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Illuminating the Study of Life

Berkeley’s extensive biodiversity collections and facilities enable world-class research, teaching, and outreach in the biological and environmental sciences. And almost since the university’s founding, private support has helped foster Berkeley’s excellence in these critical areas of study.

In 1906, a young Oakland woman who felt passionately that California’s big bears and other representative species should be preserved decided to do something about it. For three straight summers, Annie Montague Alexander journeyed to Alaska and secured the big bear specimens that became the nucleus of Berkeley’s encyclopedic collections. She instigated the creation of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology when she wrote President Wheeler and told him that if he would provide a small building to work in, she would take care of everything else. Wheeler accepted, and the cornerstone for Berkeley’s excellence in biology was laid.

Alexander and her lifelong partner, Louise Kellogg, Class of 1901, traveled the globe gathering more than 24,000 specimens for the university’s collections. Her legacy is even more far-reaching through the scholarship she made possible. She handpicked Joseph P. Grinnell to be the first director of the new museum, and for nearly 30 years he trained generations of biologists who have shaped the development of vertebrate systematic, ecological, and evolutionary science. Grinnell’s own legacy lives on today — a century after his research from 1911–20 on Yosemite’s small mammals. Berkeley researchers replicated the project and found that the animals now live 500 meters higher, a discovery that is consistent with data that shows the area’s minimum temperatures are 3 degrees warmer than they were in Grinnell’s time.

More recently, Paul C. Silva Ph.D. ’51 — an internationally known expert in marine algae — endowed a fund to support the curatorship of the Center for Phycological Documentation in the University Herbarium. The center houses one of the world’s largest collections of phycological literature and unique files of nomenclatural, bibliographic, and biographical data, which he began compiling in 1950. Silva’s partner, the late Lawrence R. Heckard Ph.D. ’56, the former curator of Cal’s Jepson Herbarium, endowed a fund that provides grants for the study of vascular plants in California and other areas of North America.

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