A Professor for All Seasons: Aven Nelson

What would you call someone who taught botany, zoology, physiology, hygiene, geography, and calisthenics at UW in 1887?  A jack-of-all-trades?  A renaissance man? 

The latter seems an apt description, because the man who was one of  UW’s first five faculty members had expected to teach literature and English.

But when Prof. Aven Nelson arrived in Laramie, he discovered that of the five, another preferred to teach English.  Nelson demonstrated his flexibility by agreeing to teach all the subjects for which there was no instructor.  He also served as UW’s first librarian. His annual salary was $1,500, and his first paycheck, signed by J.W. Finfrock, UW Board of Trustees President, was for $125.

Wyoming was a territory then, and all UW classes were in newly-built Old Main.  Nelson quickly found his true calling in botany.  He was a dedicated collector of Rocky Mountain plants. He founded the Rocky Mountain Herbarium in 1899, which used his plant specimens as the nucleus.  He wrote two books on plants and authored over 100 scientific papers during his career.   In 1904, after 15 years of teaching and plant collecting, he received a Ph D from the University of Denver, based on 36 botanical papers that he had published.

Nelson was born in 1859, in the southeastern Iowa Quaker settlement of Summitville.  His parents were Norwegian emigrants; he was the youngest of four children.  He graduated from Missouri State Normal School in Kirksville, and became a science and English instructor at Drury College in Springfield, Missouri.  Later he became the superintendent of schools in Ferguson, Missouri.

He was 28 and married when he came to Laramie in 1887 to begin the career that would eventually lead to roles in UW higher administration as vice-president, acting president and president.  In 1922 he stepped down as UW president at age 63, and continued his research on Rocky Mountain plants.  He also became head of the Botany Department again, though he retired from active teaching in 1931. 

Even after Nelson retired, he received an annual salary from UW of $3,000 because pensions for retirees were not allowed by the State of Wyoming until 1944.  In 1931, at the age of 72, Nelson, who became a widower in 1929, married Ruth Ashton, 37 years his junior and an active botanist in her own right.    

Nelson was a champion of education, libraries, and tree-planting.  From 1903 to 1906 he was on the commission to secure funding and oversee construction of Laramie’s Carnegie Library.  He dabbled in real estate by commissioning a number of homes and apartment buildings.  One Nelson house is at 402 South 11th Street, still with the evergreen trees that Nelson planted in 1906.  Nelson also commissioned a house at 816 Fremont in 1925, designed as a duplex.

He died in 1952 at the age of 93 and is buried in Greenhill Cemetery.  His legacy is preserved through the renaming of UW’s original library building as the Aven Nelson Memorial Building.  That building is now home to the Botany Department and the Rocky Mountain Herbarium, which has over one million pressed plants.  Information about its specimens is available at the Herbarium website.  His personal papers, starting with those from 1870, are archived at the American Heritage Center. 

In 1984, “Aven Nelson of Wyoming” was published, written by UW History professor Roger Williams. This biography is available at the UW and Albany County Public Libraries. This book is also an excellent resource on the spirit of the times from 1887 through the 1930s in Laramie and at UW, through the life and times of this extraordinary man. 

By Judy Knight

Caption:  Left, UW Botanist Aven Nelson, c. 1926, in front of newly-constructed College of Engineering building, which for a time was where his Rocky Mountain Herbarium was housed.  Others left to right are UW Botany Professor Dr. Edwin Payson, an unidentified woman, and George Goodwin, a UW freshman, at the wheel of his homemade car (note the quite literal “bucket seats”).  Payson’s untimely death at the age of 34 the next year meant that Nelson, nearing age 70, had to continue as Botany Department Head long after stepping down as UW President.   Photo Courtesy Laramie Plains Museum.