Melvin R. Gilmore (1868–1940), born in Valley, Nebraska, in 1868, had a lifelong interest in ethnobotany. After working on his father’s farm, and teaching at a local school, for a number of years, Gilmore attended college and earned his bachelor’s degree from Cotner College (later Cotner University) in 1904, and both his master’s degree (1909) and his Ph.D. in botany (1914) from the University of Nebraska. Gilmore died in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1940.
Before coming to the University of Michigan, Gilmore taught biology and zoology at Cotner University (1904–1911), and then became a curator at the Nebraska State Historical Society (1911–1916). While there, he compiled information about Native American village sites, recorded Pawnee traditions, and grew plants known to be grown by Native Americans. In 1916 Gilmore moved to the State Historical Society of North Dakota where he was a curator until 1923. He then worked at the Museum of the American Indian (1923–1928). In 1929, Gilmore joined the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology as its first Curator of Ethnology, in 1938 becoming Director of the Ethnobotanical Laboratory (the largest such collection in North America), which he established in 1930 with the encouragement of Carl E. Guthe, Director of the Museum of Anthropology, and with funding from the National Research Council. Gilmore discussed the establishment of the laboratory in his publication The Ethnobotanical Laboratory at the University of Michigan (University of Michigan Press, 1932).
Gilmore, a preeminent ethnobotanist, contributed heavily to ethnographic and ethnobotanical knowledge. He was prescient in recognizing the importance of Native American use and knowledge of plants. He worked extensively with the Arikara of the upper Missouri River area, and with the Pawnee and the Omaha of the Prairies and Plains, researching their agricultural and botanical knowledge, and publishing the classic Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region (Bureau of American Ethnology) in 1919. Gilmore’s other important publications include Prairie Smoke (Columbia University Press, 1929) and Indian Lore and Indian Gardens (Slingerland-Comstock Co., 1930).
The Ethnobotanical Laboratory at the University of Michigan, developed by Gilmore and his assistant and eventual successor Volney Jones, is still unique for its extensive collection of archaeological and systematic comparative wood, seeds, and plant parts from around the world, and for its ethnographic examples of how traditional cultures collect, store, process, and use these plants.