Middle Tennessee lost a trailblazing woman this week. Elsie Quarterman began working at Vanderbilt as a lab assistant during World War II; roughly twenty years later, she was head of the biology studies–the university’s first female department chair. But her greatest legacy is in the small forest clearings she studied and preserved.
Cedar glades are places where the limestone bedrock is barely covered with a very thin layer of soil. Most plants and trees can’t grow there. But many of those that do are unusual species found nowhere else on earth. Elsie Quarterman loved them, calling them “flower gardens par excellence.”
Quarterman always loved plants. As a child in Valdosta, Ga., she and her mother passed the time by walking through the woods with her mother and trying to identify the things growing there. After a few years teaching English, she decided to make a profession of her hobby, going back to school to study botany and ecology. It was in the 1940s, while trying to decide on a doctoral dissertation topic, that a professor first took her to see the unusual blooms in a cedar glade near Lebanon.
Quarterman recalled that outing in 2008: “He said the taxonomists have been beating trails into those places all these years just studying individual plants. Somebody needs to study the ecology of them.”
For the rest of her career, Quarterman did exactly that—and encouraged her graduate students to do the same. Under her supervision, they dug in the soil and counted plants. Dr. Carol Baskin, now at the University of Kentucky recalled that Quarterman wanted their hands and eyes out in the glades as much as possible, even to the point of letting Baskin use her car to for day trips the glades, even those outside of Tennessee.
The end result was not just an understanding of the small, unique habitats. Quarterman set the groundwork for preserving them from encroaching development and worked with conservation groups to make sure that happened.
She also acted as a guardian for the species unique to the glades, like the Tennessee coneflower—thought to be extinct until Quarterman drove by a trailer park in LaVergne and spotted a bloom poking out of the gravel. Quarterman took it home and managed to propagate more flowers. She helped secure endangered status for the species. The efforts she began to reintroduce the flower to the glades was successful enough that the flower was delisted in 2011.
Former State Naturalist Mack Prichard worked hand in hand with Quarterman on a variety of preservation efforts—including work to add Radnor Lake and Savage Gulf to the state park system. In talking about his friend, he keeps coming back to one word: delightful. He jokes that she was “the only woman who ever made me wish I was 30 years older.”
Elsie Quarterman had a late celebration of her 103rd birthday last month near the glade where she began her research. Just last week, she was wheeled outside to take a look at the blooms near her house–including the Tennessee coneflower. She died at home on Monday, with family by her side.