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COLLECTION Identifier: gra00045

James Watson Robbins papers

Scope and Content

The Robbins papers contain correspondence and manuscripts. There are approximately 145 letters from 34 correspondents, dated 1828-1880 (bulk 1863-1868). Content is primarily botanical and many bear notations indicating the content of Robbins’s replies. Correspondence has been arranged alphabetically by sender and then chronologically. Major correspondents are Thomas Conrad Porter (21 letters) and Edward Tuckerman (26 letters).

Manuscript material consists of five small booklets. Four deal with the genus Potamogeton and one contains corrections and notes on Alphonso Wood’s “A Class-book of Botany” from 1851.


  • 1828-1880
  • Majority of material found within 1863-1868


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is available by appointment for research. Researchers must register and provide valid photo identification. Please contact for additional information.


0.25 linear feet (21 folders)


James Watson Robbins was born in Colebrook, Connecticut on November 18, 1801, to Ammi and Salome Robbins. He received a B.A. from Yale University in 1822 and taught for a few years before returning to Yale to study medicine. He completed an M.D. in 1828 and spent the following year collecting specimens around New England for William Oakes. Robbins went into practice in Uxbridge, Massachusetts in 1830 and continued to devote his free time to collecting.

In 1859 Robbins moved to Michigan. He spent four years there and mounted a three-month expedition down the Mississippi River from Michigan to New Orleans and then on to Cuba. He returned to his medical practice in Uxbridge and remained there until his death on January 9, 1879.

Robbins’s major focus was aquatic phanerogamic plants, particularly the genus Potamogeton. He was a mentor to Thomas Morong, who carried on his studies into Potamogeton and Najadaceae. Several species are named in his honor, including Potamogeton robbinsii, named by Asa Gray.


Burrage WL. 1920. Robbins, James Watson (1801-1879). In: Kelly HA, Burrage WL. American Medical Biographies. 984. Baltimore (MD): The Norman, Remington Company.

Gray, A. 1879. James Watson Robbins. Amer. J. Sci. Arts. 17(98):180.


Robbins likely left some of his papers to Morong along with his Potamogeton and Najadaceae collections. Evidence has been found in the archives suggesting Morong may have given these and his own papers to Walter Deane before traveling to South America. A note stating "Letters given me by Dr. Thomas Morong just before sailing for South America" in what appears to be Deane’s handwriting was found with several letters to Morong from Timothy Field Allen. Additionally, a set of picture postcards collected for Walter Deane was found with Morong’s papers in the Gray Herbarium and did not appear to belong to the collection.

Walter Deane gave his papers to the Gray Herbarium in several gifts. According to records found in Walter Deane's papers, he gave correspondence from Robbins and Morong to the Gray Herbarium on 25 October 1918. The correspondence and four of the manuscripts in this collection may have been included in this gift.

The manuscript “Potamogetons of California” was likely sent by Robbins to Sereno Watson when Watson was preparing his “Botany of California” and remained at the Gray Herbarium after Watson’s death in 1892.

This collection may also shed light on the provenance of the William Oakes collection of letters to James Watson Robbins. Robbins may have left his correspondence to Morong. In a letter to Morong dated 7 May 1885, Deane wrote, "Did you say that sometime you could give me a letter from Oakes? How pleased I should be." This suggests that Morong was in possession of correspondence from William Oakes. However, it is possible that Morong intended to give Deane an Oakes letter from his own correspondence.

Related Materials

Other related material at the Botany Libraries, Harvard University Herbaria: Asa Gray correspondence files, 1832-1892; Field notes and plant identification records, approximately 1804-2000; Thomas Morong correspondence; William Oakes letters to James Watson Robbins.

Processing Information

Processed by Lynn McWhood

Robbins, James Watson, 1801-1879. James Watson Robbins papers, 1828-1880, bulk 1863-1868: A Guide.
Botany Libraries, Gray Herbarium Library, Harvard University.
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Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Botany Libraries, Gray Herbarium Library, Harvard University Repository

The Harvard University Herbaria houses five research libraries that are managed collectively as the Botany Libraries. The Gray Herbarium Library specializes in the identification and classification of New World plants with emphasis on North American plants. The Archives of the Gray Herbarium houses unique resources including personal papers, institutional records, field notes and plant lists, expedition records, photographs, original artwork, and objects from faculty, curators, staff, and affiliates of the Gray Herbarium.

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