The botanist who gave his name to the botany building, the arboretum, and the now-almost-destroyed bit of woods between the botany building and the bell tower was born in Hartsville, South Carolina on October 24, 1872. His father was Major James Lide Coker, an educational reformer who helped to found the South Carolina public school system and the Coker College for Women in Hartsville. His mother was Susan Armstrong Stout.
Coker received his undergraduate education at the University of South Carolina and his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, working as the first student of Duncan S. Johnson, in 1901. In 1902 he came to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as an associate professor. By 1908 he was a full professor and chairman of the newly established Botany Department, located in Davie Hall (now home to the Psychology Department). He had also begun the planting of the Coker Arboretum.
Coker's research interests were far-ranging. His Ph.D. research concerned the embryogeny of Taxodium (bald cypress). He continued this type of work for a short time, investigating embryogeny and seed-formation in the gymnospermous genera Podocarpus and Cephalotaxus. He was also interested in the woody flora of the Southeast, not only in an academic sense, but also for purposes of landscape design. Other topics of inquiry included bryophytes, filmy ferns, the teaching of science, and the biography of Southeastern botanist.
But Coker's first love was mycology, and the bulk of his publications (137 in his fifty-one year career at UNC!) are devoted to the fungi. His most noted achievement is probably his research on the Saprolegniaceae, a group of water molds. This group was also the subject of one of Coker's few independent books.
Pinus glauca (Walter's pine);
one of the oldest trees in the Coker Arboretum.
Besides his scientific research, Coker also continued his father's interest in education, founding the Bureau of Design and Improvement of School Grounds. This group was especially concerned with the beautification of school grounds through planting. UNC's campus benefited tremendously from Coker's landscaping skills as he served for thirty years on the Building and Grounds committee.
Finally, Coker was known for his love of teaching. He was known for a spontaneous teaching style with an emphasis on field trips and abundant fresh material for students to examine. In a paper published just after Coker's death (June 27, 1953), his students John N. Couch and Velma D. Matthews wrote that "to a remarkable degree, he had the rare ability to stimulate the student to want to find out more for himself and to believe in the importance of what he was doing, if it added to knowledge." Coker had also been known to financially assist needy graduate students and to contribute from his own pocket to the collections of the UNC Botany Library (later named after his student, John Couch). The current strength of both this library and the herbarium owes much to Coker's labors.
Below are a specimen of Smilax hispida Muhl. collected by Coker and two specimens of his handwriting. The specimens may be clicked upon to obtain larger images. The writing samples represent a letter to L. H. Bailey at Cornell, written in Coker's more legible hand and notes taken from Theophrastus' Enquiry into Plants.
The manuscript materials on this page are from the archives of the Herbarium at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and are used with permission. Further materials are located in the Coker papers in the Southern Historical Collection, Manuscript Department, Wilson Library, and in the papers of the UNC Botany Department.
Coker's writings are extremely numerous, consisting largely of papers printed in the Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society and Mycologia. These writings are listed in Couch and Matthews' article in Mycologia vol. 46, pp. 372-383. A few of Coker's seminal works are listed below.
Coker, William Chambers. 1923. The Saprolegniaceae, with notes on other water molds. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Coker, William Chambers. 1923. Clavarias of the United States and Canada. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Coker, William Chambers & Henry Roland Totten. 1934. Trees of the southeastern states, including Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Northern Florida. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Coker, William Chambers & Alma Holland Beers. 1951. The stipitate hydnums of the eastern United States. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
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 email@example.com.