Harry E. Ahles

picture of Harry

Harry Ahles was among the last botanists to gain his position through pure knowledge of plants rather than through the usual system of academic advancement. He gained his first professional position as herbarium curator at the University of Illinois, with only a high school diploma (and a recently acquired one at that). Oswald Tippo, in his obituary of Ahles (Bull. Torrey Bot. Club 109(1): 84-6), tells a story of how Ahles was confronted by the police while collecting weeds in New York City (he was serving as a gardener at the New York Botanical Garden). When the officers realized that he was a botanist, they took him to a plot of alleged "tomatoes" which Harry determined to be marijuana. His unusual "field work" in the city resulted in a publication: "Interesting Weeds of New York City" (Bull. Torrey Bot. Club 78: 266-274).

Ahles served as herbarium curator at UNC Chapel Hill for ten years, having followed Ritchie Bell to North Carolina to work on a major floristic study of that state. This work resulted in the Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas(UNC Press, 1964), which still serves as the primary flora of this area and as the basic text for students of systematic botany at UNC. During his years at UNC, Ahles added over 200,000 plant specimens to the herbarium. Similar vast gains in the collection were made while he occupied his later position at Amherst. Ahles's departure from UNC was unusual, to say the least. According to Tippo, who he contacted about the possibility of a job at the University of Massachusetts, Ahles left UNC because they had provided the herbarium with air conditioning and "I will not work in an air-conditioned laboratory." His love of nature and his dislike of modern "conveniences" was also evident in his choice of residence. While at Amherst, he lived in a log cabin which he built on the top of Horse Mountain. His only companion was his dog, Montana.

Below are photographs of a specimen of Eryngium yuccifolium collected by Ahles and a picture of Ahles himself at work. (There are few surviving pictures of him, as he was not fond of the camera.) The specimen image may be clicked on to view a larger version.


Shown below are the cover of a memorial volume from the Department of Botany at the University of Massachusetts as well as a letter from Ahles to Ritchie Bell. The letter may be clicked on to view a larger image.

The memorial volume is composed of Oswald Tippo's article which appeared in Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, as well as remembrances by Joe Pratt (a student of Ahles) and a collection of quotes from students at Amherst regarding Ahles as a teacher, assembled by Susanna Von Oettingen. Despite his shyness, he was very popular with students. Some quotations from the "Remembrances" are given below.

"He had the keenest eye of any individual, Professional botanist or otherwise that I've ever met."—Albert Radford

"He shared his knowledge of Plant material in a selfless and inspiring way; in brief, he was a great teacher and a great man."—Joe Pratt

"I have never known a more intelligent and enthusiastic naturalist than Harry. He had a special way of expressing his vast knowledge; a shy modest manner."—Sharyn Goldstein

"To us, he was a teacher not only of plants, but of life. He captivated us so, and we wanted to 'grow up' to be just like Harry."—Tom Rawinski

The materials used for this page are housed in the archives of the UNC Herbarium and are used with permission. Other materials of interest are located in the papers of the UNC Botany Department in the University Archives.


This page was constructed by Ron Gilmour with the assistance of Mr. Bill Burk, Mrs. Mary Felton, Dr. Jim Massey, and Mr. Jim Murphy. Additional information and corrections are welcome. Please email Ron Gilmour at gilmr@cnsvax.albany.edu.