May 24, 2024

Kate Furbish: Self-taught field botanist and painter

Maine Women in History Rediscovering Their Lives and Legacies

Kate Furbish was born Catherine Furbish in Exeter, N.H., on May 19, 1834, to Benjamin and Mary Lane Furbish. When she was barely a year old, the family relocated to Brunswick, Maine, where she developed a passionate interest for wildflowers.

Like many young women of her time, Kate pursued a genteel education, which included painting and the study of French literature; she even spent a year in Paris perfecting her painting. In 1860, however, a serious interest for science gripped Furbish after she attended a series of botany lectures in Boston by George L. Goodale, later a professor of botany at Harvard.

Furbish did her part during the Civil War by rolling bandages, but most of Maine’s growing season found her in the fields and forests, looking for plants she had not drawn or cataloged.

The bulk of Furbish’s work of collecting, classifying and drawing the flora of Maine was done between 1870 and 1908. A self-taught field botanist of boundless energy, Furbish spent much of the rest of her long life immersed in work, often going alone on extensive and sometimes dangerous collecting trips throughout the state. By 1880 she had earned respect among well-known naturalists, including the eminent American botanist Asa Gray. In 1894, Furbish also helped to found the Josselyn Botanical Society of Maine and she served as president in 1911. She also published articles in American Naturalist.

In 1908, Furbish bequeathed her collection of paintings and drawings to Bowdoin College. She gave her more than 4,000 sheets of dried plant specimens to the New England Botanical Society. They are housed at the Gray Herbarium at Harvard. She died at age 97 on Dec. 6, 1931, the oldest resident of Brunswick at that time.

Her name gained fame in 1976 when the wild snapdragon, named the Furbish lousewort, was rediscovered after having been believed to be extinct. This discovery helped stall and eventually stop the building of the Dickey-Lincoln dam and reservoir on the St. John River. The dam would have flooded 88,000 acres of northern Maine forests.

By the early 1900s, Kate had amassed a collection of more than 4,000 plant specimens, and had produced more than 1,300 watercolors and sketches. Most of the watercolors were assembled in 14 bound volumes to form her “Flora of Maine,” which now resides in the Special Collections Department of the Bowdoin College Library.

Other items in the Bowdoin collection are correspondence, research materials such as flora identification notes and catalogs of Maine plants, herbaria, journals, manuscripts, artifacts, printed ephemera and images of Furbish and her botanical artwork. There are digital images, negatives, photographic transparencies, photographs, slides and microfilm. There also are some journals from May 19, 1873, to Oct. 2, 1877.

Kate’s brother, John, was the principal founder of the Pejepscot Historical Society.

Sources: Courtesy of the Kate Furbish Collection, George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick; Maine Historical Society’s online museum Maine Memory Network; and “More Than Petticoats: Maine’s Remarkable Women,” by Kate Kennedy, The Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Conn., 2005.

Maine’s history is full of female pioneers who blazed a path for the women of today. The Bangor Daily News, in cooperation with the Maine Historical Society’s online museum Maine Memory Network, the Maine FolkLife Center and others, will highlight a different woman each day throughout March. If you are just joining us for this series, you may find the installments you have missed at Photo (right) from the collections of Pejepscot Historical Society. This image and thousands of others spanning Maine history are on Maine Memory Network (, Maine’s digital museum developed by the Maine Historical Society.

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What to do …

“A Gift of Flowers: An Exhibition of Floral Images from Special Collections Commemorating the Centennial of Kate Furbish’s ‘Flora of Maine.'”

When: Through June 1.

Where: Hawthorne-Longfellow Library, second floor gallery,

Bowdoin College, Brunswick.

Background: In 1908, self-taught botanist and painter Kate Furbish completed her monumental “Flora of Maine,” a lifelong project depicting the flowering plants then known to grow in Maine, and presented her work to Bowdoin College. “Flora of Maine” consists of 1,326 watercolors and pencil sketches, assembled in 14 half-morocco volumes and arranged by plant families; two additional volumes concern mushrooms. In celebration of the centennial of that gift, the library is exhibiting some watercolor paintings. In addition to Furbish’s paintings, this exhibit also offers examples of the ways illustrators, authors, book designers and bookbinders have featured flowers from the Middle Ages until the present day.

For information: Call 725-3288.

Courtesy of George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives, Bowdoin College, Brunswick

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