Kate Furbish and her Drakes Island legacy

With practiced botanical eye she roamed

With practiced botanical eye she roamed

Frequent Drakes Island boarder, Kate Furbish, was no shrinking violet. The single-minded way she pursued her study of native Maine plants, raised eyebrows. Mucking about in the swamp for hours without the benefit of male protection was not considered appropriate behavior for a Victorian lady but she was not to be dissuaded from her solitary endeavor.  After being cajoled to allow an elderly gentleman to accompany her for a day of field work, she vented in her diary. “Tis talk, talk, talk, while I want to see, see, see. I am going to see and think for, and by myself, having proved that a day amounts to more spent alone.” 

Catherine Furbish was born May 19, 1834 in Exeter, NH, to Benjamin Furbish and his wife Mary A. Lane.  When she was still an infant the family moved to Brunswick, ME where she would reside until her passing in 1931.   

Benjamin Furbish, a native of Wells, Maine, shared his love of nature with his only daughter on long walks in the woods studying native Maine plants. He sent her to finishing school and paid an extra dollar to ensure that she be taught Latin. He was determined she should develop to her full intellectual potential, in spite of her sex. Benjamin had inherited an independent spirit and respect for education from his own father, Dr. Joshua Furbish of Wells. 

Dr. Furbish, born lame, was provided with a good education to help him compensate for his limited physical capacity. He became a renaissance man, excelling in Latin and mathematics far beyond his education. In addition to being a successful cobbler, he was a self-taught inventor with remarkable mechanical gifts. He taught the young mariners of Wells to navigate even though his own mobility was challenged. Joshua also taught himself to play the organ and built two organs for the First Unitarian Universalist Parish in Kennebunk.        

Like her paternal grandfather, Kate Furbish never allowed perceived frailties to dictate her fate.  In 1860 she attended a botany lecture series in Boston presented by George L. Goodale, of Saco, who would later accept professorships at Bowdoin College and Harvard. The two became lifelong friends and Kate was inspired to pursue her interest in botany. Goodale was in the process of classifying all of Maine’s known flowering plants when she met him. His collection of specimens was housed at the Portland Museum of Natural History in a building that burned to the ground in 1866, destroying years of his research.  

After the fire, Kate’s work took on a new vigor and purpose. She worked in every county in the State of Maine, collecting thousands of plant specimens and drawing the four stages of their development; the embryo, the bud, the flower or fruit and the seed pod. She would then reproduce their colors with water-based paint. The plants she collected wilted quickly so she often painted them in the field where they grew and had to work late into the night to capture their peculiarities. In spite of her amateur status, Kate Furbish established a reputation by identifying previously undiscovered varieties that were confirmed by professionals at Harvard and Bowdoin College. At least two varieties were subsequently named after her; Pedicularis Furbishiae and Aster Cordifolius L., var. Furbishiae. 

Many of her happiest hours were spent in the marshes of Wells, Maine. Among the flowers she collected there while visiting her cousins at Eatoncroft on Drakes Island were; Slender Blue Flag irises, pure white Myosotis Collina, Arenaria Peploides a member of the Pink family, and Baptisia Tinctoria, a yellow false indigo that her friend at Harvard had never found in Maine. The same plant was later discovered in Alfred and thought to have been introduced there by the Shakers as a medicinal plant. 

Kate donated her life’s work to the Harvard Botanical Museum and Bowdoin College Library in 1908.  In a letter to William DeWitt Hyde at Bowdoin, she wrote, “I have wandered alone for the most part, on the highways and in the hedges, on foot, in hayracks, on country mail-stages, (often in Aroostook Co., with a revolver on the seat) on improvised rafts,… in row-boats, on logs, crawling on hands and knees on the surface of bogs, and backing out, when I dared not walk, in order to procure a coveted treasure. Called ‘crazy,’ a ‘fool,’ and this is the way that my work has been done.  The flowers being my only society and the manuals the only literature for months together. Happy, happy hours!” 

Kate Furbish, the amateur, is to this day respected by professional Botanists for her scientific contributions. Unlike the professionals, she had the luxury to concentrate on her field work without administrative distractions. In the 1800s the word “amateur” had a less diminishing connotation than it does today. Rather than implying someone “less qualified than a professional” an amateur was one who required no financial reward for a devoted pursuit; a self-taught, heart-follower. This was an apt description of Kate.

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