The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Macbride, Thomas Huston
(July 31, 1848–March 27, 1934)

—botanist, conservationist, historical writer, educator, and president of the State University of Iowa—was born Thomas Huston McBride in Rogersville, Tennessee, the oldest of six children of Rev. James Bovard McBride and Sarah (Huston) McBride. (By 1895 McBride had restored the spelling of his last name to its earlier Scottish form, Macbride.) The elder McBride, an ordained Presbyterian minister, served a rural congregation in eastern Tennessee in 1847, but when his antislavery pronouncements from the pulpit drew angry opposition from many parishioners, he moved his family to Iowa. By 1857 Rev. McBride was preaching at New London in southeastern Iowa and, for the remainder of his life, served various churches in the state.

    As a child, Thomas Macbride enjoyed reading and took part in the chores of farm work: wood chopping and, later, lathing and carpentry work. While in his teens he attended Lenox College in Hopkinton, Iowa, where he met Samuel Calvin, a natural science instructor at the college who, like Macbride, was destined to later join the faculty at the state's university in Iowa City. In the years to follow, the two collaborated on numerous botanical studies with an emphasis on the prairie. In 1869 Macbride, at age 21, graduated with a B.A. from Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. The following year he joined that school's faculty as an instructor in mathematics and modern languages. In 1874 he received an M.A. from the same institution. On December 31, 1875, he married Harriet Diffenderfer, a student at the college, and they had four children.

    Calvin, by that time a professor of natural science at the State University of Iowa, continued to work with Macbride on field studies during the summer months and, in 1878, hired Macbride as an assistant professor of natural science. Macbride rose to the rank of professor by 1883. In 1902 he was named head of the university's Department of Botany and served as secretary of the faculty from 1887 to 1893. In 1914, following the resignation of university president John G. Bowman, Macbride was named acting president, a position that became permanent several months later. He retired from university service in 1916. The Hall of Natural Science, a building constructed in 1904 near Old Capitol on the central campus, was renamed in his honor following his death in 1934.

    Macbride's academic interests included languages, mathematics, and the physical sciences, but it was his love for botany that defined his scholarly work. He established himself as an authority on fungi with his 1899 book, North American Slime Moulds, a work that became a standard text in many college classrooms. He also contributed articles to numerous popular and scholarly publications and in 1928 published a personal memoir, In Cabins and Sod-Houses. In addition to his teaching and administrative duties, Macbride was largely responsible for the early development of the university extension program; he lectured in many Iowa towns and promoted the concept of the university as a public service to benefit the citizens of the state.

    Outside the university, Macbride contributed to the growing professionalization in the field of botanical studies. He served as vice president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, chairing its botany section, and was president of the Iowa Academy of Science. His other professional memberships included the American Forestry Association, the National Conservation Association, and the Botany Society of America, and he was a fellow of the Geological Society of America. Macbride chaired the Iowa Forestry Commission, served on the State Conservation Commission, and contributed extensively to the Iowa Geological Survey's projects and publications. While working with the Geological Survey, Macbride traveled around the state, notably the Okoboji Lakes region in northwestern Iowa, where in 1909 he established the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory, a five-acre tract on Miller's Bay, West Okoboji Lake. The laboratory, coupled with the campus's facilities in Iowa City, provided an opportunity for scholars to examine botanical issues relating to agriculture and plant diseases, in addition to studies of wetlands and prairie.

    Macbride's love for the outdoors and its preservation inspired him to become the first president of the Iowa Park and Forestry Association, organized in 1901. With great passion, he promoted the development of state and local parks, including the lake and park that bear his name in Johnson County, north of Iowa City.

    Following his retirement from the university in 1916, Thomas and Harriet Macbride moved to Seattle, where they could be near their son, Philip D. Macbride, and their daughter, Jean Macbride. (Two other daughters–Elizabeth and Ruth–died in infancy.) Harriet Macbride died on May 28, 1927; the following year, Thomas returned to Iowa City to be recognized for his 50 years of service to the university with an honorary LL.D. He died in Seattle at age 85.
Sources Macbride's correspondence and other personal papers are in the University Archives, Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. His memoir On the Campus was published in 1916 and reprinted in 1925; In Cabins and Sod-Houses appeared in 1928. See also Mary Winifred Conklin, "The History of the State University of Iowa: Thomas Huston Macbride" (master's thesis, State University of Iowa, 1945); Mary Winifred Conklin Schertz and Walter L. Myers, Thomas Huston Macbride (1947); and Stow Persons, The University of Iowa in the Twentieth Century: An Institutional History (1990). For Macbride's contributions to the state's conservation movement, see Rebecca Conard, Places of Quiet Beauty: Parks, Preserves, and Environmentalism (1997).
Contributor: David Mccartney