Thomas Harbison historical marker

Thomas Harbison 1862-1936 (Q-55)

Botanist and educator. Pioneer in the study of flora, southeastern U.S. Highlands his base after 1886; taught here.

Location: US 64 (North Fourth Street) in Highlands
County: Macon
Original Date Cast: 2003

Thomas Grant Harbison (1862-1936) studied the flora of his native Pennsylvania before heading south in 1886 on a walking trip to North Carolina. He was smitten with the natural beauty of the mountains and their abundant plant life. At Highlands he accepted a position as principal at Highlands Academy in August 1886. His education was unconventional. Through correspondence courses offered by the University of the City of New York, he earned a B.S. and an A.M. and a Ph.D. from the National University (Chicago) in 1888. He boasted an extensive personal library and was largely self-taught. In 1896 he married Jessamine Cobb.

In 1897 George W. Vanderbilt employed Harbison as collector of plants for a herbarium at Biltmore, a post he held until the herbarium closed in 1903. Bringing specimens home from travels nationwide, he published his findings. Upon Vanderbilt’s death, his widow donated the collection to the National Herbarium in Washington, D.C. In 1905, Harbison began two decades of work for Harvard University as a field botanist for Arnold Arboretum. Once again, he traveled extensively between 1905 and 1926, preparing a revision of Sargent’s manual on trees.

Harbison was a consultant to the federal government on national forests, a promoter of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and a landscape architect. His farm in the Highlands hosted field experiments with apples and other crops conducted by agronomists from Clemson, South Carolina. In a private venture Harbison grew specimens and shipped them on demand to customers across the country. Harbison’s time in the classroom remained dear to him. Looking back on his days teaching the children of poor mountain families in the vicinity of Highlands, Thomas Harbison remembered fondly: “Those were the happiest and most satisfactory years of my life.”

Harbison remained robust and active until the last year of his life. In 1933 he laid the groundwork for an herbarium at the University of North Carolina. The following year, Harbison was named curator of the herbarium, a position he held until his death. He is buried in Highlands.

Randolph P. Shaffner, Heart of the Blue Ridge: Highlands, North Carolina (2001)
“Auto-biographical Sketch of T. G. Harbison, A.M., Ph.D.” (unpublished typescript, 1926)
H. R. Totten, W. C. Coker, and H. J. Oosting, “Dr. Thomas Grant Harbison,” Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 52 (1936): 140-145
University of North Carolina hebarium website:

Related Topics: