Mary Gibson Henry’s Extraordinary Botanical Collection Digitized

The Academy is full of specimens collected by phenomenal contributors to scientific knowledge. Both a local gardener and innovative botantist, Mary Gibson Henry undoubtedly shaped the field with her explorations and perspectives.

As it was time to shed new light on her amazing collection and why we digitized it, we reached out to Scott Beadenkopf, an alum of Drexel University’s Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science Department and current volunteer within the Botany Collection, to learn more.

Tell us about yourself. 

I retired from Drexel University Information Technology in 2017. I had a satisfying career working with faculty in higher education, developing and supporting computer-based and online learning tools, ranging from medical interactive videodiscs to a course in online teaching for faculty.  

After retirement, I volunteered with Natural Lands as a gardener, photographer and printer, and became passionate about the protection and restoration of natural systems. I returned to school in Drexel’s Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science Department, getting a master’s degree in environmental science in 2021. I wanted to learn more about plants, though, and was excited to hear that one of my BEES friends and the Manager of the Botany Collection at the Academy, Chelsea Smith, was overseeing a project to digitize the Mary Gibson Henry Collection.  

I had discovered the Henry Botanic Garden in Gladwyne just a year or two before — I had been poring over Google Maps, looking for hiking trails from Natural Lands’ Saunders Woods Preserve to the Schuylkill River, when I came across the unfamiliar garden. I arranged a visit and was intrigued by Henry’s story and her vision. I asked if I could help digitize the Henry Collection, as a volunteer, and was thrilled when the Academy said yes. 

Who was Mary Gibson Henry? 

Mary Gibson Henry was an amateur botanist, continuing the tradition of eminent amateurs in the field. She was a lifelong gardener, the wife of a physician and mother of six children and perhaps dived into botany following the death of her youngest child.  

She was noted for her multiple botanical expeditions to northern British Columbia between 1931 and 1935, but her more important work was the cultivation and promotion of native plants from the southeast United States as ornamental species for gardens in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

She was an avid and curious gardener, and experimented with different growing techniques. Her Gladwyne property became a showplace for southeastern plants at the northern edge of their range, and in 1949, she created the Henry Foundation for Botanical Research to ensure that the garden could persist as a place of living and learning.  

She was ahead of her time in championing native plants, and her incredible research with southern species has taken on added importance in our warming climate. 

What goes into this digitization project?

I was attracted to the digitization project because of my experience with photography and my interest in plants. When I took up the task, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Academy had a thoroughly documented process and setup for photographing its specimens, so that people with little photographic or botanical knowledge could be trained to cycle specimens through a lightbox and then transcribe the specimen labels into the online database. 

The Herbarium at the Academy contains over 1.4 million specimens. Most of these are plants that have been pressed and dried and fastened to large sheets of stiff, acid-free paper. Over 500,000 specimens have been photographed and entered digitally into the Middle Atlantic Herbarium Consortium online database, where researchers and interested folks from around the world can find and view them.   

However, that still leaves hundreds of thousands specimens that can only be viewed by combing through a hallway of steel cabinets, searching for the family, genus and species folder from the desired geographical area, then leafing through the sheets in the folder. This is why we digitize them. 

Many historically and scientifically important collections have been digitized, and the Henry Foundation was eager to see Henry’s specimens also become available online. All of her approximately 7,000 specimens have now been photographed, and more than 2,300 of them have been entered into the database and can be viewed online. 

Why is the Mary Gibson Henry Collection important? 

Henry’s collection is important both for historical study and for its contribution to botanical research. As part of the larger collection, it adds crucial data to fill in a timeline of species and ecosystem composition in the 1930s and 1940s. In conjunction with other specimens from the 17th and 18th centuries through today, researchers can explore questions related to evolution, climate, human impacts on the environment, the appearance of and impact of exotic species and other matters that we cannot yet predict.  

Having Mary Gibson Henry’s specimens indexed in an online database also gives us the ability to massage the data and utilize it in novel ways. Using georeferenced information derived from the specimen labels, geographical information software will enable us to generate interactive maps of Henry’s journeys, species occurrence maps and even animations of these trends over time.  

Henry played an active role in advancing botanical knowledge during a time when many of her peers were focused on other things. I am so glad that this work can also be used to tell her story. 


  1. She is such a talented and passionate person. She deserves to be recognized and it is wonderful for me to read this article, and get to know such a wonderful person.

  2. It is wonderful that you have found such a engrossing and fulfilling second vocation in retirement! And it sounds like your previous training made you the perfect person to digitize this important collection.

  3. Scott has a perfect match of interests, talents, background, and skills for this project. Keep on “digitizing!”

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