Mary Gibson Henry

August 15, 1884 - April 1967

Mary Gibson Henry was born on August 15, 1884 in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania and was raised by a family who were deeply invested in horticulture and nature. Her great grandfather, George Pepper, was a member of the first Council of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and owned the first greenhouse in Philadelphia. Mary’s grandfather also owned a greenhouse In Philadelphia. Mary’s father was an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed hunting, camping, and was always fascinated by Mary’s interests of nature. Mary’s mother was from a family of Quakers that had come from England along with William Penn, and was part of the founding of Philadelphia.

Gibson was a self-taught field botanist and horticulturalist with an international reputation. Her formal education ended upon graduating from Agnes Irwin School in Philadelphia in 1902. Her love of nature was electrified in 1908 during a family vacation to the Grand Canyon, the Colorado Rockies and on a trip to Europe where Mary and her brother climbed Mont Blanc with several guides.

In 1909, Gibson married Dr. John Norman Henry and together they raised five children. As her children were growing up, Mary invested her time reading about botany and horticulture. She developed a large garden within her kitchen where she experimented with native rock plants growing on the family’s property, and cultivated orchids in a small greenhouse kept at her family’s estate in Philadelphia.

The Henry Family moved to Gladwyne, Pennsylvania in 1926 where they purchased a 95-acre farm. After twenty years of marriage, Mary began her career as a field botanist. Over the next forty years, Mary went on over 200 botanical expeditions where she collected and donated floral specimens to the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh and the Academy of the Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. On her expedition she also explored the Atlantic Coastal Plain, the Piedmont Plateau, and the Appalachian Mountains.

In the 1930s, Mary made four trips into the uncharted parts of British Columbia. She was accompanied by Canadian government topographer K.F. McCusker. Mary’s family followed her for the first expedition but only her daughter, Josephine, continued with the other three expeditions. During one expedition, Mary and her Daughter were held up by three armed men, but escaped unharmed. Her 1935 expedition in British Columbia formed the foundation for the planning of the Alcan Highway. To commemorate Mary’s excellent work throughout British Columbia, the Department of Lands of British Columbia named a mountain, Mount Mary Henry, in her honor.

Back at her home in Gladwyne, Mary developed hundreds of hybrids in her garden from the seeds and cuttings she brought back from her trips. After her husband’s death in 1938, Mary focused on expanding her garden, and offered her plants to nurseries for distribution.

Mary Gibson Henry’s life was one full of achievements. Throughout her career, Mary wrote over one hundred published articles on horticulture and botany, and gave many lectures in the United States, and others overseas. She was president of the Philadelphia Botanical Club, council member of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and director of the American Horticultural Society. In 1941 she became a research associate in the department of botany at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia. In the same year, Mary was awarded the Schaffer Gold medal from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society for her “notable contribution to horticulture” She was also named an honorary fellow of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh. In 1950, Mary transformed her home in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania into the Henry Foundation for Botanical Research. The foundation includes the specimens collected by Mary from her expeditions, and displays dozens of species and hybrids discovered, introduced, or named by Mary. Mary Gibson Henry passed away during a collecting trip in North Carolina on April of 1967 at 82 years of age.