History of UT Botany, Part 5: Beryl Simpson

March 4, 2024 • by Nicole Elmer

Beryl Simpson, Professor Emerita in Integrative Biology, is a phylogeneticist and biogeographer with most of her work focusing on South American plants. She was born on April 28, 1942 in Dallas, Texas, but spent only six months in the state before moving to Georgia and later to Kentucky and finally to Quincy, Massachusetts. Her father was an architect and businessman, and her mother an English major at Radcliffe who raised three children. Simpson had an early interest in botany, taking walks in the woods with her father and brother while living in Kentucky.

After she and her family moved to Massachusetts, a high school biology teacher further inspired Simpson’s interest in the natural sciences and encouraged her to undertake projects for local and state science fairs. During high school summers, she worked one year as a volunteer at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University and another as a guide at a nature preserve.

After graduation from high school, Simpson attended Radcliffe College, at that time the female part of Harvard College. As an undergraduate she took every plant biology course Harvard offered, and had many influential advisors such as Elso Barghorn, Richard Howard, Paul Manglesdorf, Ernst Mayr, and Richard Schultes. During two summers she worked for the Audubon Society banding and dyeing sea gulls bright colors at their nest sites to help determine the source of the gulls roosting at Logan airport. During the summer of her junior year she spent four weeks collecting plants in Jamaica for her senior thesis. Around the end of her undergraduate education, Simpson was contemplating what to do after college assuming that she could not continue her education as a graduate student because of the cost. However, she had a conversation with her roommate (whose parents were university professors) about graduate school, and was pleased to learn that grad students in science were generally funded by grants and teaching.

She continued at Harvard University, finishing her Ph.D. in three years which she credits to having taken so many courses there as an undergraduate, in addition to receiving a three-year government National Defense Education Act (NDEA) Title IV Fellowship allowing her to teach only one semester. Her dissertation focused on the evolutionary history of a genus of the sunflower family that occurs in the South American Andes. This study necessitated several trips to Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru to collect plants. In addition to working out the relationships of the plants she studied, she developed the first detailed explanation of the effects of Pleistocene glacial cycles on the generation of the biodiversity of the flora of the high Andes.


After finishing her Ph.D., Simpson went to Bolivia where she collected plants for the Gray Herbarium and began working with a group of high elevation central Andean trees. She then returned to Cambridge to first work on the flora of the Southeastern United States, then as a post-doctoral fellow in the Gray Herbarium, and finally as a Research Associate on an International Biome Project to study the convergence of ecosystems in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and the Monte Desert of Argentina. Her work focused on the breeding systems of the dominant plants of the two ecosystems. She continued this work when she joined the Department of Botany at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in 1971 where she was promoted to Curator in 1977. After several years at the Smithsonian and a trial semester teaching at The University of Texas, she decided to accept the UT Botany Department’s offer of a faculty position. She joined the Department in 1978 as a Full Professor. She spent the rest of her career at UT teaching undergraduate students, mentoring almost 50 graduate students, and conducting studies of the diversification of Andean plants and various aspects of plant reproductive systems. She and colleague Dr. Jack Neff studied the pollination system of the rhatany family that involves a specialized group of bees that collect floral oils from unusual oil-secreting glands in the flowers. She also worked out the relationships and taxonomy of this group of plants among others and their patterns of diversification. Along the way, she and partner Jack also managed to raise their two children who seemed to enjoy the numerous field trips and scientific meetings across the country. 


During her time at UT, Simpson served as the Chair of the Department of Botany for six years. She became the C. L. Lundell Professor of Systematic Botany and Director of the Plant Resources Center in 2001.

She also served as a member and the Chair of the US National Committee to the International Union of Biological Sciences and worked to have the organization adopt an agenda to study ecological biodiversity across the globe. Simpson won the Asa Gray Award of the American Society of Plant Taxonomists (ASPT) in 2003; a lifetime achievement award given by the ASPT to individuals for outstanding accomplishments in research and mentoring. In 2010, she received the José Cuatrecasas Medal for Excellence in Tropical Botany for her contributions to plant biology and geography and three decades of teaching and mentoring future botanists.

To promote studies on, and the preservation of, biodiversity, she served as a member of the National Academy of Sciences’ committee to reauthorize the Endangered Species Act; the Smithsonian Science Council; and a committee funded by the National Science Foundation to set forth an agenda called Systematic Agenda 2000 to discover, describe, and inventory Earth’s biodiversity.

Simpson is a member of many societies and has served in a number of committees and positions. She was Vice-President of the Botanical Society of Washington and has served as President of:  the Botanical Society of America, the Society for the Study of Evolution, the Society for Economic Botany, the American Society of Plant Taxonomists, and the Co-President of the Third International Congress of Systematic and Evolutionary Biology. From 1993-1995 she was on the Board of Directors for the American Institute of Biological Sciences and from 1992-2003 the Governing Board and Treasurer of The U.S.-Mexico Foundation for Science that worked to set up binational cooperative research programs. She is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Society of Naturalists.