.
  9. ^ "Welcome to the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden – Research & Teaching". Michigan State University. Retrieved 2018-12-27.
  10. ^ Experiments That Keep Going And Going And Going
  11. ^ Beal, W. J. 1884. The vitality of seeds. Proc. Soc. Promot. Agric. Sci. 5:44-46.
  12. ^ Beal, W.J. 1905. The vitality of seeds. Bot. Gaz. 38:140-143.
  13. ^ Darlington, H.T. 1941. The sixty-year period for Dr. Beal's seed viability experiment. Am. J. Bot. 28:271-273.
  14. ^ Kivilaan, A. & Bandurski, R. S. 1981. The one hundred-year period for Dr. Beal's seed viability experiment. Am. J. Bot. 68:1290-1292.
  15. ^ Telewski, F. W. and Zeevaart, J. 2002. The 120th year of the Beal seed viability study. Am. J. Bot. 89(8): 1285-1288.
  16. ^ "William James Beal Works".
  17. ^ IPNI.  Beal.
  18. ^ "Life devoted to College is concluded: Teacher, scholar, philosopher, combined in qualities of Dr Beal" (PDF). The M.A.C. Record. 29 (30). May 19, 1924.

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